Attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) is not just a childhood problem. Learn what adult ADHD looks like and discover your natural options for improving attention, focus, and clarity.

Understanding Adult ADHD

Adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neuropsychiatric condition characterized by inattention, restlessness or hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. ADHD is relatively common in childhood, affecting more than 16 million children in the United States ages 2 to 17. In fact, it was once regarded as a mental health condition that occurred exclusively during childhood. However, ADHD is now considered a life-long condition, with about 5 percent of children carrying on their symptoms into adulthood, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

It is estimated that less than one-quarter of adults with ADHD seek professional help for their symptoms, meaning that the majority of adult ADHD cases are never diagnosed or treated. Untreated ADHD can lead to personal and professional difficulties like trouble meeting deadlines, unstable relationships, impulsive behavior or temper, and more.

Adults with ADHD are more likely to have comorbid or coexisting conditions that can make diagnosis and treatment more challenging, including:

  • Depression and persistent depressive disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Sleep disorders

Signs and symptoms of adult ADHD

For both children and adults, ADHD is typically marked by inattention and hyperactivity or impulsivity. However, most adults experience fewer symptoms as they age, and the intensity of the symptoms tends to dwindle down as well – especially the hyperactivity and impulsivity. In adults, ADHD inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity might look like:

Inattention

  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention
  • Procrastinating
  • Struggling to complete even seemingly simple tasks
  • Poor listening skills
  • Frequent daydreaming
  • Frequent careless mistakes
  • Difficulty with organization
  • Losing things easily
  • Struggling to follow instructions
  • Difficulty meeting deadlines
  • Forgetfulness
  • Dislike for activities that require sustained mental effort
  • Hard time remembering details
  • Poor planning and/or time management skills
  • Difficulty multitasking

Hyperactivity/Impulsivity

  • Being excessively restless
  • Mood swings
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sleeping issues
  • Relationship issues
  • Poor self-control
  • Addictive tendencies
  • Irritability/short temper
  • Getting bored easily
  • Fidgeting
  • Talking excessively even during inappropriate times
  • Multitasking but not getting anything done
  • Difficulty waiting for turns
  • Constantly interrupting others
  • Reckless driving
  • Trouble relaxing

Treating adult ADHD

Physicians often prescribe medications to treat ADHD during childhood and adulthood, but it is important to understand that while drugs can help some people cope with their symptoms, they often come with side-effects and are not a cure or a solution for this condition.

Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants are the most commonly prescribed drugs for ADHD.  CNS stimulants work by increasing the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine and stimulating brain activity. These drugs help individuals with ADHD to stay focused. Two common CNS stimulant choices prescribed to both children and adults are methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines (Adderall). Both drugs are controlled substances available by prescription only because they potentially can be misused or abused.

Stimulant drugs used to treat ADHD have known side effects that range from non-serious to severe, including:

  • Anorexia or appetite loss
  • Trouble sleeping
  • High blood pressure
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased heart rate
  • Anxiety
  • Increased irritability
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Increased restlessness
  • Addiction

Therapy

Adults are typically better equipped than children to implement structured strategies to successfully manage their ADHD symptoms. After learning how to identify unhealthy patterns and how to address them, many may not even need medication or outside intervention, if their symptoms are not disruptive or dangerous for themselves or others.

Psychological counseling or talk therapy can provide adults with ADHD with the tools they need to gain control over their symptoms. For example, mental health counselors or coaches can teach individuals how to set goals, prioritize, manage time, and stay organized. There are several types of therapy available for adults with ADHD, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Biofeedback

Natural Alternatives

Research shows that alternative therapies can also be useful for reducing ADHD symptoms. The following evidence-based supplements have been shown to help improve attention, focus, and clarity and calmness.

Magnesium: Individuals with ADHD have been observed to have lower levels of magnesium, which is an essential mineral for brain health. In a study evaluating 50 children diagnosed with ADHD, researchers found that those who received a magnesium supplement for six months showed a significant decrease in hyperactive behaviors.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Researchers have also observed that individuals with ADHD appear to have lower omega-3 levels.

Zinc: Decreased zinc levels have been linked to trouble concentrating, reduced learning abilities, and ADHD. Research suggests that used in combination with amphetamines, zinc may help reduce the dosage needed to treat ADHD.

Iron: Iron deficiency has been noted to increase the risk of psychiatric disorders, including ADHD. Iron-deficient children and adults who suffer from ADHD may benefit from supplementing with iron to help control their symptoms.

Vitamin D:  Research has shown that vitamin D deficiency is more common in people experiencing a lack of attention. A 2018 study helped clarify the mechanism responsible for lower vitamin D levels, as it revealed that children with lower vitamin D levels, also had lower vitamin D receptor levels.1 Recent research has also suggested that vitamin D may have an impact on dopamine levels in the brain.2   Dopamine is a brain chemical called a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters accommodate signaling between nerve cells (neurons).  Dopamine is used to modulate certain physiological functions – including memory, motor movement, sleep, cognition, and addiction. It is also responsible for regulating mood, pleasure, and the reward cycle.  Vitamin D supplementation improves cognitive function and inattention.

Bacopa Monnieri:  Bacopa is a well-known herb frequently used in Ayurvedic traditional medicine and is widely studied and used as part of herbal preparations to improve memory and intelligence. Clinical studies suggest that bacopa may improve learning rate, ability to process data/information, retention of learned facts, and memory. Over 4 weeks bacopa was shown to reduce nervousness and irritability in humans diagnosed with anxiety. Bacopa helps the elderly as well. In a patient population whose average age was 62, bacopa was shown to improve working memory/recall and improve attention as well as cognitive processing.

