While ADHD medication can work wonders, some of us may choose not to use them or we may not respond to them. Some of us may experience unwanted side effects, have cardiovascular issues or want to avoid them during pregnancy and breastfeeding. How to treat ADHD without medication in adults? There are plenty of options. From where I stand, it’s the patient’s choice and a personal one.
Like many people, stimulant medication can be a sensitive topic for me. Not so much anymore, but there was a time when I may have gone out of my way to keep my status of a stimulant user private. I was concerned I would be treated like a drug addict or get yet another lecture about how ADHD doesn’t even exist.
However, now that I’ve been living with my diagnosis for a few years I’ve gotten better at shrugging off the peanut gallery. The truth is, while I currently use stimulant medication it wasn’t always a smooth road and I rely on many non-medication interventions. I definitely would struggle much more if it weren’t for my medication, but I still use many of the below treatments to keep the trains leaving on-time.
Types of Alternative ADHD Treatment for Adults
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, also referred to as ADHD or attention deficit disorder, is a chronic condition associated with inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. There are reportedly 3 million ADHD cases in the U.S. a year. While there is no cure, medication and/or therapy help are common ways to treat ADHD. The condition commonly begins in childhood and can last into adulthood and is linked to difficulty at school/work, low self-esteem and relationship difficulty.
Here are some of the main ways you can treat ADHD without medicine:
- Professional Assistance & Peer Support – This can range from a good therapist (especially one who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to peer-run support groups (such as our very own Adulting Club). Includes: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, ADHD coaching, Support/accountability groups, neurofeedback, and more.
- Behavioral Modification – From calendar blocking to setting reminders on your Google Home, there are a lot of simple ways to make sure you aren’t forgetting your most important tasks. Includes headphones, white noise, color coding, calendar blocking, smartphones/smart home reminders, education resources, and more.
- Mindfulness & Self-Care – From yoga and meditation to journaling and proper nutrition, taking time to just be present and taking care of your body can be very powerful. Includes meditation, journaling, protein, morning/evening routines, exercise, nature, yoga, tea, aromatherapy, massage, and more.
- Natural Supplements – While not all homeopathic remedies are backed by mainstream science, supplements such as fish oil have been known to help improve brain function. Includes omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, Vitamin C, B6, supplement blends, and more.
How to Treat ADHD Without Medication in Adults
Professional Assistance & Peer Support
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Defined by Psychology Today as “a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.” I’ve been seeing my cognitive behavioral therapist for more than a decade now, and it has made all the difference. Not only has she helped make my day-to-day better through practical solutions, we’ve been able to tackle depression and anxiety along the way as well.
- ADHD Coaching – Just like athletes have coaches that help them perform at their highest levels, ADHD coaches help you navigate your diagnosis so that you can thrive. While I’ve never had an ADHD coach, I did have a life coach, the magical and wonderful Jamie Lee. My favorite thing about coaching is that, unlike your friends and family, your coach will call you out on your crap. And when they do it stays within the sessions, not threatening your family and social lives.
- Support/Accountability groups – A safe space where you can share your challenges with others. This could be a peer-leg group (which is the case with Adulting Club) or it can be led by a mental health professional. For many, groups like these are a safe space where they can express themselves and know they will be accepted as they are. For others, they enjoy the concrete-ness of having to report back with their progress. In my experience, the best kinds of accountability groups are just structured enough without being too complicated.
- Neurofeedback – Defined by ADDitude magazine as “a form of brain training that uses brain exercises to reduce impulsivity and increase attentiveness.” While not yet widely accepted by the science community, CHADD describes it as a “possible intervention” worth continued exploration.
