An alternative to Ritalin


According to the Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Support Group of Southern Africa (ADHASA), ADHD is understood to appear in 10% of the South African population, and is found in all ethnic and socio-economic clusters.

Imagine what it would be like to realise that your child acts and thinks differently; he says and does whatever comes to mind, and when you have guests, he constantly interrupts while they are talking.

Imagine what it would be like to learn from his teacher that he is ‘rude and disruptive’, not capable of paying attention or following simple instructions in the classroom.

The frightening realisation that your child’s schooling career might be in jeopardy could drive you into the arms of a doctor. And when you take your child there, instead of a comprehensive medical assessment and blood tests, you may end up having a conversation about your child’s behaviour, and, after a few minutes, you could leave with an Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis coupled with a prescription for Ritalin.

Ritalin is a central-nervous-system stimulant effective in treating ADHD symptoms, such as hyperactive behaviour, inability to pay attention and/or impulsivity.

Quick fix

When asked about her thoughts on the use of Ritalin in young children, Delia A Strondl, a registered counsellor and Health24 ADHD expert said: “For those whom it works, it works wonderfully; for those where it doesn't work it leaves a child in a subdued, often withdrawn state where his/her personality ceases to exist.” 

ADHASA supplied Health24 with a study funded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute of Mental Health. The study showed that, for some children, the benefits of stimulants may be far outweighed by the risks attached – especially if there is a history of cardiac abnormalities. The results of the Research Project show that there may be a connection between ADHD drugs and sudden death among children which in the USA strikes 1 in 10 000 children. This is regarded as a rare occurrence and no direct link has been suggested. However the research has drawn attention to the potential risks for stimulant medication in children. 

The side effects of the side effects

Strondl said that she agrees that Ritalin is prescribed too readily.  And from the parents she has spoken to, the doctor made the diagnosis, and said the child should be put on Ritalin - end of story.  “For those children where Ritalin does not work, severe side effects are experienced, leading to a multitude of medications to deal with the side effects of the side effects. I believe later in life there is a chance of addiction. 

These children have long since forgotten what 'normal' feels like, and it is for this reason that they turn to medication or narcotics in search of that 'normal' feeling“, told Strondl.

“Too often, doctors do not provide parents with the alternative options such as play therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, neurotherapy, biofeedback and physiotherapy or even remedial,” she said.

Children with suspected ADHD should be referred to these kinds of therapies (play, occupational, and reflex, as needed) as well as these support therapies.

Diet and healthy eating

Says Heather Picton, an ADD/ ADHD consultant: It is impossible to predict how a child will benefit from a change in diet, but changes are often obvious in improved behaviour, concentration, academic ability, sleep, general health and social interaction.

Parents should avoid all artificial colourants, flavourants and antioxidant preservatives such as purchased cakes, pies, hamburger patties, fish fingers, packet soups and sauces, processed meats and polonies, fruit squashes and fizzy drinks states Picton’s article. “Avoid foods that tend to aggravate ADHD and precipitate symptoms in your child”, she says.

A single protein and complex carbohydrate breakfast will provide three hours of your child’s best concentration. Regular snacks every two to three hours, such as a peanut butter or tuna sandwich, homemade plain white popcorn, plain biltong, cheese or nuts will maintain concentration. Between five and six pm in the evening is usually the most difficult hour of the day.

A healthy snack usually helps calm the child, but make sure it’s small enough not to spoil supper, and always avoid sugar on an empty stomach.

 “It would be nice to have fruit at hand when the child wants to nibble, but children want sweets,” she says. She suggests that even though it is hard to deny a child sweets, care should be taken in the quantity and the type of sweet given to the child. Suitable sweets would be homemade fudge, and sweets that contain only natural colourants and natural flavourants.

