ADHD: What Is It, How Does It Affect the Brain, and Can It Be Treated Naturally?

Table of Contents:

  1. What is attention deficit disorder (ADD)?
  2. What’s the difference between ADD and ADHD?
  3. A brief history of ADHD
  4. What are the symptoms of ADHD?
  5. How common is ADHD?
  6. What causes ADHD
  7. How is ADHD traditionally treated
    1. Stimulant medications
    2. Non-stimulant medications
  8. Can you measure the severity of ADHD in someone?
  9. Can brain scans help diagnose ADHD?
  10. Can ADHD be treated naturally?
  11. Are there vitamin and mineral deficiencies found in those with ADHD?
  12. Seek guidance from a trusted medical professional 

Do you have trouble focusing on everyday tasks like chores or work? Do you find organization or following through with responsibilities difficult? Are you a pro at procrastination? You could be suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In this article, we’ll be discussing what these conditions are, how they affect the brain, and how they can be treated. 

What is attention deficit disorder (ADD)?

ADD and ADHD are chronic neurological disorders that cause a range of behavioral problems such as difficulty focusing, following instructions, completing tasks, and controlling impulses.  

What’s the difference between ADD and ADHD? 

Initially, people who experienced symptoms like having trouble concentrating, listening, or managing time were diagnosed with ADD. In contrast, people who experienced those symptoms plus hyperactive or impulsive symptoms were diagnosed with ADHD. 

Today, the term ADD is not used. Instead, ADD is considered a subtype of ADHD. There are three subtypes of ADHD:

  • ADHD predominantly inattentive presentation (what used to be called ADD)

  • ADHD predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation

  • ADHD combined presentation

Because the term ADD is not regularly used anymore, we will refer to the condition as ADHD for the remainder of this article, which encompasses what used to be referred to as ADD. 

A brief history of ADHD

Originally called hyperkinetic impulse disorder, ADHD was first mentioned in 1902 by British pediatrician Sir George Still. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) formally recognized ADHD as a mental disorder. 

ADHD cases began to climb significantly in the 1980s, likely due to a combination of more efficient diagnosing, better awareness, and more children developing the condition. 

While increased awareness is good, a review of 334 published studies revealed that the condition is now being widely over-diagnosed. Researchers believe that this could be due to several factors, such as low levels of agreement among medical practitioners and ambiguously worded diagnostic criteria. 

What are the symptoms of ADHD? 

A person’s symptoms will depend on which subtype of ADHD they have. Inattentive ADHD symptoms include: 

  • Having a short attention span and being easily distracted

  • Making careless mistakes 

  • Appearing forgetful or losing things

  • Being unable to stick to tasks that are tedious or time-consuming 

  • Appearing to be unable to listen to or carry out instructions 

  • Difficulty with organization 

Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD symptoms include: 

  • Being unable to sit still 

  • Constantly fidgeting 

  • Being unable to concentrate on tasks

  • Excessive physical movement 

  • Excessive talking 

  • Acting without thinking 

  • Having little or no sense of danger

Those who have the combined type of ADHD will exhibit symptoms from both categories. 

How common is ADHD? 

ADHD is among the most common neurodevelopmental disorders. The estimated number of children in the U.S. diagnosed with ADHD is 6.1 million (or 9.4 percent). Even more startling is the fact that 33 percent of kids with ADD or ADHD never finish school—more than double the national average. 

While this disorder is primarily diagnosed in children, adults are affected as well, with a prevalence rate of 4.4 percent. Interestingly, while many kids with ADHD outgrow it, 60 percent of those diagnosed as an adult do not. Additionally, many ADHD patients struggle with co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, mania, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and sleep disorders. 

A 2018 study indicates that ADHD has increased among U.S. children and adolescents from 6.1 percent to 10.2 percent between 1997 and 2016. In adults, ADHD prevalence has more than doubled in a decade. 

What causes ADHD? 

Clearly, ADHD is becoming increasingly more common, which begs the question: what causes this disorder? Research shows that several factors may contribute to the development of ADHD, including: 

  • Genetics

  • Brain injury 

  • Low birth weight or premature delivery 

  • Alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy 

While the above factors may play a role, some researchers believe that the increase in the prevalence of ADHD is related to lifestyle and environmental factors that negatively affect brain function. These might include: 

How is ADHD traditionally treated? 

Traditional treatment for ADHD involves either non-pharmacological or pharmacological interventions. Non-pharmacological treatments may include psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, social skills training, support groups, and parenting skills training (if the patient is a child). 

Pharmacological treatments, on the other hand, involve taking medication. There are several ADHD medications available today, which are generally broken down into two broad categories: stimulants and non-stimulants. 

