In the past decade, diagnosis of ADD and ADHD has increased more than twenty percent. Our nation is facing a full-blown epidemic and, unlike with influenza or AIDS, a cause has not been pinpointed. In fact, much disagreement exists among parental, medical, natural health and psychiatric communities about both the cause and subsequent treatment of these conditions. Part two of our three-part series on "ADD/ADHD-Cause and Cure," seeks to uncover the causes that result in the frustrating symptoms of ADD/ADHD.
Traditional Treatment of ADD/ADHD
A child with ADD/ADHD generally possesses thinner than normal and/or disorganized neural pathways, a weakened vestibular (inner ear) system and/or biochemical-toxins which causes him/her to process information more slowly. Ritalin "works" because it forces information to process through the neural pathways more quickly. By rushing information through frail and disorganized neural pathways, the stimulant properties of Ritalin exact a debilitating toll on an already compromised system.
The ADD/ADHD child, functioning in this unnaturally accelerated state, can now respond appropriately to environmental stimuli (sight, sound, smell, touch, body-in-space, cognitive commands)-until the effect of the drug wears off. Essentially a "performance pill" which offers successful temporary management of symptoms, the drug poses significant risk in the realms of side effects, adverse reactions, potential addiction, stigmatization and abuse. Though it affords relief in some cases, Ritalin is not an actual cure, and masks the symptoms of the underlying cause(s).
The True Underlying Causes of ADD/ADHD
The symptoms of ADD/ADHD can be a result of neurological challenges and/or bio-chemical toxicity and lack of nutrition. Research conducted in the complementary healthcare field has shown the primary cause of disorganized/weakened neural pathways or the vestibular (inner ear) system to be: recurrent ear-infections and/or intubation of the ears, head trauma, physical or emotional abuse or neglect, and an under-developed brain. Bio-toxicity may come from over-consumption of processed foods (especially refined sugar) or inadequate nutrient intake.
Biochemical toxins pervade the vast majority of foods that make up the average American's diet. Food colorings and preservatives are some of the more harmful agents found among such toxins. Dr. Ben Feingold, M.D., in his influential book, "Why Your Child is Hyperactive" was the first to propose the theory that hyperactivity and ADD/ADHD can be caused by physical reactions to artificial food flavors and colors. His "Elimination Diet" relieved children of their symptoms in a majority of cases, many of which are documented in his book. Feingold's theories and diet are not as well known as they might be had they not surfaced around the same time the "magic bullet" known as Ritalin did.
While most Americans enjoy plentiful food, they are often under-nourished and are not truly healthy. With the continual bombardment from food advertisers, it can be difficult to create and maintain good eating habits, particularly for children. By the time a child is 18 years old, s/he will have watched close to 20,000 food commercials-80% of which advertise "junk food." The layout of an average grocery store provides further insight. About fifteen percent of the store is comprised of fresh produce, another fifteen percent of packaged meats and dairy products, while packaged, processed and synthetic chemicalized foods take up the remaining seventy percent of marketable floor-space.
By consuming processed foods stripped of essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes, many children lack optimal physical health. The damage that such a diet can wreak should not be underestimated, as a group of students at the Canyon Verde School in California discovered. They performed a study to demonstrate the effects of synthetic chemical food additives on health and behavior. Using four groups of rats, they fed the control group natural food and clean water. Another group was fed natural food, clean water and hot dogs. The third group was fed sugar coated cereal and fruit punch. The last group was fed only doughnuts and cola. The rats that were fed clean water and natural foods remained alert and attentive. Those who also ate hot-dogs became violent and fought aggressively. The group fed the sugary cereal became nervous and hyperactive, and behaved aimlessly. The group that lived on doughnuts and cola became unable to function socially, exhibited fearfulness and had difficulty sleeping.1
Over-consumption of sugar is thought to contribute to and/or cause ADD/ADHD and can produce mineral imbalance, chromium deficiency, interference with the absorption of calcium and magnesium, a temporary increase in serotonin, an "acid stomach" (which produces further mineral depletion), a lowering of the ability of enzymes to function properly, hormonal imbalance, hypoglycemia, hyperactivity, anxiety, and elevated adrenaline levels in children.2
Another suspected cause of ADD/ADHD is recurrent ear infections because of the effect on the vestibular (inner ear) (neurological) system. Many studies have correlated healthy auditory functioning to a child's ability to processes and react appropriately to external stimuli. Unfortunately, the common antibiotic treatment for ear infections can further weaken a child's immunity and propagate his/her disposition to future infections; antibiotics have also been proven to become auto-resistant and ineffective over time. They also destroy intestinal bacteria (good and bad) indiscriminately, further weakening immune functioning, which creates a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.
