These days it isn’t just kids who find themselves distracted. We live in an aggressively do-more culture, where more is less and quiet time is nonexistent. Our concentration is shattered continuously—the cell phone rings, e-mail alerts pop up, the TV intrudes, and then there’s the gym, carpool, and the urgency of filling the weekend with as much play as possible. And it goes deeper than that: Other factors in our collective attention deficit include heredity or triggers such as allergies or diet.
What can we do to help ourselves and our kids? An assortment of herbs and supplements feed and calm the brain and body, and help enhance attention. These, in combination with a few simple but crucial dietary guidelines, can start to shift the balance from mental seesaw to steady equilibrium. Think of it as a back-to-school curriculum that pays benefits for a lifetime.
EFAs: Essential fatty acids deserve our full attention. Kids and adults who aren’t getting enough EFAs often have symptoms that include dry skin, hair loss, brittle nails, or small raised bumps on the upper arms, accompanied by allergies, thirst, or a frequent need to urinate—many of the same symptoms as those suffering from ADHD.
Research shows that children with ADHD may be particularly deficient in omega-3 EFAs such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Further, studies that compared levels of EFAs between kids who were hyperactive and those who weren’t found much lower levels of DHA in hyperactive children. A recent placebo-controlled study of 75 children treated with omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs showed “meaningful reduction of ADHD symptoms.” Try a blend of EPA and DHA at 250 mg for ages 3 to 6; 500 mg for ages 7 to 11; and 1,000 mg for those 12 years and older.
MINERAL MAGIC: While fatty acids make up the bulk of the brain, proper brain function also depends on a handful of important minerals. Of these calcium and magnesium are the main movers and shakers, while at the same time having a calming effect. Specifically, a magnesium-deficient diet has been linked to ADHD, autism, and childhood depression. “Instead of reaching for Ritalin or Prozac for kids, consider whether they’re getting enough magnesium first,” says Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, and author of The Magnesium Miracle. Hyperactive kids may need extra amounts due to higher levels of adrenalin, and it can be difficult to find in a form that works for children. Try 1 tablespoon magnesium citrate daily or 1½ teaspoon milk of magnesia.
HELPFUL HERBS: Kids and grownups who want better focus and concentration can explore traditional remedies such as ginkgo (G. biloba), which improves the flow of blood to the brain and central nervous system, enhancing memory and mental function. Ginseng boosts attention and helps the body cope with stress. In a recent open trial, children 3 to 17 years old who were already on ADHD medication were given a proprietary blend of American ginseng and ginkgo; 74 percent showed improvement within four weeks.
The ancient Ayurvedic remedy gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is used both internally and topically to heal and rejuvenate the brain, and has been shown to improve concentration in rats. Use caution if taking antidepressants or medication for high blood pressure or cholesterol. Valerian root extract has demonstrated powerful results without side effects, particularly for boys with hyperactive behavior; it also helps with insomnia, which can exacerbate symptoms of ADHD.
And several studies suggest that Pycnogenol, an extract of French maritime pine bark, may be effective in treating ADHD. In a recent study, children 6 to 14 years old given 1 mg per kg of body weight each day showed “a significant decline in hyperactivity and inattention compared to baseline and to placebo,” according to a report in HerbClip, the journal of the American Botanical Council.
AMINOS AND OTHERS: The amino acid gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) can help calm the body without side effects; try 750 mg daily. And while we’re on mile-long names, the substance dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE) helps adults with concentration, learning, and memory by improving the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain. It should not be taken daily, but it might give you that focused edge when needed. (Always consult a qualified practitioner regarding supplements for children and teens.)
VITAL VITAMINS: Finally, for all-around support, a multivitamin and mineral complex will supply you and your kids with the necessary nutrients for overall health and well-being. In addition, vitamin C with bioflavonoids serves as a general antistress remedy for adults and children.