Better Attention?

child on beach with a globe sitting beside her, overactive imagination or ADD ADHD

A mother once came to me and asked if there was anything that can be done for her child that was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

(Everything I am about to say is intended to be taken in general terms. It is not a replacement for a specific evaluation and treatment program. Please do not be offended if it sounds like I am speaking to you. Each family circumstance is unique and I would not attempt to pass judgment on a difficult issue without out all the facts.)

I proceeded to give her some advice as she had requested. I could see a shield go up in her mind and knew I was probably not getting through to her as I had hoped. Not knowing the concern, I concluded my comments and waited for a response. To which she said, “Wow… it seems a lot easier to just give him the pill.” If this is you, this information will be better received at a different time. I don’t wish to overwhelm anyone, but the truth is, this is that attitude that has created this problem in the first place. What is easiest is usually not what is healthiest. It is easier to throw our kids in front of a TV than to actually parent them. It is easier to send them to school and let the teachers deal with the problem. And of course, it is much easier to drug them than it is to find a real solution.

This may sound harsh, and I don’t want to offend anyone who has chosen this route. Usually, it is a decision of desperation and frustration by someone who has never been given a credible alternative. As much as I wish to raise my children naturally, there is a time when I might feel they need an antibiotic. Although I am not a fan of mass vaccinations, I might wish to get them a shot if traveling to another country or at particular risk of disease. In a crisis, medicine can be very helpful. However, NO ONE has been able to convince me that there is ever a time that chemically altering a developing brain is a good thing! Please don’t interpret that comment as “Dr. Hales thinks our kids don’t have a problem …what a jerk.” That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is, the quick fix is not healthy and has unintended consequences -even if they produce the desired results. You might think I am an alarmist …maybe. The problem is this -ADHD medication is usually evaluated for 7 weeks in a typically controlled study. But it is prescribed for long-term use in a still developing brain. Seven weeks doesn’t tell you anything about a problem you might create over time.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with another woman whose son was on long-term ADHD medication. She said, “You don’t understand… my son needs the medication, he has lots of problems with his brain, not just ADHD. It may have started with just ADHD, but he has developed other problems too. He also needs anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. So I think I had better just stay with the medication.” Perplexed, I asked her if she has ever looked at the list of side effects of common ADHD medications. If you follow the link in the last sentence you will find PubMed data on Daytrana, the trans-dermal ADHD patch. You are probably not aware that many of those symptoms have a 10% to 15% occurrence. Which means you have almost a 100% chance of something happening. You also might have noticed that most of those symptoms are forms of serious psychosis similar to those experienced by that second mom’s son. No thank you! I will take the ADHD. You might have noticed that the last symptom mentioned was “sudden death” in children and teenagers if they have heart problems. But maybe what we really should be asking is; if it can stop a bad heart is it good for a healthy one?

Basically… the problem is this. Psychotropic drugs are typically tested on adults for a short period of time than prescribed to children for a long period of time. A child’s brain is not the same as an adult's, it is still developing. We need a solution that respects this and doesn’t try to gratify us with “quick fix” results.

Now for the less angry and more helpful portion of my article.

“Two roads diverge within a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by …and that made all the difference” -Robert Frost

A study published in the Israeli Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 stated that children with ADHD symptoms demonstrated decreased Heart Rate Variability. What does this mean? Heart Rate Variability is a medical test used to determine someone's ability to interact with their environment. High Heart Rate Variability means the individual is adaptive to their environment, they have a decreased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and now apparently attention problems. The good news is that Heart Rate Variability can be improved! …and therefore so can ADHD.

Physicians have known for a long time that ADHD children have difficulty waking up a portion of their brains -allowing them to react appropriately to their surroundings. As a result, their brains fire the motor (movement) functions in an attempt to arouse the child. Thus they get fidgety -hyperactive. This is, by the way, why caffeine has a sedative effect on an ADHD child. By increasing blood flow to the brain, the brain arouses and thus lowers the motor functions. The child is less fidgety and more focused. Unfortunately, this approach losses effectiveness over time so we move to stronger drugs like Ritalin to perform the task, stimulating the brain in other ways. Many ADHD medications are contr0lled substances, which means they have powerful effects on the mind. We tell our kids not to take drugs because it kills brain cells, then we tell them to take the same drugs (Ritalin is a cocaine derivative) because it will correct chemical imbalances. I am sorry, we can’t have it both ways. No wonder we have such a conflicted culture.