From color coding to proper exercise and nutrition, there are plenty of ways to treat ADHD without prescription medication. When I was first diagnosed at work, management was able to relocate my desk to somewhere that was less distracting, and this helped a lot. Now at my home office, I have recently added a room separator to keep my office truly separate from other distractions. These free and low-cost changes can go a long way to trying to get back some control in your day. Here are more ideas:
- Headphones – Headphones serve a dual purpose – zoning in and a nonverbal cue that you’re busy. I prefer the ones that fully cover your ears as opposed to earbuds, but your mileage may vary! While many with ADHD swear by noise canceling headphones, a good-old standard pair of earbuds or headphones may do the trick as well. Here are some of the top-selling headphones for work on Amazon.
- Apps – There are too many to list here, but Healthline’s list is a good place to start. I just looked at my phone and my favorites include: Asana, Alexa, Google Calendar, Google Docs, LastPass, and You Need A Budget.
- White noise – A stream of noise that occurs at even frequencies that have the tendency to wash out everything else. The most common examples of this are ocean waves or wind. I’m a huge fan of Brain.fm, which offers research-backed sound selections for several occasions, whether you need deep focus or light relaxation. If you prefer white noise machines, check out the portable white noise machines by Vanzon, Big Red Rooster and HoMedics.
- Color coding – This is exactly what it sounds like: setting yourself up with visual cues so you can quickly process complicated information. I use this in the next tip, calendar blocking.
- Calendar blocking – By no means a new or novel idea, but it’s really moved the needle for me. There’s a really good tutorial on calendar blocking by Amy Landino on YouTube.
- Smartphone/smart home reminders – This is simply giving reminders to your favorite smartphone or smart home device. I find this the most useful when I’m working on a project and need to be reminded to shut down before I need to leave the house for an appointment.
- Educational Resources – From ADDitude magazine to books for women with ADHD, keeping yourself informed about ADHD can be a powerful way of coping with it. Books for women with ADHD are always a solid go-to as well. In fact, one I’ve been eager to try is Sari Solden’s newest, A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD: Embrace Neurodiversity, Live Boldly, and Break Through Barriers. I’m also a fan of Changing for Good and Driven to Distraction.
Self-Care & Mindfulness
Water and essential nutrients (especially protein) have become critical in ensuring I’m a well-oiled machine, as well as nearly everything listed below. I find that I’m more alert and think more clearly when I’ve taken care to eat better, stay hydrated and just taking care of myself in general. And when I feel better I am more productive. If you’re into efficiency, this is a great way to check off a lot of boxes – healthy living can make your life more affordable and enjoyable, too!
- Meditation – Meditation also helps with anxiety. Oh my God. If you haven’t tried Headspace, try it immediately. I live and die by Headspace. However, while writing this article two people have also recommended Insight Timer to me, so I might give it a try soon.
- Journaling – Journaling has this amazing way of just letting your brain dump and get all your crap out and move on with your life with a little more clarity and focus. Some of my favorite journals include the Self Journal, Panda Planner and Silk+Sonder. And, of course, there’s bullet journaling!
- Protein – According to Psychology Today, “Next to water, protein makes up most of the weight of our bodies. Muscles, organs, hair, nails and ligaments are all composed of protein, so it’s obvious why protein is an important part of the diet.” Lean protein throughout the day, especially at breakfast, also boosts neurotransmitters.
- Morning/Evening Routines – h/t to AmyTV for getting me excited about waking up early and setting myself up for going after the life that I want. Even though I’ve relaxed my morning routine by a lot these days, I remain ruthless about going to bed at a decent hour. As Amy always says, a good morning routine begins with a solid evening routine.
- Exercise – Considered just as powerful as medication according to experts like Dr. John Ratey, even 30 minutes four times a week could be enough to see results. If I’ve been in a sedentary slump, I don’t shock my body by trying to train for a marathon. Instead, I aim for an easy 15 minutes of walking a day. Or an impromptu dance party in my bedroom if I’m feeling sassy.
- Nature – The impact of time outside on ADHD continues to be a field of study, and the results are encouraging. Combine with exercise and/or meditation for even more impact! If you’re like me and are allergic to everything (even the sun!), I encourage you to still try to find a way to make this happen, whether that means getting in your outside time before it gets too hot or investing in good allergy medicine. It’s totally worth it!
