What It's Like to Manage ADHD Without Medication
Please note: This is a story about my personal experience managing my ADHD. Always consult your provider before making any changes to your medication or treatment.
My ADHD treatment journey hasn’t been easy. As a young adult, several doctors told me they suspected I had inattentive-type ADHD, which was formerly known as ADD. However, they wouldn’t prescribe medication for me without a comprehensive psychiatric diagnosis. But the assessment was expensive and my insurance didn’t cover it, so it was unaffordable for a long time.
When I got my first full-time job after college, I was struggling to sit through an eight-hour workday so I decided to sign up for a clinical trial where I could get the ADHD diagnosis done for free. After the study finished, I worked with one of the research psychiatrists to find a medication that suited me. A low dose of Ritalin (Methylphenidate) worked at first, and it wasn’t too expensive like some of the other ADHD drugs out there. The side effects were minimal and included a decreased appetite and occasional headaches.
Why I Decided to Quit Taking My Medication
About eight months following my diagnosis, I moved to the UK for grad school. Although I was technically taking the same prescription there, I noticed I felt different. It didn’t last as long and the side effects became more severe and I noticed new adverse reactions. My appetite disappeared and I suffered from insomnia. I lost weight and felt stressed and anxious all the time. My head often pounded, my heart raced, my muscles felt tense, and my jaw ached. I developed an addiction to cigarettes and chain-smoked to help relieve the tension.
I struggled to find a local provider who could change my prescription due to long wait lists for specialists, red tape, and affordability, so I took matters into my own hands. I decided to quit taking it — cold turkey. I was scared that I wouldn't be able to function in grad school or at work without my medication. But I worried my overall health would be compromised if I didn’t stop taking the drug altogether. I literally flushed my pills down the toilet so I couldn't change my mind.
Most doctors will recommend that patients slowly lower the dosage rather than stop taking ADHD medication altogether. This helps reduce the symptoms of withdrawal, which can include severe depression, cravings for the medication, and fatigue. It is not advised to suddenly stop taking an prescription, especially without doctor supervision.
When I first stopped taking the Ritalin, my symptoms were suddenly worse than before I started taking the drug — or maybe it just seemed that way. I felt like my brain was broken. I became extremely forgetful of basic things. I missed appointments and struggled to get my work done efficiently. I spaced out all the time, and I often forgot what I was doing. The sudden changes scared me. A friend who happened to be visiting me that week kept track of the number of times I left my phone or my debit card behind somewhere — it was into the double digits within five days. However, I was happy to have my appetite and my restful nights back. I also completely stopped craving cigarettes.
Alternative ADHD Treatments That Have Worked for Me
Shortly after going off the medication, I went to a nearby yoga studio on an impulse as part of my goal to get healthy again. I accidentally showed up at the wrong time and wound up in a meditation and mindfulness class. It was so helpful that I began going weekly. I learned how to slow down and be more intentional with my actions. My forgetfulness and chronic tardiness lessened. I also found some guided meditation videos online and eventually learned how to meditate on my own without the aid of a class or digital tool. I try and practice every day.
At the suggestion of a friend, I went to a shop that sold natural remedies to look for some alternative ADHD treatments. The owner, an herbalist, suggested that I start supplementing with B-Vitamins, green tea supplements, zinc, and a blend of ginseng and ginkgo biloba herbs.
"Many people with ADHD have low levels of Zinc and too much copper in their bloodstream," said Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, a family physician in Tucson, AZ. "By replacing Zinc, symptoms such as poor response to ADD medications, hyperactive and impulsive behaviors may improve."
The effects of these natural treatments do not feel as strong or immediate as the medication did, but I notice an improvement in my mood and concentration level when I take them. Caffeine is another crutch that assists with my motivation and focus, but I try to limit my consumption because it upsets my stomach. I also found that regular exercise helps me stay on track with my mental health. However, I have a difficult time sticking to a fitness routine. These remedies might not work for everyone, but for me, it has been helpful to try natural approaches. Always tell your doctor if you plan to take any herbs or supplements to make sure they do not interfere with any of your medications.
