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Ask Natural Life:
 Learning Difficulties, Health and the Environment
by Wendy Priesnitz

Q: My 11-year-old nephew has been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. His parents don’t seem too worried; perhaps they are relieved to find him some help. But I have to wonder about the diagnosis and the remedy. I think he is just a normally active and curious little boy who needs more opportunity to run off his energy. And isn’t Ritalin an addictive drug? What do you have to say on this topic? 

ADHD
Photo Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

A: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the descriptive label given to an ever-increasing number of children – especially boys – who have trouble fitting into the school system and other social settings. Complaints about their behavioral issues include hyperactivity, poor attention span, lack of concentration, disruptiveness, clumsiness, recklessness, defiance, and irritability. 

The label has become a disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. And the remedy is often the stimulant Ritalin, prescriptions for which have risen by something like 600 percent. At best, Ritalin treats the symptoms and not the problem (although some research even suggests it can make the symptoms worse.) At worst, it is a habit-forming amphetamine. 

In addition to possibly creating psychological dependence, Ritalin can have a number of side-effects, including increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and temperature; stomach pains; weight loss; growth retardation; facial tics; muscle twitching; euphoria; nervousness; irritability; agitation; insomnia; heart palpitations; and more violent behaviors like psychotic episodes and paranoid delusions. Research published in 1995 by the National Toxicology Program in the U.S. found that Ritalin caused liver cancer in adult mice who were fed the drug over a two-year period at dosages close to those prescribed to children.

Psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin, director of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, has been informing his medical colleagues and the public about the potential dangers of drugs – including treating children with Ritalin – for over three decades. A distinguished expert whose background includes stints at Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and Johns Hopkins University Department of Counseling, he is the author of dozens of scientific articles and 19 professional books about psychiatric medication. His work formed the basis for a class action suit for “fraud” and “conspiracy” in over-promoting the stimulant medication Ritalin, which was filed in 2000 in a Texas court. Named as defendants were Novartis, the manufacturer of Ritalin; CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), a parents’ organization that is partially funded by drug companies; and the American Psychiatric Association.

In testimony in 2000 before the U.S. Congress, Breggin told the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Education and the Workforce that they should understand that the ADD/ADHD diagnosis was developed by the American Psychiatric Association “specifically for the purpose of justifying the use of drugs to subdue the behaviors of children in the classroom.” For instance, he says the first two and most powerful criteria under the hyperactivity part of the diagnosis are “often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat” and “often leaves seat in classroom or in other situations in which remaining seated is expected.” “Clearly,” he told Congress, “these two ‘symptoms’ are nothing more nor less than the behaviors most likely to cause disruptions in a large, structured classroom.”

In addition to problematizing and medicalizing normal (well, maybe overly exuberant) little boy behavior within classroom situations that don’t suit their learning styles, a variety of other theories about the causes of ADHD have been floated over the years. They include heredity, nutritional imbalance, and environmental pollution.

Research in recent years has focused on prenatal exposures to agents such as lead, cigarette byproducts, and alcohol. High levels of lead in the blood are known to cause aggression, poor impulse control, and short attention span. And studies have found links between high levels of copper and aluminum and hyperactivity symptoms. Other research suggests that PCBs may also cause hyperactivity or contribute to the changes in brain function that characterize ADHD diagnoses.

A 2003 study published in the Alternative Medicine Review noted eight risk factors: food and additive allergies, heavy metal toxicity and other environmental toxins, low-protein/high-carbohydrate diets, mineral imbalances, essential fatty acid and phospholipid deficiencies, amino acid deficiencies, thyroid disorders, and B-vitamin deficiencies.

Since the 1970s, researchers have been studying the effects of certain foods and food additives such as dyes and colorings. Many studies have found that food additives exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD in some children. And the effect of vitamin and mineral supplements on children’s behavior is well documented. Deficiency of magnesium, for example, can lead to fidgeting, anxious restlessness, coordination problems, and learning difficulties.

Many children who switch to a diet free from artificial colorings and flavorings, as well as aspartame and preservatives like BHA and BHT can experience major improvements in behavior and attention. The negative behavior and health effects of synthetic food additives on certain sensitive people was documented in 1975 by the late Dr. Benjamin Feingold in his book Why Your Child is Hyperactive. According to research cited by the Feingold Association, children with ADHD are seven times more likely to have food allergies than other children. Foods most likely to cause allergic reactions include food colorings, flavorings, synthetic additives, wheat, dairy products, corn, yeast, soy, citrus, chocolate, peanuts, eggs, and foods containing salicylates.

More recently, a study in the UK found a link between artificial food colorings and hyperactivity in children, even those without a diagnosis of ADHD. The study, entitled "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial" was published in The Lancet medical journal. Following the release of that study, the European Union required products containing certain dyes to have a warning label noting they could have an adverse effect on children's activity and attention spans. Subsequently, many manufacturers removed synthetic food dyes for their European market instead of carrying the warning.

In spite of the now considerable body of evidence that food dyes can worsen the symptoms of ADHD, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published a pamphlet called Food Color Facts, which states that “there is no evidence that food color additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children.” The pamphlet, though published by the FDA, was written in conjunction with the International Food Information Council, a trade association representing many makers of food additives including General Mills, Kraft, Procter and Gamble, Pepsi-Cola, Coca Cola, Monsanto (maker of aspartame) and Ajinomoto (maker of MSG).

So if your relatives want to avoid saddling their child with a negative label and the long-term health effects of a dangerous drug, there are alternatives. These include finding a new educational setting that suits his personality and learning style, allergy testing, hair analysis to test for the presence of heavy metals, change in diet to eliminate allergens and synthetic additives, improved nutrition including supplementation, and if necessary, detoxification treatments like chelation therapy. 

This article was researched and written by Natural Life's Editor Wendy Priesnitz. First published in 2006, it was updated in 2022.

 

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