Child Development

Which Supplements Can Help ADHD Symptoms?

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While medications are usually the go-to treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), many parents are interested in seeking more natural ways to help their child manage their ADHD.

Although natural supplements cannot replace medical treatment, some may help decrease ADHD symptoms. In this article, we’ll go through 9 commonly used nutritional supplements for ADHD, and break down the research behind whether or not they may actually work.

Supplements for ADHD Symptoms

In general, natural supplements have not been as well-studied as psychiatric medications for ADHD. And the research that has been done has often had inconclusive results. That means that we don’t yet know for sure whether these supplements are effective in improving cognitive function, inattention, and other symptoms of ADHD.

Although many of these supplements do have some promising research behind them, they should never be used as a replacement for prescribed ADHD medication. Now, let’s get into the top 9 supplements and whether or not they help ADHD symptoms.

Zinc

Zinc is an important mineral that helps the brain function as it’s supposed to. When people have a zinc deficiency, they have symptoms like hyperactivity, short attention span, and decreased cognitive functioning — all signs of ADHD.

Several studies have found that kids with ADHD are more likely to have a zinc deficiency, which has led scientists to hypothesize that zinc supplements could be beneficial for ADHD symptoms. A few studies have found that supplementing kids’ diet with zinc led to a decrease in parent- and teacher-rated symptoms of ADHD

However, some of these studies had flaws that may have skewed their results. And randomized controlled trials have had inconclusive and conflicting results. Zinc supplements may be helpful if your child has a zinc deficiency, but they may not make a difference if they don’t.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in wild-caught fatty fish, as well as other foods like flaxseed and walnuts. The human body can’t make these acids on its own, so it’s important for all of us (whether or not you have ADHD) that we get enough of it through food and supplements.

Omega-3 fish oil supplements may be the most well-studied, and most evidence-based, natural supplement for ADHD. A 2013 meta-analysis found that supplementing kids’ diets with omega-3s led to a small, but statistically significant, improvement in ADHD symptoms. Other reviews have confirmed that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for managing ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity.

Other studies have been more inconclusive on the benefits of omega-3 supplements, especially for kids with ADHD who have co-occurring conditions. But one large review that studied the efficacy of different natural supplements for ADHD concluded that, despite this, there is enough evidence that supports the effectiveness of omega-3s for ADHD.

Omega-3s can be taken as supplements or consumed through foods.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is critical for functions like cell growth, infection control, and bone health. Humans can get vitamin D from the sun, but research estimates that around 40% of the U.S. population may have insufficient levels of vitamin D. This may be because many places in the country don’t get enough sunlight.

A review of 4 randomized controlled trials found that vitamin D supplementation had a small, but statistically significant, positive effect on ADHD symptoms. But the same review noted that the quality of these studies was low and that we need more research to be able to determine whether vitamin D is truly effective for ADHD.

Especially if your child already has a vitamin D deficiency, a supplement may be worth trying, in conjunction with prescribed stimulant medication.

Iron

Like zinc, children with ADHD may be more likely to have an iron deficiency — one study found that iron levels were twice as low in kids with ADHD than in kids without ADHD. Iron is an important mineral that our bodies need to make hemoglobin. Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue, weakness, and poor cognitive functioning.

One small study found that iron supplements did decrease ADHD symptoms. However, there’s no research about how iron supplements could help kids without an iron deficiency. It may be a good idea to ask your child’s pediatrician to check whether your child has an iron deficiency and if supplements could be helpful.

Inositol

Myo-inositol, or inositol, is a sugar that’s found in the body. Small amounts of it can be found in foods like fruits, whole grains, and nuts.

There is limited to no research that suggests inositol supplements are beneficial for ADHD symptoms. One older study from 1995 even found that inositol supplements may worsen hyperactive ADHD.

However, there is some research suggesting that inositol might be helpful for people with panic disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If your child has these conditions along with their ADHD, then inositol could be helpful. 