Supplements should also be taken:

Supplementation is very important for raising EFA levels, and high levels may be needed especially in the earlier stages of moving to a healthier eating lifestyle:

  • Omega 3 - Fatty Fish Oil e.g. unflavoured cod liver oil.  Capsules: halibut liver oil, cold pressed salmon oil.  Flaxseed oil contains both the omega 3 and omega 6 series of EFAs
  • Multivitamin and mineral supplement, to assist the metabolism of the Fatty Acids.  These must also be free of synthetic colourants and synthetic flavourants.  Some preparations contain the EFAs, but usually not enough.

Picton comments that other supplements may be required and that these depend upon the child’s unique individual requirements.

According to Health24’s DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden: regular exercise is one of the most therapeutic things an ADHD child needs. Exercise utilises some of the surplus energy your child is bubbling over with, it improves muscle and eye co-ordination, keeps the body healthy, prevents depression, and helps the child with relaxation.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) makes a tremendous difference in the life of your child, according to the British Journal of Occupational Therapy. If your child consistently demonstrates difficulty with writing, cutting, tying laces, handling small objects, and toys, you may need an occupational therapist.

Some children have trouble with gross motor function, such as sitting upright at a desk, or difficulty moving specific joints during an activity. Some need assistance with feeding themselves, while using the toilet, or dressing and undressing during school activities - OT assists with this.

It is also useful for academic performance, especially when the child’s teacher reports problems with copying from the blackboard, recalling what objects look like, large amount of reversals in written work and difficulties copying design. And some therapists are able to help children with overreaction to touch, taste, and smell, visual and hearing.

Play Therapy

Susan Garofolo, a play therapist reminds us that play therapy (PT) is the child's natural medium of self-expression. With the therapeutic use of play, all children are given the chance to express their emotions safely, and naturally, thus enabling the counteractive process to begin whilst working through problems. Through this kind of therapy a child realises that it is okay to receive help. PT allows children to internalise this fostering message and learn healthy self-care skills that lead into later life.

Reflex Therapy

It is a natural remedial technique aimed at incorporating the body, mind and soul. It works with the constant flow of energy, through the meridian system to achieve alteration in the body.  Reflex therapy focuses on the whole person with the aim of normalising the flow of energy through the meridians bringing forth a state of harmony. Reflex therapy is not a basic body massage - it is closely related to acupuncture, without the needles or the sting.


According to the Behavioural Neurotherapy Clinic, neurotherapy training has proven effectiveness in reducing seizure activity, helping ADHD seizure patients experience improved attentiveness, focus, concentration and improved classroom motor inactivity. The child could also show decreased oppositional and out-of-seat behaviours and increased co-operation, with a definite improvement in their schoolwork.

If applied systematically, without medication, it can be highly effective in helping to remediate ADHD children having difficulties with academic tasks.

ADHASA points out that a healthy lifestyle with adequate exercise, sufficient essential fatty acids, and mainly eating real foods could eliminate many difficulties for children with ADHD.

All therapies, natural remedies, diet & supplementation  should be undertaken as a holistic team effort on everyone’s part who is involved with the particular child – each makes up a part of the ‘big picture’.


  • Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Support Group of Southern Africa (ADHASA)
  • Heather Picton - Hyperactivity and ADD: Caring and Coping
  • Delia A Strondl, a registered counsellor and Health24 expert.
  • Play Therapy for Children- Susan Garofolo
  • Jam Naturopathics - A Full Service Optimal Health Facility– Reflex therapy
  • Sidney Chu and Frances Reynolds, British Journal of Occupational Therapy October 2007 70(10)
  • Extracted from an article by Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, June 16 2009.
  • Extracted from an article by Health24’s DietDoc, Dr Ingrid van Heerden, September 20, 2010. Reference: (McCann D et al (2007). Food additives & hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet, 370(9598): 1560-7)
  • Behavioural Neurotherapy Clinic, Neurophysiology of ADHD

Read more: 
ADHD Condition centre
ADHD and diet
Is Ritalin safe?
Beyond Ritalin
ADHD and Ritalin: the latest facts

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