The best aid for managing my ADHD without medication, however, was the academic coach my university provided. Because I was working and studying, I struggled with time management. I had to write a 60,000-word dissertation and it was too big for me to manage without frequent check-ins. My coach helped me break my dissertation down into manageable pieces of work and kept me on track with weekly deadlines. She also helped me schedule enough time for my job and other obligations. I learned some helpful tricks, such as using visual organization aids and how to prioritize tasks more efficiently.
How Others Have Managed Their ADHD Without Medication
I was curious about how other ADHD patients cope without taking any meds, so I decided to reach out to some online ADHD support communities to find out.
Ashley, 31, Oregon
After being diagnosed with predominantly inattentive-type ADHD in the third grade, Ashley took medication until she was in eighth grade. Her prescription, at the time, was for 40mg of methylphenidate every four hours.
“They made me feel like a zombie and I was very zoned out and not there,” she said.
After a while, her parents wanted her to learn how to try and deal with life without the medication. As a young teenager, Ashley stopped taking her medication and went without it for many years.
“When I first stopped taking them [as a teenager], it was like I had a new sort of energy that I didn't have before and I didn't notice how bad my attention was until it started to affect my life again when I was older,” Ashley said. “Looking back I would have done way better in college and high school had I been able to be more attentive.”
Last year, Ashley started taking meds again to see if it would help her. After a few months, she realized they weren’t right for her. Instead, she wanted to try and manage her symptoms by changing her diet. Ashley took a food intolerance test to learn which foods affect her adversely and started cutting those items out of her diet. Intolerance tests may be blood tests or skin tests. A study published in 2011 in The Lancet showed a considerable improvement of symptoms in 64% participants with ADHD who were started on a restrictive diet.
“I managed my condition without medication in the past by not acknowledging there was a problem, which wasn't a way to manage it,” Ashley said. “Now I'm doing it through dietary changes and [have] noticed a complete difference [in] how I feel and behave.”
Ashley added that she wishes she’d made the change to her diet a long time ago because it helps her condition so much.
“The presence of food sensitivities can cause attention and hyperactivity problems,” Ashley said. “Eliminating these foods may improve ADD and ADHD symptoms.”
Geenie, 29, Washington
After being diagnosed with ADD (now officially known as inattentive-type ADHD) at age 13, Geenie took a prescribed stimulant medication for 10 years. The meds helped her get through college, but after she graduated, Geenie decided to stop taking the prescription.
“Underneath it all, I wanted to see if I could do it by myself,” Geenie said.
After quitting the medication, Geenie experienced a three-month withdrawal. She was able to stabilize and feel better by changing her diet, getting more exercise, and drinking coffee.
“On Vyvanse, I had flourished… but the only downside was how robotic I felt,” she said. “That changed once I stopped taking it.”
During the time off from meds, Geenie realized she didn’t need the medication to function. Without the medication, she felt “lighter, happier and less worried all of the time… I was sillier and goofier than before, and it took a little more concentration at work and when driving, but I was amazed and proud of myself,” she said.
After several years without meds, however, Geenie developed new physical and mental health issues — she suffered from loneliness, anxiety, and depression. As a result, she began to struggle again with staying organized, motivated, and focused.
Geenie said her doctor checked her thyroid and ran a blood panel, but everything looked normal. The doctor said she might feel better if she started taking ADHD medication again, because Vyvanse is known to sometimes help with certain aspects of depression, along with the treatment of ADHD symptoms. Geenie wasn’t sure how it would affect her personality, but she knew it would help her with motivation.
It worked. Back on the meds, Geenie felt much better and regained her self-confidence and motivation. However, she also felt as though she’d failed at her goal to cope without the help of ADHD drugs.