Excessive antibiotic use can cause Candida Albicans (an excess of intestinal yeast), which inhibits protein assimilation. Norepinephrine and dopamine, key neurotransmitters, are some of the essential building blocks of the brain's neuropathways and are derived solely from assimilated protein. Without access to these vital protein derivatives, the state of the neuropathways can become severely compromised.
Both physical and emotional stress can suppress the immune system and can obstruct the normal, healthy functioning of a child's brain, "scrambling" the neural pathways and potentially causing symptoms of ADD/ADHD. This information was reported by Richard De Grandpre, author of "Ritalin Nation: Rapid-fire Culture and the Transformation of Human Consciousness," in a recent article on a ten-year, federally funded study conducted in the US. This study found that "the more time children spent in daycare the more unmanageable they became. Kids who spent more than 30 hours a week in daycare scored significantly higher on such things as 'explosive behavior,' 'talking too much,' 'argues a lot,' and 'demands a lot of attention'-the very behaviors that so often lead to stimulant treatment."3
Finally, a brain which fails to grow to normal size in utero due to malnutrition or harmful intoxicants, such as alcohol or cocaine, appears to signal a proclivity towards ADD/ADHD. (Occasionally, a smaller than average brain can be linked to genetic factors). When a case of ADD/ADHD can be traced to this source, the hope of full recovery is lessened, though improvements in cognition and behavior can almost always be attained.
Many sufferers of ADD/ADHD lack sufficient essential fatty (Omega) acids, the primary manufacturers of myelin, one of the elements responsible for determining the health of our neural pathways. Thin neural pathways process information more slowly than thicker neural pathways, which contain more myelin, the "white fatty sheath that is laid down over neural fibers to speed and focus their conductivity, much like the insulation around an electrical wire."4 For children suffering from ADD/ADHD, Omega fatty acid supplementation (such as with Flax Seed Oil) often relieves symptoms and promotes recovery.
The correlation of mineral depletion/deficiency and symptoms of ADD/ADHD are succinctly covered in the book, "A.D.D. The Natural Approach," by Nina Anderson and Howard Peiper. They state that, although sugar consumption contributes to mineral deficiency, mineral-depleted soils and aqueducts are an even larger part of the problem. Refined salt, chemical dyes, artificial flavorings, and empty calorie meals also disrupt the assimilation of minerals such as magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc, which are essential to nerve and neural health. "A ramification of long-term mineral deficiency is that the body will latch on to heavy metals in an attempt to satisfy itself,'' they warn.
Heavy metal toxicity has been proven to cause physical and mental imbalances. High copper levels in the bloodstream, for example, as well as low levels of zinc, have been linked to violent behavior in numerous studies. One such study conducted by Dr. William Walsh, president of the Health Research Institute (HRI) states the following results: "Our preliminary findings show that young men who have varying levels of angry, violent behavior also have elevated copper and depressed zinc levels; the non-assaultive controls in our study did not." This study led Dr. Walsh to conclude that "behavioral disorders are correlated to abnormal metal metabolism or other body chemistry irregularities."5
Iron deficiencies have often been associated with a limited attention span and low mental acuity. Chromium deficiencies have also been linked to ADD/ADHD, as well as to hyperactivity and depression. "Chromium is required for regulating blood sugar levels. Many hyperactive children are sugar and carbohydrate intolerant, which leads to severe mood swings."6
Head trauma caused either during the birthing process or from an accidental injury is often overlooked as a potential cause of childhood behavioral problems. Such trauma can result in damage to both the vestibular (inner ear) system and the neural pathways. The vestibular system stabilizes vision and supports equilibrium and balance, unconscious awareness of the body in space, muscle tone and hearing. It is connected to other neural systems responsible for the successful operation of most of the brain's functions (e.g. higher reasoning, speech, reading, comprehension, action, etc.) The vestibular system can become weakened from head trauma, inadequate nutrition, poor audio/visual processing, lack of coordinated physical activity, ear infections/intubation of the ears, or an underdeveloped brain before birth.
