For kids with ADHD, behavioral therapy and medication are the primary options for treating symptoms, recommended for use in tandem for kids ages 6 and up by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But some parents are wary of ADHD medication because of its side effects, which can include appetite loss, trouble sleeping, and delayed growth. However, therapy alone may not be enough to help kids manage bothersome symptoms such as impulsivity and difficulty staying on task. Now another option — micronutrients — may help some kids with ADHD who aren’t taking medication, according to the results of a recent study.
Micronutrients aren’t your typical supplements. They contain a high dose of vitamins and minerals, along with some amino acids and antioxidants, according to Jeanette Johnstone, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. The nutrients may be present in larger amounts than what you would find in a typical multivitamin. And the micronutrient formula used in the study contained all known vitamins and essential minerals that people need, Johnstone says.
For the study, the researchers gave 71 children with both ADHD and irritable mood micronutrients for eight weeks and 55 kids a placebo. They found that children who received the micronutrients were three times as likely to see a significant reduction in bothersome ADHD symptoms compared to kids who took the placebo.
In the micronutrient group, 56% of kids had their ADHD symptoms decrease in severity compared to 22% of kids in the placebo group. Kids in the micronutrient group also ended up with a lower average score on a measure of peer conflict than those in the placebo group.
The percentage of kids whose ADHD symptoms became less severe after taking micronutrients.
Johnstone studied a similar broad-spectrum micronutrient formula in kids with ADHD in New Zealand. In that previous study, she found that “micronutrients improved overall function, reduced impairment and improved inattention, emotional regulation and aggression, but not hyperactive/impulsive symptoms” when compared to a placebo.
Many other studies have focused largely on one nutrient (such as zinc or omega-3) by itself, says Kathleen Holton, Ph.D., MPH, a nutritional neuroscientist at American University, who was not involved in the study. However, micronutrients “do not work in isolation in the body,” instead “working together to optimize function of the nervous system,” Holton says.
The new study “adds important information” about how such micronutrient formulas might play a role in helping reduce ADHD symptoms in kids, she adds. However, “more research is needed in children before clear recommendations can be made.”
Should You Get Micronutrients for Your Kid With ADHD?
Don’t dash to your local pharmacy just yet. Not only is more research needed, but not all vitamin and mineral formulas work the same. Johnstone’s team used a specific formula called “Daily Essential Nutrients” developed by Hardy Nutritionals, which provided the capsules used in the study for free.
The “breadth of nutrients” matters, Johnstone says. “I think parents are going to wonder if they can go to Costco and get an over-the-counter vitamin/mineral supplement,” but those products might offer too little of the vitamins needed. Many also don’t contain all of the mineral types found in formulas like the one used in the study.
Dosage is crucial too. In Johnstone’s study, the kids took capsules three times per day with food, for a total of nine to 12 pills per day. The researchers chose these amounts so that kids would be taking between the “Recommended Daily Allowance” (RDA) and Upper Tolerable Intake Level of the vitamins and minerals each day.
“The RDA, historically speaking, was developed to address frank nutritional deficiencies that might impact an individual’s health,” Johnstone says. “It’s a very low bar” and not a clear indicator that someone is getting enough nutrients, she says. Additionally, the RDA guideline “was set up for otherwise healthy individuals,” and having a mental health condition such as ADHD signals that “you have things going on that are affecting your health.”
But taking too much of certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful. “The Upper Tolerable Intake Limit is the highest level of a daily nutrient that is likely to pose no adverse health effects in almost all individuals,” Johnstone says.
It’s generally “not recommended to give supplements in doses which approach the upper limit,” Holton says. “I would definitely recommend discussing the use of a higher dose supplement with their pediatrician so the child can be monitored for adverse effects and abnormal blood test results.”
The researchers monitored participants’ blood and urine during the study, and they did not detect any negative health effects of micronutrients.
In general, starting your child on micronutrients without expert advice might not be a good idea, especially if your kid is already on ADHD medication. Micronutrients can make the medication’s effects stronger, increasing the possibility of side effects, Johnstone says. If you start your child on micronutrients, you will likely need the help of a doctor to figure out the safest way to decrease your child’s ADHD medication dose while introducing a micronutrient formula.