Stimulant medications 

Stimulants are the most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD and are thought to work by boosting the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine—which are neurotransmitters—in the brain. Common stimulant medications used to treat ADHD include Ritalin, Adderall, Desoxyn, and Focalin. 

While these drugs may help reduce symptoms, they also come with several potential side effects, including: 

  • Sleep problems

  • Decreased appetite 

  • Weight loss 

  • Increased blood pressure and pulse 

  • Rebound effects 

  • Dizziness 

  • Headaches

  • Stomachaches 

  • Moodiness and irritability 

  • Nervousness 

  • Tics 

  • Delayed growth (in children)

  • Personality changes (less common)

Non-stimulant medications

Non-stimulant medications aren’t prescribed as often, but may be used if stimulants cause adverse side effects or aren’t effective. In some cases, non-stimulant drugs are paired with stimulant drugs to achieve the desired result. Common non-stimulant medications include Strattera, Intuniv, Kapvay, and antidepressants like Pamelor. Besides Strattera and antidepressants like Pamelor, which increase levels of norepinephrine in the brain, it’s not well understood how these types of medications help ADHD symptoms.

As with stimulant medications, non-stimulant medications can also have a range of potential side effects. In fact, the side effect profiles between stimulant and non-stimulant drugs are largely the same. 

Can you measure the severity of ADHD in someone?

Diagnosing ADHD varies depending on if the patient is a child or an adult. Let’s focus on diagnosing children first.  

Diagnosing ADHD in children 

To diagnose ADHD, a child will need to have a full physical exam, including vision and hearing tests. A complete medical history will also be taken to check for conditions that may affect the child’s behavior. 

The evaluation will also include interviewing the child’s parents, teachers, and any other adults who are a big part of the child’s life. The adults in the child’s life may also be asked to fill out standardized forms, known as behavior rating scales, to rate different aspects of the child’s behavior. Standard scales that are used include:

  • Swanson, Nolan, and Pelham-IV Questionnaire (SNAP-IV), which is for children ages 6 to 18

  • Child Behavior Checklist(CBCL), which is for children ages 6 to 18

  • Conners-Wells Adolescent Self-Report Scale, which is for teenagers

  • National Institute for Children’s Health Quality (NICHQ) Vanderbilt Assessment Scale, which is for children ages 6 to 12

  • Conners Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scale (CBRS), which is for children ages 6 to 18

Diagnosing ADHD in adults 

To be diagnosed with ADHD, an adult must have persistent, current symptoms that date back to childhood. A healthcare practitioner will gather a history of the adult’s behavior as a child, request an interview with the adult’s spouse, parent, close friend, or another close contact, and conduct a thorough physical exam. The adult may also be asked to fill out diagnostic forms including:

  • Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS v1.1)

  • Adult ADHD Clinical Diagnostic Scale (ACDS v1.2)

  • Brown Attention-Deficit Disorder Symptom Assessment Scale (BADDS) for Adults

  • ADHD Rating Scale-IV (ADHD-RS-IV). 

Can brain scans help diagnose ADHD? 

In addition to the above diagnostic methods, the FDA has approved the Neuropsychiatric EEG-Based Assessment Aid (NEBA) System, a non-invasive scan that measures theta and beta brain waves. This type of scan may play an essential role in the diagnostic process, as studies show that the theta/beta ratio is higher in those with ADHD than those without the disorder. 

Can ADHD be treated naturally? 

Because ADHD medications can cause a range of side effects, you might be wondering if ADHD can be treated naturally. While that question can’t be answered definitively, several studies demonstrate that natural interventions can improve the disorder. 

One such natural “treatment” is spending time in green, outdoor settings. One study demonstrated that children who spent time outdoors in an environment with trees or other greenery experienced improved ADHD symptoms. Researchers theorize that spending as little as 20 minutes in an outdoor green space could improve symptoms for at least a couple of hours. 


Are vitamin and mineral deficiencies found in those with ADHD?

Research suggests that those with ADHD are at a higher risk for nutrient deficiencies, which may play a role in the symptomology. 

This makes sense when you understand that the body and brain need certain nutrients to function optimally. 

Working with a doctor to test for and correct vitamin and mineral deficiencies may be a critical component of an ADHD treatment plan. 

Seek guidance from a trusted medical professional 

When it comes to treating ADHD, one size does not fit all. This disorder varies from person to person, and, as such, an individualized approach is needed. It’s essential to work with a doctor or other healthcare professional that is well versed in this condition and can help you build a personalized treatment plan. Your doctor should closely monitor your treatment protocol, especially if medication is prescribed. 

There are several treatment options available, so if you or your child are struggling with this disorder, don’t lose hope. With the proper support and guidance, your quality of life can be significantly improved.