Bullshit Book Report: Supplements Don’t Cure ADHD

The history of ADHD is relatively brief—the earliest record of its clinical description is usually traced back to the 19th century—but never without controversy. There are a variety of proposed treatment methods and purported causes for the condition. Yet there is still disagreement surrounding whether or not it’s a legitimate disorder. Some claim it’s merely caused by children who are immersed in an increasingly plugged-in world, ensconced in constant notifications, flashing lights and instant gratification.

Whether you agree with pharmacological treatment or not, we’ve all heard the ADHD-truthers and anti-stimulant crowd parroting rhetoric about the potential of methylphenidate, or Ritalin, to make kids into “zombies,” telling us that if we didn’t let our kids sit in front of the TV all day they’d be ADHD-free—“just like in the good ol’ days.”

I have ADHD, and I know from my own experience and from mainstream medical opinion that ADHD is a genuine phenomenon with genuine symptoms, and it has a biological cause (that, granted, has yet to be fully understood). It’s not some bullshit made-up-by-Big-Pharma-for-profit or caused-by-atmospheric-aerosols quack diagnosis. So you can imagine my surprise and righteous fury when, recommended by a stranger, I came across the collection of pseudoscientific alternative medicine bingo titled Stop A.D.D. Naturally by Billie Jay Sahley, PhD.

The short paperback book, despite being written in 2003 well after the Ritalin panic of the 90’s, reads more like Biblical inspiration than a source of reputable scientific information. Primarily focusing on orthomolecular medicine as a treatment for ADHD, the book is penned with the ever-adorable flair of, “I’m not that kind of doctor, but I’m still a doctor, right?”

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The cover features a boy in a letter jacket (that’s what all the schoolboys wear these days, right little Timmy?) crouched with hands interwoven in prayer, presumably hoping that God will save him from the endless misery that is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Let’s ignore the the blatantly fallacious implication in the title that treatment of ADHD with pharmaceuticals is somehow unnaturaland therefore undesirable. Let us also forgive that the author uses the out-of-date acronym “A.D.D.” in the title, which is a common holdover from the 80s.

There’s still plenty to dislike. The author is staunchly against the mainstream medical approach to ADHD (and implies a similar stance for other disorders), at one point advocating that parents say, “NO. NO DRUGS FOR MY CHILD,” (emphasis not even mine!) with frequent emotional appeals for parents to consider the dangers of modern medicine before using pharmaceuticals to treat your child. One chapter includes the italicized quote, “If God had intended Ritalin or other prescription drugs to be in our brain, he would have put it there in the beginning.” Surely, the author must feel the same about insulin?

But the sprinkle of religiosity is not the problem with this book; neither is the “think of the children” catch-all retort to dissuade skeptical parents. Instead, it’s the deliberate use of misleading information that really grinds my gears. In a section dedicated to maligning stimulants for use in treating ADHD, it lists “anorexia” as a common low-dose side-effect of stimulant medication. Although Sahley is not a medical doctor, as a member of multiple medical societies, she likely knows full well that in medical terminology, “anorexia” refers not to anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder, but to a lack of appetite. That she did not clarify this in her book is irresponsible and disingenuous, using language clearly designed to cause panic for medically illiterate parents considering Ritalin or Adderall for the treatment of their child’s condition.

There are more instances of what appears to be a deliberate misuse of statistical data in this text. Sahley includes the statistic, “Prescription drugs cause 100,000 deaths annually, more than twice the number of auto accident deaths.” This is a clear misrepresentation, as the overwhelming majority of those prescription drug deaths are caused by users who do not follow medical advice or who abuse medication.

To really hit the point home that she’s delusional in her passionate opposition to modern medicine, Sahley appropriates a quote from Charles Gant, M.D., documented orthomolecular quack and license suspendee: “Psychotropic drugs for kids are absolutely obsolete.” Of course, to any enlightened psychiatrist this is patently absurd, as there are numerous beneficial applications of psychotropics in youths suffering from various disorders, and the treatment of mental disorders with psychotropics has hardly been supplanted with the poorly-evidenced and mostly discredited practice of orthomolecular therapy.

The discussion of fad illnesses and the legitimacy of psychiatric diagnoses (and their treatment methods) like ADHD is an especially fertile breeding grounds for pseudoscience. The desire for quick and simple answers for what are usually very complex and ambiguous problems, like mental illnesses, leads to a demand for fast answers, which is partially met by wild speculation and poorly-supported research. The fear surrounding the potential for harm caused by mainstream medicine and the possibility of a systematic conspiracy can easily lead to distrust of all medical practices and treatments. These are the factors at play in the penning of books like Stop A.D.D. Naturally and it is understandable, and inevitable, that books like this exist. Yet it is inexcusable that Sahley should use her PhD to deliberately mislead and incite fear among uncertain parents.

It is unfortunately a common occurrence; books such as ADHD Alternatives: A Natural Approach to Treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder by Aviva and Tracy Romm, ADHD Without Drugs –A Guide to the Natural Care of Children With ADHD by Sandford Newmark MD, and Cure ADD Naturally by AJ Redding are similar violators. But nowhere is there a book as alarmist, unscientific and caps-lock addicted as Sahley’s, and the fact that books of its ilk frequently receive rave reviews (albeit usually a small number of total reviews) on Amazon should be disturbing.

I grant that titles such as Stop A.D.D. Naturally may not achieve overwhelming visibility in the grand scheme of things, and most people will probably never hear of it. But texts like this are often surprisingly popular within certain segments of the population (see: anti-vaxxers, alternative educators) and cause a great deal of harm for everyone when the uninformed and credulous distribute this information. The book is just one small part of a greater system of pseudoscience as a form of misinformation and fear-mongering that is ever-pervasive in a world full of uncertainty and skepticism.

