ADHD is commonly thought to be caused by dopamine deficiency. I say commonly thought because very little is actually known about neurotransmitters and the way that they function.
Dopamine is our main focus neurotransmitter. It helps us stay focused and to achieve goals. It is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. It is a powerful growth hormone booster. Another important neurotransmitter is serotonin, our well-being neurotransmitter. Serotonin helps balance mood, calm anxiety and relieve depression. It is believed that ADHD kids are low in dopamine and higher in serotonin, but, it is still unclear as modern medicine is just at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how the human brain works.
To treat this dopamine deficiency, doctors will prescribe Ritalin, Adderall, or Concerta. These drugs are central nervous system stimulants. They speed up the transmission of electrical and chemical signals. They do this by increasing the brain activity of norepinephrine and dopamine. However, manipulating neurotransmitters with the use of drugs comes at a price. By flooding the brain with dopamine, the cells of the body actually become resistant to dopamine, so more and more of the drug will be needed to produce the same effect. At this point the medication seems to be wearing off and the doctor will switch to more powerful drugs. If the brain continues to be flooded with dopamine, another serious problem can occur- serotonin levels will drop, leading to depression. Serotonin and dopamine work as a seesaw, when one goes too high the other will fall. When ADHD medications cause depression, then the child will need to be medicated with anti-depressants as well. So basically, a situation of drug dependency has been set up for life.
Many parents have reported loss of personality, zombie-like behavior, lack of emotion, loss of appetite, and sleep disturbances after starting ADHD medications. Additionally, Ritalin causes growth suppression in children; after 3 years on Ritalin children were 1 inch shorter than their peers. What is the effect of growth suppression on children's developing brains? Well, according to a recent study reported by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, long term use of Ritalin can potentially lead to serious brain injury. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed similar findings. Lead researcher Prof. Joan Baizer of the University of Buffalo explained "Our research with gene expression in an animal model suggests that it has the potential for causing long lasting changes in brain cell structure and function."
Both cocaine and amphetamine (Adderall) cause changes in c-fos activity in the brain which is related to addiction. Methylphenidate, the generic term for Ritalin, caused the same activity.
Another study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that Ritalin causes physical changes in neurons in reward regions in mouse brains and these effects were similar to the long term side effects of cocaine. The three studies back what many holistic doctors and many educators have been saying for decades, long term use of Ritalin can lead to depression and potential injury to the frontal lobes of the brain. (Children are more prone to brain damage than adults, because their brains are still growing.) SO, the question is:
What really causes Dopamine Depletion?
1) SUGAR - One of the main causes of dopamine depletion/resistance is SUGAR CONSUMPTION. Sugar triggers dopamine release. Sugar includes all foods which convert quickly to glucose in the blood stream causing blood sugar highs and lows. Eating sugar floods brain cells with dopamine which feels good because dopamine is our pleasure/reward neurotransmitter. However, with time, the brain realizes that there is too much dopamine so it reduces the amount of dopamine receptors. At this point it would take even more sugar to produce the same feel good effect, this leads to sugar addiction. If the person keeps eating sugar, the brains cells become resistant to dopamine.
Dopamine resistance is similar to insulin resistance. This vicious cycle leads to sugar addiction which leads to blood sugar hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. Hyperglycemia or high blood sugar is characterized by hyperactivity and lack of focus. Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar is the crash that follows the high, characterized by irritability, bad mood, aggression, and fatigue.
You may think that your child isn't eating all that much sugar. If your child is eating cereals, most breads, and in fact most processed foods, than your child is eating more sugar than he/she can possibly handle. Food manufacturers are pros at disguising the high levels of sugar in their foods. Most breakfast cereals contain up to 49% sugar in weight! Even supposedly healthy breakfast cereals such as Honey Nut Cheerios are full of sugar. Breakfast cereals and most junk foods are also full of artificial flavors, which have been linked to ADHD symptoms.
