Add as bookmark

Treating Behavioural Problems in Children

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 105 - November 2004

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are wreaking havoc in many children's and parents' lives and yet often respond well to simple dietary changes and the use of nourishing nervine herbs. ADD and ADHD involve problems related to attention and concentration and can manifest as restlessness, distraction, sleeplessness, tantrums and disruptive behaviour.

They have been linked to food sensitivities, fatty acid deficiencies, food additives and excess refined sugar.[1] Other physical symptoms may present which serve as indicators of nutritional deficiency and/or food allergy, including dry skin, cradle cap or dandruff, dry, cracked lips, skin rashes, bed-wetting, headaches, aching legs, fussy eating or poor appetite, sweating or thirst, frequent infections and low resistance, catarrh, sweet cravings, bloating, wind, diarrhoea or constipation.

Food intolerance to certain food colourings and flavourings, dairy produce, notably casein, salicylates, wheat or gluten, corn, chocolate, caffeine in cola drinks, eggs and citrus fruits, especially oranges, is frequently involved. There is often a relationship between a history of allergies, such as asthma, eczema, hay fever or migraine, in the family. It is well worth eliminating suspect food allergens and sugar from the diet for an initial period of a month.

Nutritional deficiencies are common in ADHD[2] notably of iron, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, essential fatty acids and these can affect brain function. Magnesium is essential to the metabolism of vitamin B6 and helps to prevent allergic responses. Deficiency can cause tension and irritability, muscle spasm, poor physical endurance and lack of sleep. Lower than normal blood levels have been found in people with ADHD.[3]

A review found that a subgroup of ADHD subjects with symptoms similar to EFA deficiency demonstrated significantly low plasma arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) than control subjects.[4] Safflower and sunflower oil are rich in DHA which is particularly important for normal cognitive function. Fatty fish including salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel are also good sources of DHA and other essential fatty acids.

Adequate amounts of amino acids, vitamins and minerals are required for the body to manufacture neurotransmitters and brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. A recent trial comparing Ritalin to dietary supplement treatment in twenty children concluded that food supplements may be of equivalent efficacy to Ritalin.[5] Trials comparing B vitamins to treatment with Ritalin found that B vitamins were more effective, safer and far less expensive.6 B complex is vital to the normal function of the nervous system but requires magnesium to ensure adequate absorption.

The effects of pollution also require consideration. Inhaling or ingesting toxic metals, such as lead, cadmium and aluminium, may affect brain function, as may organic solvents in, for example, felt-tip pens, cleaning fluids and aerosol sprays. Artificial lighting, strong magnetic fields and noise pollution from television, CD players, computers and videos can contribute to hyperactive behaviour. A study showed that when fluorescent lighting was removed from classrooms there was a major improvement in hyperactivity.[6] The consumption of alcohol, smoking and toxaemia during pregnancy, birth difficulties or ante-natal lack of oxygen can also predispose to hyperactivity. Maternal smoking during pregnancy is linked with increased risk of offspring ADHD symptoms.[7]

Supplements of necessary vitamins and minerals, including B complex, zinc, vitamin C and essential fatty acids, will not only correct nutritional deficiencies, but also promote the excretion of toxic metals. Certain herbs can also aid the elimination of heavy metals, including: red clover, (Trifolium pratense) kelp and nettles (Urtica dioica).

Impaired glucose metabolism may be a major contributory factor. Excess intake of simple carbohydrates and nutrient poor junk foods, lacking in magnesium and zinc, essential to carbohydrate metabolism, is often implicated.[8] Many children with ADHD crave carbohydrates and can take some persuading to eat less sugar and simple carbohydrates and more protein. Fruit juices, once considered a healthy alternative to sugar and additive laden squashes, are high in natural sugar and most of them contain salicylates. To avoid hypoglycaemia it is vital for children to have regular meals. It is worth checking how much a fussy eater has during school meals.

Herbs that have a gentle action on the liver and pancreas can be included in prescriptions when there is low blood sugar, allergy or heavy metal toxicity. They may prove helpful particularly for children displaying bouts of anger, irritability or depression. Dandelion root (Taraxacum off), burdock (Arctium lappa), vervain (verbena off) and rosemary are particularly applicable.

Systemic Candida albicans may also be a factor worth consideration. A disturbance of gut flora can occur due to poor digestion, lowered resistance, over prescription of antibiotics or nutritional deficiencies, particularly of iron and zinc. If a child does not respond to dietary improvements, avoidance of possibly allergens and dietary supplements, further investigations into gut flora could be worthwhile.

Emotional stress can contribute to ADHD by further depleting the nervous system and by increasing the body's use of vital nutrients, predisposing to further deficiencies. Nourishing nervine and adaptogen herbs including vervain, rose, wild oats (Avena sativa), gotu cola (Hydrocotyl asiatica) and skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) will support a stressed or depleted nervous system.

Experts in the field feel that lack of physical touch and expressions of affection and of parents sharing sufficient 'quality time' with their children can contribute to a variety of behavioural problems.[6] It is possible that a 'difficult' child is unconsciously picking up and reflecting stresses within the family unit. The changes in life that children almost inevitably experience can prove difficult for some.

For tense, anxious and children prone to temper tantrums, chamomile, lime flower (Tilia europea), sandalwood (Santalum alba), coriander, shatavari, (Asparagus racemosus) tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) rose, bringaraj, (Eclipta alba) skullcap and licorice used regularly can make a significant difference. For a restless, nervy and easily distracted child, nourishing herbs such as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), bala (Sida cordifolia), wild oats, gotu cola and shatavari can prove very beneficial. In India doctors used Acorus calamus as a brain tonic and for memory problems. Shilajit and licorice help to strengthen the adrenals and are good supportive remedies for the nervous system. Shilajit, gotu cola and guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) can improve memory and concentration.

To aid sleep, mildly sedative herbs such as chamomile, catnip, cowslip, hops and limeflowers can be given. Dilute essential oils of ylang ylang, tulsi, sandalwood, lemon balm, rosemary, lavender and chamomile can be used for baths, massages and inhalations. Massage is especially beneficial for comforting restless, anxious or tense children. Using sesame oil as a base is particularly therapeutic.


1. Schnoll R, Burshteyn D, Cea-Aravena J. Nutrition in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: a neglected but important aspect. Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 28 (1): 63-75. 2003.

2. Kidd PM. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children: rationale for its integrative management. Altern Med Rev. 5(5): 402-28. 2000.

3. Kozielec T, Starobrat-Hermelin B. Assessment of magnesium levels in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Magnes Res. 10 (2): 143-8. 1997.

4. Burgess JR, Stevens L, Zhang W, Peck L. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Clin Nutr. 71 (1 Suppl): 327S-30S. 2000.

5. Harding KL, Judah RD, Gant C. Outcome-based comparison of Ritalin versus food-supplement treated children with AD/HD. Altern Med Rev. 8 (3): 319-30. 2000.

6. Minsky BC. Our Children's Health. Vital Health Publishing. Connecticut. 2002.

7. Thapar A, Fowler T, Rice F, Scourfield J, van den Bree M, Thomas H, Harold G, Hay D. Maternal smoking during pregnancy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms in offspring. Am J Psychiatry. 160 (11): 2003.

8. Starobrat-Hermelin B, Kozielec T. The effects of magnesium physiological supplementation on hyperactivity in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Positive response to magnesium oral loading test. Magnes Res. 10 (2): 149-56. 1997.


  1. No Article Comments available

Post Your Comments:

About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096

top of the page