Be Well: Eastern Medicine Turns ADHD On its Head

Rather than viewing it as a singular disease, practitioners consider this growing societal concern a syndrome or a collection of symptoms, customizing care options through diet, lifestyle changes, supplements, and more.

By Mpls. St. Paul Magazine

Never remember where you put your keys? Can’t get to work on time no matter how hard you try? Unable to concentrate to get things done? Well, you’re not alone.

Diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are on the rise. According to a recent study, the diagnosis jumped more than 30 percent in just seven years, from 2010-2017. Fortunately, we have gained deeper insight into this common neurodevelopmental disorder, journeying far from the days of stigmatizing ADHD as a disorder solely affecting rambunctious boys who couldn’t sit still in class.

While prescription stimulants and Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) remain the most common treatments, Chinese medicine (CM) practitioners at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) say pharmaceuticals are not the only option. And if you choose to take the medication route, Chinese medicine can help you maximize the benefits and minimize the side effects of your medication.

An Excess of Yang

We now understand that ADHD is a more complex and nuanced brain disorder that disrupts everyday lives (in nearly 11 percent of Americans). While the exact cause is debatable, people who have ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction. The disorder often manifests as inattentiveness, distractibility, and emotional dysregulation. If left untreated, patients risk suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, and a lifelong struggle to succeed.

Eastern medicine considers ADHD a syndrome or a collection of symptoms rather than a singular disease. Unlike Western providers, who rely on diagnosing and prescribing targeted medications, Chinese medicine approaches ADHD through a more holistic lens. Practitioners evaluate a patient’s entire constitution and balance the whole body to improve symptoms.

But before a practitioner can provide a customized care plan, they must determine the patient’s pattern of ADHD. Common patterns seen based on symptoms are:

  • Excessive Heat/Wind in the Head, which creates mental restlessness, thirst, and poor concentration
  • Liver Qi Stagnation, which causes depression, mood swings, anger, gastritis, or digestive issues
  • Spleen/Kidney Deficiency, which leads to a rise of emotions, fragility, digestive problems, poor appetite, and fatigue

“As acupuncturists, we believe that ADHD symptoms stem from an excess of yang in the body,” says NWHSU’s Meghan Mabe, referring to the balancing of yin/yang in Chinese medicine. “Once we determine a pattern, we can treat symptoms with a mix of acupuncture, herbal medicines, food therapy, and lifestyle changes.”

The Mind-Gut Connection

We all recognize the importance of a healthy diet, but healthy eating is critical for managing ADHD. From baked goods to fried fare, processed foods worsen inattentiveness, distractibility, and irritability—all hallmarks of the disorder. As our bodies struggle to digest toxic additives in unhealthy foods, we experience detrimental systemic inflammation.

Gut health also plays an essential role in reigning in attention problems. Junk food destroys the gut’s delicate microbiome by depleting good bacteria and promoting the overgrowth of harmful microorganisms. And unhealthy eating affects more than gut bacteria. “The majority of essential neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, reside in our gut. That’s why it’s so important to limit processed foods,” says Mabe. “Toxic foods destroy these essential chemicals that affect mood and strip away our ability to focus.”

By choosing anti-inflammatory foods, ADHD patients can nourish their body, support healthy brain function, and gain control over their symptoms. For example, healthy fats in avocado fight systemic inflammation throughout the body and the brain, while cold-water fish—like salmon and tuna—support healthy brain development. Eating right can prove challenging, especially for those with busy schedules. In this case, high-quality supplements can help, including:

  • Fish oil, which reduces inflammation
  • Vitamin D, which helps regulate mood
  • Vitamin B complex, which supports serotonin production
  • Calcium and magnesium, which calms the body
  • Probiotics, which help with digestion

More Whole-Body Life Hacks

  • Liver (Qi) stagnation blocks energy, blood, and toxins from easily moving through the organ and filtering out of the body. Exercise reduces the chances of stagnation, keeping everything flowing and eliminating harmful toxins. But not all activities are appropriate for all people. “It’s important that exercise makes you calmer, not more agitated,” says Mabe. “Some people need high-intensity exercise to expend their restless energy. But that same workout could overtax and exhaust other people.”
  • Good sleep hygiene is another essential lifestyle habit that significantly impacts people with ADHD. Falling into a long, deep slumber recharges your body and optimizes its functionality. After a good night’s rest, you can more easily focus and regulate your emotions. Unfortunately, ADHD patients have trouble quieting their minds. When adding stimulants to the mix, patients can acquire acute or chronic bouts of insomnia. When these sleep problems strike, the ADHD brain suffers a blow, leaving you even more distracted and irritable. If not addressed, you create a vicious cycle. According to Chinese medicine, the underlying issue is a blood or Yin deficiency. Both acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help balance these deficiencies, breaking the cycle and paving the way for a restful future.
  • Screen time exacerbates ADHD symptoms by draining the body’s dopamine, which helps with focus. When we concentrate on our screens for hours, we flood our bodies with the neurotransmitter, exhausting our reserve and leaving little for other activities. “I encourage people with ADHD to read and get outdoors to calm their minds.” Mabe also suggests limiting overstimulating screen time because patients simply can’t process it all. “It’s a lifelong discipline.”