I find that books like this get so much attention because many ADHD sufferers are not satisfied with the treatment they receive and they (or their guardians) demand simpler solutions. If more genuine ADHD-sufferers such as myself came out and spoke against them, I feel that these sources would significantly lose credibility.

For example, some of the other medications I take contraindicate the use of 5-Hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, which Stop A.D.D. Naturally recommends for ADHD and depression (hardly a drug-free approach!), so I am precluded from testing out its efficacy myself. However, I did take other supplements recommended by the text and, although genuine results would be achieved through a double-blind study and not my personal experiment, I found them to be largely ineffective; these supplements could not stand up against a placebo, let alone stimulants. I invite other ADHD-sufferers, under the supervision of a doctor, to experiment with touted “natural” remedies for the disorder to see what (if anything) works for them. For my part I am unconvinced, and my suggestion is that Stop A.D.D Naturally is best read as satire.

 


 

What disorders do you have that you’ve tried alternative medicinal solutions for?
Were they effective?
Tell us about it in the comments below.

 

Duni Arnold
Duni Arnold is the Junior Editor of Issues for The Flounce and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her subjects of specialty include women’s issues, race, social justice and policy. On a typical day she can be found oil painting, scribbling music, studying economics and browsing the interwebs on her laptop with her dog Star at her feet.
  • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

    I don’t have experiences with ADHD so I can’t add to the conversation in that aspect but I do have a form of chronic depression that I am in treatment for and am currently using natural supplements instead of pharmaceuticals – under the care of my therapist OF COURSE. They have had a real effect on me and have had a huge impact on leveling my moods.

    The thing is, I can’t just take supplements alone, I need to be active in thinking positive, meditating and being present in my treatment, not just popping pills and expecting the outcome to change. So do I think natural supplements work? Yep. Do I think they are an option for everyone? Nope and that is perfectly a-okay. I have nothing against pharmaceuticals, if at some point the natural stuff starts being ineffective for me then I will most likely be turning to prescription medication.

    • TheeLoveCats

      What do you take? if you don’t mind me asking, of course. I am happy to hear you’re doing better as a result of your treatment plan.

      • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

        Thank you! I started taking a supplement called Gaba and I started taking raw vitamins. WebMD explains Gaba better than Wikipedia: http://goo.gl/cqV0Yw

        • MrsMeowsington

          I don’t at all mean to be rude, but calling GABA a supplement is kind of like calling insulin a supplement. That is, the fact that “supplementary” GABA helps with your issues is really no testament to how effective nutritional supplements can be in helping with ADHD.

          I’m so glad the GABA is helping you, though! A lot of people need the extra boost.

          • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

            I see what you mean about supplement vs. supplementary, and you are correct. I just used it (incorrectly) as a blanket term!

          • MrsMeowsington

            It definitely is a very important thing for our bodies, though!

          • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

            I agree since it seems I was pretty low on it! Thanks for correcting me, seriously, I would’ve continued to say Supplement FOREVER!

          • MrsMeowsington

            Well, I’m not even sure you’re wrong necessarily, so I don’t know if I corrected you. It’s just that it seems odd to me to place something like GABA in the same category as Vitamin C or Iron as far as something your body needs to be healthy. It’s like insulin – we all naturally produce it, but some need more than others. If that makes sense.

          • http://www.theflounce.com AlexisO

            Yep, it makes perfect sense that it would be supplementARY.

  • TheeLoveCats

    I have adhd and it irks me to no end how dismissive people are about it. Ha, but on the flip side, I hate how people are quick to point out “how add you are” if you screw something up one time. It’s so widely misunderstood despite being so prevalent. Books like you have featured here are so problematic. I am glad you wrote this. I hope it helps others in the future to seek actual treatment instead of believing that nature and wishful thinking solves all.
    Somewhat related: there is some evidence that SOME supplements help brain functioning. Namely, omega-3 fish oil and drinking green tea. I have a brain injury and my neurologist insists those things and a diet rich in antioxidants helps. I have been following his instructions and been getting treatment and I have made huge improvements. Could I have recovered with only the treatments? Sure, I guess… but I would rather err of the side of caution. Taking fish oil/green tea, if it works – awesome! If not, oh well, no harm no foul. I wanted my brain to heal (Still working on it) and will do just about anything it takes.

  • risamori

    I have a pretty severe anxiety disorder, for which I do take meds and go to therapy. I also do some more ‘natural’ things–meditation is a big one for me, because having time set aside that’s all about relaxing my body, silencing my mind, and not thinking about everything I freak out over is really helpful.

    However, the latter is absolutely not a replacement for the former. They really treat two different things, for me; my meds address the underlying brain chemistry issues, and the meditation gives me a chance to break out of the thought patterns that have become normal for me after a lifetime of living with said brain chemistry issues. Depending on the individual and what they’re dealing with, some people may only need one or the other; I personally need both.

    At this point, I get really irritated at anyone trying to promote any kind of ‘do this instead of taking your meds to treat your mental illness!’ agenda. There are already so many people out there who (incorrectly) believe that I don’t need them/shouldn’t need them/am just being lazy by taking them/just need to snap out of it/etc. I really don’t need published materials or people in the media supporting that attitude.

    • MGM444

      Great comment.

  • http://twitter.com/ashliejefferson Ashlie

    Lol I thought the people worried about “BIG PHARMA!!1!” were also too busy spraying vinegar at “chemtrails” to write books. Guess I’m wrong.
    But seriously pseudoscience like this is dangerous (see also: anti-vax people and their kids dying of pertussis).