“I had made so much progress on my own without this medication, and now I needed it again,” she said. “But in the end, it’s not about that. Our life is a journey. Sometimes we do it on our own, sometimes we need help.”
Taking Vyvanse again helped Geenie steer her life back in the right direction.
“The best part about all this is my personality hasn’t changed at all,” Geenie said. “A break from Vyvanse was good for me, as it helped me figure out who I really am.”
What the ADHD Experts Say
For patients who can’t tolerate medications for various reasons, many experts recommend an alternative treatment called Neurofeedback. Dr. James Halper, MD, a psychiatrist at the CIIT Medical Center in Long Island, NY, said some common reasons some people can’t tolerate ADHD medications include, “weight loss, agitation, sleep issues, and potential for cardiac risk.”
Neurofeedback is a method of training brain function, using electrodes applied to the scalp, which helps the brain learn to function more effectively. A patient “will watch a movie or listen to music while hooked up to the neurofeedback program,” said Dr. Halper. The information is shown back to the patient and they are rewarded for changing their activity positively.
“Good brain waves [that show the patient is focusing] reward the brain with the continuation of the music or movie, while negative brain waves cause them to dim or fade out,” Dr. Halper said. “After full treatment, the brain begins to correct itself.”
Dr. Halper added that when a person's brain waves show that they are primarily losing attention, the movie or music will fade out. Essentially, neurofeedback targets the area of the brain affected by ADHD or another disorder using magnetic fields.
“Neurofeedback has been recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics as very effective for attention and hyperactivity problems,” said Dr. Ross. “Neurofeedback can be used in children and adults. In children, studies showed NF had higher and faster improvement and this lasted for at least 6 months.”
What I’ve Learned
In the near future, I plan to do more research and experimentation with my diet, as I now know that eliminating certain foods can help manage ADHD symptoms. I may even opt to have an intolerance test. I’ve been medication-free for over a year and I hope to keep it this way, but I know if I ever need to try the meds again, I will forgive myself. I just need to make sure I have a supportive doctor who can help me find a medication and dosage that does not cause severe side effects. I wouldn’t be opposed to trying something like neurofeedback, either.
I think it’s important to remember that everyone with ADHD is affected differently by various treatment methods. For some, medication is essential for managing the condition, while others may benefit more from alternative options. It’s important to do what feels right at the time and to know that may change. Always talk to your primary care doctor or prescribing psychiatrist about any issues you’re facing with your condition. Never stop taking your medication or change your dosage without consulting a professional.
About the Expert Contributors:
Dr. James Halper is a psychiatrist at The CIIT Medical Center in Long Island, NY, and is known for his innovative use of a variety of treatment modalities for patients with refractory psychiatric disorders as well as mood disorders, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and many other conditions. Dr. Halper specializes in the use of TMS non-invasive therapy for patients who fail two rounds of medication or wish to choose alternative methods instead of pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross is an internationally known author, speaker, expert and pioneer in the use of Integrative Medicine for the treatment of Eating Disorders, Obesity and Addictions and other Mental Health Disorders. She is a graduate of Andrew Weil’s Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine. She is the former head of the eating disorder program at internationally renowned Sierra Tucson. Dr. Ross is a consultant for treatment centers around the US. She is the author of three books including one of the first books on Binge Eating Disorder: The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook and her recent book, The Emotional Eating Workbook. Her newest book, The Food Addiction Recovery Workbook was released on September 1, 2017. Dr. Ross currently has a private practice in Denver and San Diego specializing in Integrative Medicine for treating eating disorders, addictions, mood and anxiety disorders and obesity.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, treatment, or diagnosis. CareDash advises that you always seek the advice of your qualified medical provider with any questions or concerns you have regarding a medical condition.
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- The Lancet: Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behaviour of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomised controlled trial
- EEGInfo: What is Neurofeedback?
- Journal of Neural Transmission: ADHD and EEG-neurofeedback: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled feasibility study