Gingko Biloba

Gingko Biloba is a tree that’s native to China. Its leaves and nuts have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, and it’s thought to be helpful for respiratory conditions, brain health, and more.

Since Ginkgo Biloba is known to promote brain health, many people have tried using it to improve symptoms of ADHD. One randomized controlled trial found that Ginkgo Biloba was an effective complementary treatment for ADHD; people taking it had statistically significant improvements compared with people taking a placebo. 

In general, however, the research supporting Ginkgo Biloba for ADHD is very limited. And one review determined that all existing evidence points to Ginkgo Biloba being “ineffective with potentially adverse effects.”

Keep in mind that Ginkgo Biloba can have some unpleasant side effects. Eating raw ginkgo nuts can be very dangerous, and can lead to bleeding in the brain.

Multivitamins

Multivitamins are supplements that have a variety of different important vitamins and minerals. It’s important for all children, with or without ADHD, to get all the vitamins they need. Whether or not your child’s multivitamin is effective for ADHD specifically, it could help promote their overall health.

Some vitamins and minerals commonly found in multivitamins, including iron, zinc, and vitamin D, could be beneficial for ADHD symptoms. And a randomized controlled trial from 2017 found that multivitamin supplements were associated with improvements in functioning and attention for people with ADHD.

People with ADHD also may have more vitamin deficiencies than those who don’t, so it could be even more important to make sure that your child is getting the vitamins they need.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that helps with bone health, heart health, and more. Some people have suggested that it could be beneficial for ADHD. But you should be very careful with magnesium supplements, as a magnesium overdose can be toxic and even deadly. 

On top of that, there are no randomized controlled trials that indicate that magnesium supplements are beneficial for ADHD. Only smaller studies have found that magnesium supplements decrease ADHD symptoms. One review found that, because of the lack of research and the potential dangers, magnesium is not a recommended supplement for ADHD.

There may be more research in the future that indicates that magnesium can help your child manage ADHD. But until then, it may be prudent to stay away from it unless your pediatrician recommends it.

Melatonin

You may have heard of melatonin as a natural sleep aid. Many kids with ADHD have trouble sleeping. Sometimes, this is because of ADHD symptoms themselves — things like hyperactivity and restlessness can keep them awake. Other times, insomnia is a result of stimulant medications.

Research has found that melatonin is an effective and safe treatment to help people with ADHD overcome this insomnia. In fact, it’s one of the supplements on this list that has the most research behind it. However, the first line of treatment for insomnia is behavioral strategies (e.g., sleep hygiene, routines, etc). Prior to trying supplements, a provider may suggest implementing behavioral strategies.

Melatonin doesn’t seem to have any effect on core ADHD symptoms themselves. But if your child gets more restful sleep at night, you might find that they start to function better when they’re awake.

Talk to your doctor

Keep in mind that just because a supplement is natural doesn’t mean that it can be used safely without medical supervision. Most of the supplements listed above are generally safe, but only when taken in the correct doses under the supervision of a doctor. And some of them can have dangerous side effects and drug interactions. There are also other supplements, not listed in this article, that are never safe for children.

You should always consult with your child’s pediatrician before giving them any of these supplements, no matter how harmless they may seem. Your pediatrician can monitor symptoms and make sure that these supplements if you decide to try them, can be included seamlessly into your child’s treatment plan.

Takeaway

Some of these natural supplements might be helpful for your child’s ADHD, especially if they’re taken together with more research-based treatments like stimulant medication. It’s important to note that the research behind these supplements is still limited, and there is much more research that has found stimulant medication and behavioral therapy are effective treatments for ADHD. 

Always do your research on any supplement you’re considering giving your child. Remember that some of them come with dangerous risks. And always, always, talk to your child’s pediatrician before giving them anything. With the support of you and their medical team, your child will find the treatment option that works best for them and their symptoms.

This article is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for individual medical or mental health advice. Please consult with your or your child's prescribing doctor before changing, starting, or stopping a medication routine.