- Yoga – Along the same vein as meditation, yoga can force you to slow down and take things one breath at a time. It also counts as exercise, so you’re killing two birds with one stone!
- Tea – Another one that’s making the rounds in scientific studies, particularly for its caffeine content: “The caffeine in tea can reduce one’s fatigue, increase people’s self-confidence, motivation, alertness, vigilance, efficiency, concentration, and cognitive performance.” While I don’t drink tea to stay alert, you may consider black or green tea for this purpose, especially if you’re trying to watch your caffeine. To help me unwind in the evenings, I do on occasion drink Sleepytime Extra Wellness Tea.
- Aromatherapy – While research on aromatherapy and ADHD is limited, many people use remedies such as essential oils to focus, relax and more. I stumbled upon aromatherapy when I needed to go off my meds during pregnancy, and I gotta say they were helpful and I continue to use it. My favorite products are the aromatherapy line at Bath & Body Works. My favorite scents include eucalyptus mint (aka Stress Relief). rose and vanilla (aka Love), orange and ginger (aka Energy), and eucalyptus and tea (aka Focus). On a daily basis, I use the body wash (which doubles as bubble bath, too!), pillow spray, and scented candles.
- Massage – While studies on this have centered more on children and adolescents, it follows that adults could benefit too. Explains the Sachs Center, those with ADHD tend to suffer from sensory deprivation and have pent up energy. Massage helps with that. Pro tip: If getting a massage sounds too expensive, check out massage schools in your area, where students are commonly providing wellness massages at a lower price.
While there is little evidence supporting homeopathic remedies as an effective treatment, they continue to grow in popularity. I’ve had my own limited success in homeopathics (using these essential oils for focus and anxiety).
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Known for improving brain function, doctors even recommend that expecting mothers take it to help grow sharper minds. After babies move on from breastmilk or formula, doctors still recommend whole milk with DHA. Why stop there? Make fish oil a lifelong companion! A few supplements to check out include Schwartz’s Omega 3 Fish Oil, Dr. Tobias’ Omega 3 Fish Oil and Phoenix Vital Life’s Focus Formula, which contains omega-3.
- Iron – A link to lack of iron and ADHD has been found in children, but again even supplements to help adults with ADHD make sure to include it. Keep your iron levels steady with foods high in iron or by taking an iron supplement. Iron-rich foods include shellfish, spinach, liver and other organ meats, legumes, red meat, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and turkey. For a good iron supplement that also contains Vitamin C, check out Vitron C .
- Zinc – Said to help regulate dopamine, and you can get it in pill form or by eating foods high in zinc, including meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs, and whole grains. A few zinc supplements in try include Garden of Life Zinc Vitamin, Vimerson Health’s Women’s Daily Multivitamin and Thyroid Support Complex by Zhou.
- Vitamin C – While these supplements can help with brain function, they shouldn’t be taken from an hour before to an hour after you take your ADHD medicine. Food rich in Vitamin C include broccoli, cantaloupe, cauliflower, kale, kiwis, oranges, and papayas. For supplements, check out Vitron C and Vimerson Health’s Women’s Daily Multivitamin.
- B6 – A lack of this vitamin can cause irritability and fatigue. Supplements like these can help. Foods rich in B5 include pork, poultry, fish, bread, whole grain cereals, eggs, and vegetables. For a good supplement containing Vitamin B6, Vitamin C and much more, check out Vimerson Health’s Women’s Daily Multivitamin.
- Homeopathics/Nootropics – Products such as Synaptol. With active ingredients like green oat grass, sweet violet and skullcap, Synaptol is stimulant-free. While each of Synaptol’s ingredients is listed in the National Center for Homeopathy’s Materia Medica database, no clinical studies have been done, according to ADDitude magazine. User reviews on ADDitude’s site show mixed results. Other supplements for adults with ADHD include Neurobalance, Neuro Peak, Brain Booster by Vital, and Phytoral’s Mind Memory Matrix Brain Supplement.