Neural pathways transmit information from all of the sense organs through the brain. These highly complicated systems interact with past (memory) and present (sensory) information, communicating appropriate plans for action (through speech, reasoning, movement, etc.). When the neural pathways become disorganized and/or are underdeveloped and thin, messages tend to be transmitted at an abnormal, sluggish pace, causing "bottle-necks" and sensory overload. Messages may subsequently be discarded because they haven't received the repeated transmissions required to connect them from one synapse to the next. The brain is then susceptible to becoming overwhelmed by normal sensory input, resulting in a "shut-down" of some of the neural systems. This shut-down of neural systems is what causes the outbursts sometimes seen in children suffering from ADD/ADHD-they are acting out in anger and frustration over not being able to concentrate on, comprehend and respond appropriately to the tasks at hand.
Attentional Priority Disorder
The link between a weakened vestibular system, disorganized and/or thin neural pathways and ADD/ADHD has been studied and explained extensively by Judith Bluestone, founder and director of The HANDLE Institute® located here in Seattle. In the third of our three-part series, we will focus on some of HANDLE's uniquely integrated perspectives and therapies.
HANDLE (an acronym for Holistic Approach to Neurodevelopment and Learning Efficiency) considers labels such as ADD/ADHD to be confining and impractical. Though Bluestone admits they may serve the purpose of providing "a sort of shorthand with which to discuss clusters of symptoms," she emphasizes that, "no one yet knows how to treat a label."7
HANDLE asserts that there is no such thing as an attention "deficit." As Bluestone points out, "everyone is always attending to something." The problem a child with ADD/ADHD has is differentiating between the importance of attending to instructions, to the glare of fluorescent lights, to the sound of the copy machine, to his fellow student's tapping foot, or to any other external stimuli. All of these things appear to be entering his consciousness at the same priority level, causing him sensory overload, and a consequential "shut-down." It is this observation which prompted Bluestone to re-name Attention Deficit Disorder to "Attentional Priority Disorder," which she feels more accurately describes the condition. HANDLE believes that each child's problem stems from a different set of circumstances; therefore, standardization in testing and labeling tends to obstruct a true understanding of what is at the root of the child's disorder.
Bluestone states that, "if a situation is causing us distress, we will engage in self-protective behaviors. All of us protect ourselves in the areas of our greatest vulnerability." Children with Attentional Priority Disorder have varying areas of vulnerability, which often surface via strange or disruptive behaviors-an unconscious attempt to sift through the onslaught of information that seems to be bombarding them from all sides. Once the health of the vestibular system and other neural pathways is restored, toxicity removed and nutrition levels improved, these children become capable of prioritizing their attention and controlling their behavior.
The key to curing children of ADD/ADHD or "Attentional Priority Disorder" is to understand that they are not deliberately obstinate or defiant. Each child is a unique individual with very particular circumstances surrounding his/her behaviors. It is important to avoid labeling complex underlying causes and effects. Self-esteem is damaged by excessive admonishment. These children want to learn. They want to be accepted and praised. They do not understand that not everyone processes information in the same way they do.
In next month's issue, the last of our three-part series, we will delve into natural, non-invasive, drug-free therapies proven to heal the underlying causes of what is most commonly known as ADD/ADHD.
(another view, written by Larry Cook)
1. Anderson, Nina & Peiper, Howard. A.D.D. The Natural Approach. East Canaan, CT: Safe Goods, 2000.
2. Feingold M.D., Ben F. Why Your Child is Hyperactive. New York, NY: Random House, 1975.
3. Reichenberg-Ullman N.D., M.S.W., & Ullman N.D., Robert, Ritalin Free Kids. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1996.
4. Sahley Ph.D., Billie J. Is Ritalin Necessary? San Antoinio, TX: Pain & Stress Publications, 1999.
5. Weintraub N.D., Skye. Natural Treatments for ADD/ADHD and Hyperactivity. Pleasant Grove, UT: Woodland Publishing Incorporated, 1997.
1 Leading Edge Research Group, Food ADD/ADHDitives and ADD/ADHDitives and Intelligence, page 1.
2 Nancy Appleton, Ph.D. "Lick the Sugar Habit", Avery Penguin Putnam, New York, NY 1996
3 "A Dose of Reality," Richard De Grandpre, Adbusters, July/August 2001, #36
4 Judith Bluestone speaking on "The HANDLE Approach", taken from a recording of an informational community seminar
5 "Violent Behavior May Be Linked to Abnormal Copper & Zinc Levels", Physiology & Behavior Journal, Dr William Walsh, Ph.D, August 12, 1997
6 Skye Weintraub, N.D., "Natural Treatments for ADD/ADHD and Hyperactivity", Woodland Publishing, Pleasant Grove, UT, 1997
7, 8 Judith Bluestone speaking on "The HANDLE Approach", taken from a recording of an informational community seminar, 1997