ADHD at its heart is a proprioceptive problem. Proprioception is the drive of information from the body to the brain. Proprioception is the stimulation that is missing or low in an ADHD child. If this signal is poor, they will need more or excess stimulation to function normally. This is why an ADHD child will crave so much attention, positive or negative, it is like they cannot get enough. If the child receives an adequate amount of stimulation, the brain will lower the motor response and he or she will relax and begin to focus.

There are several areas this process can go awry.

First, the most obvious. Proprioception is driven by motion. When a child spends the majority of their day in front of a screen or at a desk they are being stimulated through their visual centers without the accompanying movement (proprioception) to go with it. This is especially true with television, video games, and movies. This will imbalance the mind's perceptions over time. Too much visual in without an appropriate physical response back out.

I had a patient whose child was having difficulty completing her tasks, the teacher unknowingly decided the best way to fix this problem was to keep the child in from recess. When the problem worsened, I suggested to the mother that we write a letter and ask that the child be allowed back to recess, in addition, the mother committed to getting her child up early and rough house before she was sent to school. Focus began to improve. It is a shame that many schools are reducing recess and P.E. in favor of more bookwork. A well-balanced child will be a better life-long learner.

Second, everything you eat is chemistry as much as the medications you take. Artificial foods, colorings, preservatives, and basically all non-food foods that we eat can upset the delicate chemical balance of the brain. Toxicity from previous medications including vaccinations can be a factor. Not everyone is affected the same, but some are poor at ridding toxins, this build-up will lead to problems in these individuals. Too much sugar creates a stress response in the body. I will reference this later in this article.

An adoptive mother asked for advice from me about her two kids, both were suffering from severe attention problems due to the natural mother during pregnancy drug abuse. The mother not wanting to use medication asked if there were any other options. She opted to include some essential oils. Within one month the teachers were speechless. “Whatever you are doing, keep it up.” A pure therapeutic essential oil can provide powerful emotional support.

Incidentally, we have found that many essential oils will improve heart rate variability -mentioned above. This can be a powerful part of natural emotional support.

Third, the body is extremely efficient. It will concentrate proprioceptive input in areas that are involved with most motions in the body. Therefore the upper neck, the low back, and the feet are massive drivers of these signal inputs. A dysfunction in any joint, but in particular these regions can cause an opposite signal to be sent, nociception. Nociception will diminish proprioceptive input and add to the imbalances building. This can also be a significant component of this problem and a chiropractic evaluation should be undertaken to see if function in these regions can be improved. The birthing process and early childhood traumas can be a factor in whether nerve irritation is present.

Only a qualified chiropractic physician is trained to perform this type of evaluation and should be a serious consideration in any child that is experiencing ADHD.

Fourth, is stress. Stress is defined as feeling out of control. No one is in less control of their lives than a child. They don’t feel stress any differently than you or I. Family situations, school, social stresses can all contribute to a child being under stress. A normal reaction to stress is a state called peripheral attention. Imagine that you are an animal and you just got attacked while enjoying a morning drink at a watering hole. What happens next time you are there? Your nervous system exhibits peripheral attention. This means that you cannot focus on the task in front of you because you can hear everything else distant around you. This is just in case that darn tiger shows up again. In today’s world, it looks like this: -Johnny can’t focus on his math paper because he is distracted and can hear everything single thing Suzie says from across the room. This is a normal state for a stressed child and it is treated as if it is ADHD. The good news is; this can be fixed too. Improving proprioception naturally drives down the stress response.

A close friend called me one afternoon because the school was pressuring her to put her daughter on ADHD medication and she did not want to do it. They had called a special meeting and insinuated that they may have to take action if she would not listen. Upset, she asked for advice. I asked her about the school, what kind of experience was her daughter having? As you might expect, it wasn’t good at all. I suggested that she move her daughter to another school. She told me that would be difficult, in her state you had to have a pretty good reason for a move. I asked her to please try. After some effort, it was accomplished. Upon moving to the new school, her grades went up and attention problems were never mentioned again.

As you might be guessing there is no "one" fix to ADHD. It is sort of like the movie “A Perfect Storm”. Many storms colliding together create a serious problem. ADHD is a combination of many factors. Every individual is different and should be evaluated and treated on a case-by-case basis. Improvement will be seen as several different areas are addressed.

The better their body’s function physically, the cleaner their chemistry is, and the less internal stress they have will lead to better Heart Rate Variability and finally better attention. They are now adapting appropriately to their environments. And YES this is a whole lot harder than just taking a pill, but rather than side effects you get health effects. Rather than covering the problem you are working on fixing the problem.

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