Commonly Questions About How to Treat ADHD Without Medication in Adults
What Triggers ADHD?
A lot of what we know about ADHD is from studies done on children, because originally adults weren’t thought to have it. In these studies, symptoms are related to a range of factors including but not limited to environment, activity in the brain and genetics. To determine whether you have ADHD, ask your primary physician for a referral to a specialist. An ADHD medical diagnosis is reached through interviewing and assessment by a trained professional. Common signs of ADHD behavioral issues such as aggression, fidgeting or excitability. ADHD patients may also experience absent-mindedness, forgetfulness or difficulty focusing.
What Foods Should Be Avoided with ADHD?
Elimination diets are heavily used in children with ADHD to ensure that symptoms aren’t exasperated by “wheat, dairy, processed foods, sugar and sugar alternatives, food dyes, and additives.” It’s also possible that eliminating gluten can help alleviate ADHD symptoms, according to ADDitude magazine.
As far as adults, nothing is really forbidden per se, but it’s generally considered a good idea to have a well-balanced diet. This includes putting good things into your body and not overindulging too frequently. Those who stick to a healthier diet are likely to find that they are less lethargic and have a sharper mind.
When it comes to eating right, planning and shopping for the proper ingredients can be a job in itself, not to mention remembering to eat when you don’t have an appetite. Mastering list making, prepping meals ahead of time on Sunday and setting timers to remind yourself to eat every 3-4 hours are a few ways you can utilize behavioral modification to help you reach your nutritional goals.
Is Caffeine Good for ADHD?
In adults, some doctors believe caffeine actually can help those with ADHD by increasing dopamine levels, alertness and concentration. In fact pre-diagnosis, many patients may find a lifelong dependence on caffeine can be explained because it stimulates the brain. That said, be sure to caffeinate responsibly. Too much of a good thing can quickly backfire in the form of inconvenient caffeine crashes. If taken too late in the day, you may find yourself kept up too late at night and if taken in too many quantity along with stimulant medication, it may be too much stimulation.
However, it’s generally considered better to use stimulant medication. If you do decide to go the caffeine route, keep in mind that more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day could lead to headaches, problems sleeping, irritability and an upset stomach. Caffeine also can lose its effectiveness when combined with stimulant medication.
Does Sugar Make ADHD Worse?
There is not enough scientific evidence to support that ADHD can be caused by sugar. That said, common sense suggests that overindulging in sugar is going to lead to sugar crashes, which include brain fog and a dip in energy levels. A good rule of thumb is to keep everything in moderation and remember that the higher quality of foods you put into your body, the better your brain is probably going to perform (just like a car with good engine oil.) This is another topic that’s studied extensively in children, but not so much in adults.
That Time I Took A Break From Meds
I had finally started to get a handle on my ADHD when I decided to stop taking medication. While ADHD meds have a lot to do with my successful treatment, I was trying to conceive and didn’t want to take stimulants while pregnant. At first, I was distraught. This was another in a series of things I was being asked to part with that I believed (at the time) to be keeping me glued together. I didn’t want my glue to be taken away. Luckily, I had already been practicing behavior modification prior to this decision, so I was able to fall back on a few tried and true hacks.
I Tuned In
I hooked myself up to White Noise For The Workplace and never looked back. In fact, I was so zoned in one afternoon, I hadn’t realized I disconnected my headphone jack, piping trickling water sounds throughout the office. Also on rotation was the Electronic Study Music list on Spotify. Headphones at work served a dual purpose – zoning in and a nonverbal cue that I was busy.
I Walked It Out
I found a walking trail near my job. When I first came upon the opening, it was like The Secret Garden or that place in The Land Before Time with the green leaves. This nature trail was made just for me, where I could walk off nervous energy and take in fresh air. Taken at lunch, this afternoon Rx allowed my brain to process the first half of the day while revving up for the second half. It was also a chance to catch up on favorite podcasts like Serial and Crime Writers On.