White flour, white rice, and anything refined convert too quickly to sugar in the blood stream, so beware of these foods! The bran and fiber have been removed, so basically what's left is the starchy part of the grain. The main ingredient in most whole wheat breads is usually refined flour so its really important to start reading labels. Good sugar substitutes are Raw Honey, Organic Maple Syrup, Green Stevia (in leaf form), or organic coconut palm sugar (super tasty). Additionally these options are much better for blood sugar.
2) LACK OF PROTEIN IN THE DIET: Protein breaks down into Amino Acids. Amino Acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. Without adequate protein in the diet, neurotransmitters cannot be formed. Chicken, meat, organic eggs, and nuts should be consumed every day. Nuts make a good snack and are also highly nutritious with the exception of peanuts and peanut butter which are usually GMO and contaminated with mold. Walnuts not only contain protein but also Omega 3 fatty acids.
Amino Acid supplementation can also be quite helpful. L-tyrosine converts to L-dopa which converts to dopamine. Additionally, Amino acid supplementation has been shown to help with seizures.
Many ADHD children suffer from brain seizures. Brain seizures are undetectable to the eye. They occur when one part of the brain works faster than another. An amino acid panel test can determine which Amino Acids are deficient, and supplementation can be done accordingly. Parents have reported serious improvements when supplementing with the appropriate amino acids. A natural doctor who specializes in amino acid supplementation should be able to determine which amino acids to supplement with and in what amounts.
Note: In order for the body to properly utilize Amino Acids, the body needs an adequate supply of B vitamins, Vitamin C, and magnesium. The B vitamins can be obtained from natural sources such as freshly milled stone ground breads and brown rice. Freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with honey and water or freshly squeezed organic orange juice can provide daily Vitamin C. Magnesium oil is a good source of magnesium that can be massaged into the skin or added to bath water to provide easily absorbable magnesium.
3) Lack of Exercise: Exercise stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin. (Basketball, Baseball, football, soccer are all great sports; however, organized team sports can be competitive and stressful. Playing for fun is preferable.) Strength training can help increase focus and help children strive for goals. Chin ups (supervised by an adult) and sit ups can be done throughout the day. For children over the age of eight, lifting light weights can be both relaxing and rewarding. When I was a child, our teachers would have the entire class do jumping jacks for 10 minutes before class started. This helped everyone focus and behave better.
4) Stress- Stress at home or school can deplete dopamine. Lack of a sense of accomplishment and lack of appreciation by family or classmates can also disrupt dopamine levels. Relaxing one-on-one with your child while reading a book or listening to how their day went can help. Undivided attention every day can go a long way.
How to Stimulate Dopamine Naturally
1) Increase consumption of high protein foods such as chicken, meat, eggs, almonds, walnuts, lentils etc... Vegan sources of protein include Spirulina, Chlorella, Pumpkin Seeds, and Chia Seeds. Vegan Protein Powders including Pumpkin Seeds Protein Powder or Hemp Seed Protein Powder can be added to smoothies or vegan milk for a quick protein fix (Don't use soy milk- most soy is GMO and can disturb hormonal balance). One scoopful of Pumpkin Seed Protein Powder in the morning and afternoon mixed with water or almond milk is a great way to supplement Protein. Bananas, chia seeds, and leafy greens are good sources of tryptophan.
2) Egg yolks contain 100mg of choline, which is the building block of the neurotransmitter acethylcholine. Dr. Natasha Campbell Mcbride recommends consuming between 4-6 organic eggs (especially the yolks) per day.
3) Coconut oil contains ketones which are used by the brain as fuel. At high levels of blood ketones, you experience significant cognitive boosts and focus. All cooking should be done with extra virgin coconut oil. Personally I consume 1 tablespoon of raw organic cold pressed extra virgin coconut oil per day.
3) Omega 3 fatty acids (specifically DHA), such as those found in flax seed oil, can rebuild neurotransmitter receptor sites. In his ADHD protocol, Dr Bob. Demaria recommends that children take high lignan flaxseed oil (1 tablespoon per 100 pounds of weight per day). Omega 3 supplementation trials have shown 40% increases in dopamine production.
4) Create a Stress Free Environment!
M.P. Geulah is the author of "Managing ADHD Without Medication- from a Mother's Perspective" (for sale on Amazon).