How to Treat ADHD Without Drugs

Every year in the United States doctors write 20 million prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Every year the number of prescriptions rises, more so than any other drug class—another 800,000 added every year to that 20 million. That’s a lot of amphetamines for a lot of kids.

These drugs are thought to act by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. Guess what else can increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels? Exercise. And it happens within minutes of getting on a bike—dopamine and norepinephrine levels shoot up. Medications take an hour to work; physical activity works almost immediately. But does it work for ADHD? According to the latest review, there isn’t a lot of research out there. But the current evidence suggests that both acute and chronic physical activity can mitigate ADHD symptoms.

So while medications and exercise with regard to ADHD both work to more adequately regulate dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain, some of the new long-acting formulations of drugs can work for up to 12 hours, whereas the therapeutic effect of exercise may last for only an hour or so. But the drugs produce unwanted side effects and have the potential for abuse. Exercise has been shown to be effective in controlling ADHD symptoms and has essentially no side effects. However, the authors of the review conclude, that’s not really the full story. It should be noted that a major difference in the two treatment modalities is that medications have a defined effect on ADHD symptoms alone, whereas exercise produces physical, mental, and emotional advantages that are far-reaching. Exercise can strengthen cancer defenses (Exercise & Breast Cancer and Is It the Diet, the Exercise, or Both?), improve cognition (Reversing Cognitive Decline), and lengthen one’s lifespan (What Women Should Eat to Live Longer). So exercise does have side effects, but they’re only good.

This reminds me of other safe, natural, side-effect-free solutions like tap water gargling to prevent the common cold (Can Gargling Prevent the Common Cold?) and drinking water to improve scholastic performance in kids (Does a Drink of Water Make Children Smarter?). The fact that they are cost-free is both an advantage (they’re free!) and disadvantage (no corporate budget is driving their promotion so we never hear about this kind of research). If only corporations could find a way to stuff exercise into a pill bottle for their stockholders…

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Which Common Fruit Fights Cancer Better?
Increasing Muscle Strength with Fenugreek
Diet vs. Exercise: What’s More Important?


Teresa W.
Teresa W4 years ago

S.B. You are only partly right. I once talked to a friend who is a psychologist and he confirmed that a small percentage of children had an attention deficit. However, the ADHD diagnosis is overused to push Ritalin and other drugs to children.

Thomas Morrison
Tracey Morrison4 years ago

What a nice information you have kept in your blog. The work is grateful.
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Elly Bontecou
Elly Bontecou4 years ago

We just recently read an article which we think was a follow-up to another post! Tufts University did a study on neurofeedback and cognitive therapy in the school system. The program we are using play attention was one of the control groups who participated in the program. Tufts has since went back into the school to see if in fact the effects of this program had lasting effects and they did! Our tyke is five and as we said earlier we did want to medicate unless absolutely necessary and turned to this program. Were we skeptical? Not after the first session; we are experiencing the lasting effects now as a nuclear family unit! Interesting, informative article we hope this helps others seeking alternatives to medication:

Jean Nystrom
Jean Nystrom5 years ago

I truly believe that ADHD is a disorder and my 8 year old was a testament to my conviction. New research is indicating that there a physical "misfiring" within the brain which causes it. I posted earlier about the neurofeedback program I used called play attention and have had total success with it. My daughter went on to use their math skill set and guess what? She has been accepted into the gifted program for next year. This only confirms to me that ADHD is cause by a physical "misfiring" of the brain. Concerns over medication side effects and medicating at a young age have the research community trying to find alternative methods to combat this disorder, finally!

Elly Bontecou
Elly Bontecou5 years ago

We are using a neurofeedback program called play attention and it is working brilliantly with our chap. We just felt he was too young to medicate and we are over the moon with the results we are seeing. We have learned so much about him and about ourselves as a couple as well. Our motto as we say: Yes mum, we can change our minds! CHEERS.

Debbie Miller
Debbie Miller5 years ago

thanks much

Carole R.
Carole R5 years ago

Thanks for your input.

Jean Nystrom
Jean Nystrom5 years ago

My daughter was diagnosed at eight and I tried medicating which didn't work so I searched an alternative play attention and it worked for us. If anyone is interested here is a recent study done on cognitive therapy and neurofeedback and the results both of which the play attention program is based on. Here is the partial article:

S. Bouchard
S. Bouchard5 years ago

Since ADHD is fake condition, made up to get a very dangerous drug, that doctors had refused to use for decades used a lot more, into a lot of victims - No one should be using this name! Or the drug!
There is the ADD that has three major signs of 1. Not able to keep attention on things. 2. Memory only retains the strange and unusual, unless tutored. (Then the person can become and Honor Roll student! Another area of the Brain is used!) 3. Are terrible spellers. Yet this problem is not just memory.
H is for Hyperactive and all it takes for one that is Hyperactive to stop, is to decided they do Not want to be and do so! This drug slows the mind down, causing the person with it to take a Lot longer to decided to get themselves under control! IF they do. When drug companies forced News shows to put in their false reports, the parents of Hyperactive children went and made doctors prescribe what they wanted!
Now a days Drug companies illegally pay doctors so much money $$$$ that doctors have even arrested for labeling a "Three month old baby as ADHD when it takes a written test to even find out if one has the ADD part of their fake condition!" Doctors get very rich labeling people with this fake condition!