I Ate Better
My brain had enough going against it, so I didn’t make it harder by denying myself fuel in the morning, usually in the form of make-ahead breakfast burritos. Or Greek yogurt and a banana. Always having a solid breakfast and nutritious snacks on-hand was essential. My favorite breakfast was Kodiak Cakes with a side of fresh berries. I also kept pistachios and string cheese on-hand, making sure I was never more than a few hours without fuel.
I Digitized All The Things
When it came to remembering things, if it didn’t live in Google Calendar, it didn’t exist to me. (This is actually still true to this day.) When I set appointments at the doctor’s office, I didn’t accept appointment cards. Before leaving the office, the appointment was in my phone with at least 3 reminders – 1 week, 1 day and 4 hours. I also become friends with Google Sheets (h/t to color coding via conditional formatting) and Wunderlist. I guess what I’m really saying here is that I’d never end up as the subject of a true crime podcast because there is a digital “paper trail” of my life, down to my step count and number of times I rolled over in my sleep.
I Kept It Simple
I got really good at setting boundaries and saying “No”. And good for me, because honestly it’s taken 30+ years. When I was up for it, I still went above and beyond, like taking my kid on playdates or visiting family back home. But it was done intentionally, treating my time and energy like a precious commodity. Showing up can sometimes also means just getting through a task and being okay with “B work” aka “good enough.” Done needs to be the goal, not perfect.
You hear the term “scope creep” a lot in the workplace, but it really can apply to life as well. Is your calendar filling up with things that don’t serve a real purpose or bring joy? Scope creep. Is there a pile of junk mail collecting on your coffee table, waiting for the day you’ll go through it all and clip coupons? Noble, but scope creep. Find out what’s important to you and start getting good at trimming the fat elsewhere.
Resources for How to Treat ADHD Without Medication in Adults
- Natural Remedies for ADHD, ADDitude magazine – The definitive guide for all things ADHD has an extensive library of information on this topic, including thoughts on the latest trends like CBD oil and the keto diet.
- The French Secret to Healing ADHD Without Medication, Amen Clinics – A look at France’s holistic approach of treating ADHD. Includes a breakdown on how the approach differs from American medical approaches.
- Alternative treatments for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, National Center for Biotechnology Information – A scientific publication looking at the various natural remedies for ADHD, including fatty acids, herbs and antioxidants.
- Are there natural remedies for ADHD?, Medical News Today – According to this article, nothing can replace medication and/or behavioral therapy. However, it lists some complementary measures that are natural.
- Reduce ADHD Symptoms Naturally With These Five Steps, Psychology Today – The usual tips discussed above, plus some tips on screen time: “ If there’s an overlying message here, it’s to return to Mother Nature: think how our ancestors lived, and try to imitate it as closely as possible”.
- The Best Way To Meal Plan With ADHD – Written by yours truly, this is how I’ve made the crazy task of eating healthier a little easier.
- How to Select Herbal Supplements, American College of Healthcare Sciences – If you do decide to go the homeopathic route, here are some tips to ensure you’re purchasing the right products.
Like all things medical, what’s going to work is going to be as unique as your fingerprint. Anyone with a chronic condition – including children! – know that everyone and their dog is going to have an opinion about what you should do. How do you treat ADHD naturally? It’s trial and error and best done with the help of proven medical research. But hey – if something works for YOU and mainstream science hasn’t caught up to it yet? I won’t tell, you do you.
Start embarking on that beautiful journey that is finding out what’s going to help you get through your day. Resist the temptation to be overwhelmed about all the tools out there, from habit planners to trackers. Just take it one challenge at a time, in order of priority. Try something that helps with that particular challenge. If it doesn’t work, iterate until you find something that’s good enough. Don’t strive for perfection. Then move onto the next priority. Also: when you find something that works, prepare for the possibility that it may not always work. That is okay!