Anyone who has a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) or who has ADHD herself may be frustrated when looking for ways to manage the symptoms.
“People are looking for magical solutions,” says Dr. Ari Tuckman, a psychologist in West Chester, Penn., and former vice-president of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association. “People also have unreasonable fears about stimulant medications so they look to alternatives instead.” But when it comes to nutritional supplements, he adds, “nothing has been shown to be that effective.”
That said, a handful of supplements—many of which have other health benefits—can be helpful for people with ADHD, often as an adjunct to medication and other therapies. Here, a rundown of the most promising:
Fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon, tuna and halibut are not only good for the heart, they’re crucial for proper brain functioning, says Dr. Chris D’Adamo, assistant director of medical education at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Baltimore’s University of Maryland School of Medicine. Since most people don’t eat fish regularly, it’s smart to take a daily fish oil capsule. Note: Flaxseed and canola oil also contain omega-3s, but D’Adamo gives the thumbs up to fish oil since it is high in good-for-the-brain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Magnesium. Vital for creating neurotransmitters, this nutrient helps with behavior and concentration, D’Adamo says. Mostly found in greens, it’s deficient in the American diet. Even people who graze on greens are probably magnesium-deficient since soil may not contain enough. Your best bet: A daily magnesium supplement. “I take one myself,” says D’Adamo. Steer clear of magnesium oxide—it’s poorly absorbed. Instead, opt for magnesium citrate or glycinate. Magnesium comes in a naturally flavored powder form that you mix with water. Follow the dosing directions on the label.
Vitamin B complex. Vitamin B6 has been linked to improved behavior in children with ADHD, says D’Adamo. But other Bs are important, too. B-12, for instance, metabolizes food for energy. “Often kids with ADHD eat pretty bad diets,” explains D’Adamo. “So a B complex provides a little insurance.” The dosage depends on age and weight. To be safe, check with your doctor and never exceed the dosage recommended on the label.
Zinc. Since zinc is good for brain neurotransmitters, it could help people with ADHD. But long-term use can cause anemia. “You have to be careful about taking zinc supplements,” says D’Adamo. “You can get too much.” Besides, you probably already get enough from food. If you are unsure whether or not you are, taking a daily multivitamin will fill in any zinc, or other shortfalls, in your diet.
Melatonin. People with ADHD often have trouble sleeping. So many ADHD sufferers take melatonin supplements to help them nod off. Melatonin, a hormone produced by a gland in the brain, regulates sleep and wake cycles. “Melatonin can be helpful, when taken under a doctor’s supervision,” says Dr. J. Russell Ramsay, co-director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.