- “ADHD medications aren’t natural.”
- “I only want to use natural ways to manage my ADHD symptoms.”
- “I don’t want to put anything unnatural into my body.”
These are just some of the familiar comments I hear during or following one of my presentations about ADHD medications. In our world where more and more things come out of a bag or a factory, it makes sense that we are trying to balance this with as much “natural” in our lives as possible.
I like to think that “natural” has become the new black. “Natural” has become very fashionable. I myself have been on an “all-natural” whole food diet for the past several months aimed at decreasing inflammatory arthritis that had been causing nasty pain in my back. I will admit, this natural approach has been the only thing that has relieved the pain and I admit liking to be, at least for once, trendy.
So, while I completely get it when we prefer “natural” and not wanting to put anything in or on our bodies that would be harmful, I must challenge the application of this practice and those who argue they won’t use ADHD medications because they aren’t “natural”. Because if we hold true to using only “natural” solutions, we’d have to toss out many of the ways we manage health challenges and deficits.
Consider these… Glasses aren’t “natural”. Insulin isn’t “natural”. Chemotherapy isn’t “natural”. Cold medication isn’t “natural”. Tylenol isn’t “natural”. Sexual enhancers aren’t “natural”. Inhalers for asthma aren’t “natural”.
I think you get the point. But, while some “unnatural” medical treatments seem to be accepted, the debate rages on with a great degree of passion about the “unnaturalness” (aka harmfulness) of ADHD medications.
Because I tend to get a little passionate about things I really care about, I wanted to be clear and check my own biases. So, I looked up the word “natural” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary and found this:
Natural: existing in nature and not made or caused by people.
To me this means that unless it comes off of a plant (think green and growing) and not out of a plant (think concrete and artificial), it is not “natural”.
A plastic bottle with herbal or nutritional supplements, even when it is wrapped in a soothing label that has the words “nature”, or “organic” or “living” or “natural” does not mean that it is not man made. The very nature of the plastic container reveals its true “nature”. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…pun intended) Ironically, most of the plastic bottles these “natural” supplements are marketed in are larger than any month’s supply of ADHD medication filled by my pharmacy. And it’s pretty safe to guess that these empty “natural” bottles are taking up their fair share of space in landfills. It seems to me to be a huge double standard. Natural does not come in a plastic bottle. Period. It just doesn’t.
Just as interesting to me in this “natural” (good) verses “unnatural” (harmful) debate is the actual capsule most “natural” herbal and nutritional supplements come in. Have you ever considered what they are made of? Again, I let my fingers do the walking and found numerous articles that had even me, a pretty tough gutted, raised on meat and potatoes gal, a bit queasy.
The most common form these “natural” supplements come in is the gelatin capsule. It is made from collagen taken from animal connective tissue, mostly from bones and skin of cows and pigs. In the process of making the gelatin capsule there is a pretreatment stage done usually with acetic acid. It’s been awhile, but I definitely remembered that anytime my high school chemistry teacher mentioned “acid”, it was followed by quick review of lab safety procedures as we were handed out gloves and protective goggles. Just saying.
Because the gelatin capsule is not appropriate for vegetarians or people not wanting to consume animal byproducts, there is a capsule available made from fish gelatin. In fact this is the type of capsule being used to encapsulate many of the fish oil supplements now. With this capsule, the skin, bones and fins of farmed fish are mostly used. The good news is that this might be a better choice for those with dietary restrictions. The bad news is that these capsules being made using farmed fish usually contain a higher level of toxins.
And don’t get me started on the lack of regulation or testing of these supplements! We become our own pharmacist or naturopath when we combine a little bit of this and a little bit of that supplement to decrease ADHD symptoms. Everything you put in your body reacts with something else you put in your body. Natural doesn’t mean “safe”; it doesn’t mean “take as much as you want” or take any combination from the plethora of supplement options, alphabetized from A-Beta-Carotene to Zyzyphus jujube on the store shelves.
I am not sure why it is with ADHD medications that the significant benefits gained from taking the medication are tossed out and ignored in light of all the other medical treatments that have a similar benefit ratio. Perhaps it is that there is seldom an opportunity for us to really see the entire picture. To be able to have the unbiased information needed to make the choice for ourselves.
Studies have shown that ADHD medications are 70-80% effective for children (Barbaresi, WJ et al., 2006) and in adults it definitely levels the playing field (Biederman, J., & Spencer, T., 2002). And for those concerned about the long term consequences of ADHD medication and addiction, current longitudinal research is showing that those students diagnosed and treated for their ADHD are significantly less likely to develop addictive behavior as adults. Although “unnatural”, the benefits of ADHD medication seem pretty clear.
Please understand, I am not against “natural” management of ADHD. In fact I wrote a blog about the best “natural” ways to manage your ADHD: The Five Best Natural Ways to Manage Adult ADHD. A multi-modal approach using a variety of strategies is important in the successful management of ADHD symptoms. And I know different things work for different people. However, we need to be fair.
ADHD medications may not be “natural”, but the benefits are clear. Nutritional and herbal supplements may have benefits…but they are not “natural” either. Why do we keep pretending they are? So if one “unnatural” solution is acceptable (supplements), why can’t we view ADHD medication as a reasonable possibly, dare I say, relatively safe strategy? Why do we continue to condemn and fear ADHD medications when they are regulated and prescribed by highly trained professionals? And how is it that the unregulated, over the counter herbal supplements continue to be “safe”?
The bottom line?
Our lives these days are blessed by options. Finding the right medication or alternative treatment that has significant positive benefits balanced with the least amount of negative side effects at the lowest dose is always the goal. Always.
There is still much work to be done in the fight towards ADHD awareness. There still rages the debate at a very basic level if ADHD is “real”. Unfortunately this leaves so many people with ADHD doubting themselves as they continue to struggle alone. Instead of arguing about what is “natural” or not, perhaps our energy could be focused on what “works” so we all can succeed.
Okay, rant over.
Natural? Unnatural? What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.