Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common behavioral disorder that makes it difficult for children to focus or sit still, and ultimately can impair how well they function socially and academically. Although ADHD cannot be cured, it can be managed through a combination of behavioral approaches and medication. New research from a team of American University researchers supports the belief that simple lifestyle changes may significantly improve symptoms among those living with ADHD.

"Many parents of children diagnosed with ADHD do not want their children on medication," said the study’s lead author Kathleen Holton, a professor in American University's Department of Health Studies, in a statement. "Having their children follow healthy lifestyle behaviors may be an effective intervention either alongside or in the place of traditional ADHD medications."

For the research, published in The Journal of Attention Disorders, Holton teamed up with ADHD expert Joel Nigg, Oregon Health & Science University, who specializes in diagnosing and treating children with attention and learning disorders. Together, they examined how closely children followed key health recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Sleep Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Researchers put together a lifestyle index to measure how 184 children with diagnosed ADHD followed all of the recommendations and compared them to a control group of 104 children without ADHD.

Pediatricians recommend that all children limit their total screen time to one or two hours each day and get one hour of physical activity a day. They are advised to limit sugary beverages, consume seven to 10 cups of water each day and sleep nine to 11 hours each night. But what they found was children with ADHD were more likely to consume artificially sweetened juices, more likely to clock in over two hours of screen time a day, read less than an hour a day, and to log fewer hours of physical activity each week compared to otherwise healthy children.

"Parents of children with ADHD should talk with their pediatrician about how to improve health behaviors,” Holton explained, “such as limiting screen time, encouraging physical activity, improving bedtime routines, and drinking water rather than other beverages."

By changing certain lifestyle habits, parents may be killing two birds with one stone thanks to how interconnected healthy choices can be. Encouraging one healthy behavior may set a domino effect of healthy choices into play. For example, because physical activity increases thirst, it will trigger kids to want to consume more water, Holton believes.

"Physical activity can also offset screen time and can improve sleep,” Holton said. “Similarly, removal of caffeinated beverages prevents their diuretic effect, helps increase water consumption, and can help prevent sleep disturbance.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, behavioral therapy, such as healthy lifestyle changes, is a way to help curb symptoms in children with ADHD without risking side effects. Learning how to cope without medication early on in life may be the trick, because as kids become young adults, hyperactivity may subside but problems with organization and attention often stubbornly persist. In fact, more than half of those diagnosed with ADHD as children will continue to have symptoms as young adults, which is why teaching a child how to control his or her own behavior may be more helpful than simply medicating the behavior.

Holton concluded: “As research into health outcomes in children with ADHD continues to provide new insights, focusing on the overall number of healthy lifestyle behaviors may become important."

Source: Holton KF and Nigg JT. The Association of Lifestyle Factors and ADHD in Children. The Journal of Attention Disorders . 2016.