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a universal nutrient building block for cell membranes that are especially concentrated in the brain’s nerve cells. It covers and protects the cells in your brain and carries messages between them, playing an important role in keeping your mind and memory sharp. Phosphatidylserine also helps to improve attention and the ability to cope with stress.

Saffron Extract:  Saffron (stigma, 2% safranal) is an impressive botanical known in traditional medicine for mood balance and has been clinically studied for evidence of improving positive mental outlook, nervous system health, support for healthy stress levels, and increased brain dopamine levels.

The Sleep/ADHD Connection

People with ADHD often have a hard time falling or staying asleep. Everyone needs 7-9 hours of proper sleep each night to feel productive and well during the day.  Feeling tired makes ADHD symptoms worse, and that makes it harder to sleep the next night. This cycle repeats.  While sleeplessness and ADHD were once thought to be separate issues, some scientists believe symptoms of ADHD may be a problem associated with a lack of normal sleep patterns.  Approximately 75% of children and adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are believed to have sleep problems.  Therefore, reestablishing healthy sleep patterns is key for anyone with symptoms of ADHD.

The following supplements are beneficial for reestablishing healthy sleep patterns:

Magnesium is a mineral with wide-ranging effects including an influence over some of the processes that promote sleep. Magnesium helps the body maintain healthy levels of GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain and, in part, can help calm the body and mind while preparing for sleep

Pyridoxal 5-phosphate is the active form of vitamin B6 and the necessary cofactor for the conversion of 5-HTP to serotonin. Serotonin promotes sleep. In conjunction with other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin influences when, how much, and how well you sleep. In addition to boosting mood and confidence, serotonin also helps sustain the body’s 24-hour rhythms and promotes deep and sustained sleep. It helps regulate your emotions and circadian rhythms, signaling the body to go to sleep or wake up at about the same time each day. Vitamin B6 deficiency has been linked to irritability, emotional disturbances, confusion, and disturbed sleep.

L-Theanine – Found in green tea in significant amounts, L-theanine is an amino acid that has a calming effect and is used to improve cognitive and mental performance. Alpha-wave predominance in the brain is associated with a state of relaxation, and theanine supplementation produces a shift toward more alpha-wave production within 40 minutes of taking it at amounts of 50 to 200 mg. The effects appear to last up to eight hours and are dependent on the amount taken. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study on boys that failed to pay attention or had periods of occasional sleeplessness demonstrated that L-theanine significantly increases sleep efficiency as well as time spent asleep.

Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythm, which synchronizes our sleep-wake cycle, and is one of the most popular supplements used by people who have trouble falling asleep. The role of melatonin has been studied in people who have occasional sleeplessness, delayed sleep onset, and nighttime awakening issues.

Lemon Balm Extract– Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has been used in traditional medicines as a sleep-inducing, and memory-enhancing nutrient. Human trials have provided scientific evidence for the impact of lemon balm, demonstrating its ability to improve mood, reduce stress, and help induce sleep. For instance, one study that investigated the impact of lemon balm extract over a 15-day period found that occasional anxiety was reduced in 70% of the study participants and occasional sleeplessness was reduced in 85% of the participants.

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to dietary supplements, and getting proper sleep (both quantity and quality), the following lifestyle changes can help with ADHD.

Eat Healthily
A healthy diet can have a powerful, positive effect on your cognition, mood, memory, and behavior. The wrong diet can aggravate ADHD symptoms.   Limit foods with sugar and trans-fat and eat plenty of foods with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber. Salmon, blueberries, spinach, nuts, broccoli, and dark chocolate (in moderation, of course) are all examples of foods that can improve focus.  Impulsivity leads many people diagnosed with ADHD to eat the wrong things too often. In fact, impulsivity is associated with unhealthy weight gain, which has been shown to be bad for the brain. Eat only high-quality calories. Avoid junk food and sugar as much as possible.  Eating sugar and processed food, even in small amounts, leads to craving more food and feeling less energetic.

It is important to start each day with protein to boost your focus and concentration. Protein helps balance your blood sugar, increases focus and gives your brain the necessary building blocks for brain health.  Great sources of high quality, lean protein include wild fish such as salmon, skinless turkey or chicken, beans, raw nuts, and vegetables such as broccoli and spinach. Protein powders can also be a good source of protein but it is important to read the labels. Many protein powders contain sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

Drink Plenty of Water
Your brain is 80 percent water. Anything that dehydrates it, such as too much caffeine or alcohol, impairs your cognition and judgment. Stay well hydrated every day.

Get Up and Get Moving
Regular exercise is just as healthy for the brain as it is for the body. It increases blood flow to the brain and improves concentration. It also boosts energy levels and can help you or your child become more alert and productive. There’s no need to run a marathon every day to reap the benefits of exercise. Simply go for a walk around the neighborhood, take a yoga class, swim, or cycle.

Control Stress
Since stress can make paying attention and staying focused even more challenging, it is important for you or your child to keep stress levels under control. One of the best ways to control stress is to exercise regularly as doing so can increase the brain’s serotonin levels and combat the stress hormone, cortisol. Meditating, breathing deeply, listening to soothing music, participating in a hobby, and spending time with positive friends and family members can also help.

Avoid Multitasking
Juggling several tasks at once can make staying focused even more difficult. Rather than multitasking in an effort to save time, you should concentrate on one task at a time. Create a to-do list each morning with only a few tasks so that you know what to focus on and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Inattentiveness and impulsivity can interfere with all aspects of life.  Following the right regimen can have multiple benefits and lead to greater productivity, improved performance at work and/or school, healthier relationships, better sleep, and therefore increased longevity and a higher quality of life.