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ADHD Drug Shortage: Can Meditation Fill the Gap?

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Drugs designed to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have been widely available for decades, but America now faces its most severe shortage of these drugs since they came on the market.

Adderall, Ritalin and similar drugs are used by an estimated 5.4 million children and 1.5 million adults who suffer from ADHD. Drug company marketing strategies are behind much of the shortages, says Gary Boggs, agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Many who rely on these medications drive for hours to find them -- searching from one pharmacy to another.

Meanwhile, more and more health professionals are recognizing the viability of effective meditation for overcoming ADHD. As a meditation teacher, I routinely witness meditation's transformative effects on children and adults with ADHD.

Case Study #1

I met one 14-year-old boy when his mother brought him to the Transcendental Meditation ("TM") center where I teach. Like many parents, this mother was desperate to get her child off of Ritalin. "Because of the medication, he can't sleep, he has anxiety, loss of appetite, and he's underweight," she confided. "The medication has stunted his growth. He's not as tall as other boys his age. His self-esteem is down."

When her son stepped out of the instruction room after learning to meditate, his first words were, "Mom, I love this!"

Because this meditation technique is effortless and involves no concentration, control or sustained attentiveness, it lends itself to challenged attention spans.

Shortly after beginning his twice-daily practice, the boy was able to stop using Ritalin (he carried a patch in his backpack, just in case, but never needed it). "His doctor was surprised and delighted," his mother said. "[He] gained 10 pounds and grew three inches. His appetite returned; he sleeps great and can focus on his class work."

Like many with ADHD, the child had suffered from impulsivity. Though very smart, he was easily distracted -- sometimes taking hours to complete his homework. "TM helps me stay on task," he says. "It makes me solid."

Medication or Meditation?

Cognitive learning expert Sarina Grosswald, EdD, has led pioneering research on ADHD and meditation. "I'm not suggesting that people just drop their meds," says Grosswald. "TM is an added resource for coping with lack of medication or to help wean oneself of drugs."

Grosswald explains that meditation works very differently from how the drugs work. "Meditation is not a quick fix. But, over time, TM allows the brain to create the neural connections that correct the underlying problem. The drug is an immediate fix because it's an amphetamine, but when it wears off, the problem remains -- the lack of brain integration."

New Research: ADHD, Meditation and the Brain

Scientists attribute ADHD to a lag in the brain's natural development. Can stalled brain development be jump-started by meditation? Research suggests it can.

A recent study published in Mind & Brain, The Journal of Psychiatry found that students with ADHD who practiced the Transcendental Meditation technique for 10 minutes twice daily showed significant improvement in brain functioning and reduction of ADHD symptoms within three to six months. The researchers found improved beta/theta ratios, increased brain processing, heightened EEG coherence and improved verbal fluency among the meditating students, compared to controls.

Previous research showed improved executive functions and 50 percent anxiety reduction in ADHD students who learned the TM technique.

"This tells us is that ADHD is largely a stress-driven disorder," says Grosswald, co-author of the Mind & Brain study. "Hundreds of studies show that TM reduces stress and improves mental performance. We wanted to know if the technique would have similar effects on ADHD, and it did."

Neuropsychologist William Stixrud, Ph.D., also on the study's research team, notes that stress impairs executive functioning. "Virtually everyone finds it difficult to pay attention, organize themselves and get things done when under stress," he says. "Stress interferes with the ability to learn -- it shuts down the brain. Attention, memory, and organization are compromised."

Studies show that children with ADHD have a reduced ability to cope with stress compared to their peers.

"Because stress significantly compromises key executive functions," says Stixrud, "it made sense that a meditation technique that reduces a child's stress should also improve cognitive functioning."

Other behavioral interventions, such as mindfulness meditation and neurofeedback, have been found to reduce select ADHD symptoms with varying degrees of success. Researchers studied the effects of an eight-week mindfulness program on ADHD and found decreased inattention and hyperactivity, but the children studied did not show meaningful reductions in anxiety. Neurofeedback uses specialized technology and requires up to 40 on-site sessions, with a track record of mixed results.

Researchers have found that the various meditation and stress reduction techniques engage the mind in different ways and have different effects. "It's always good to learn about the techniques that interest you and look to the research for proven benefits," says Grosswald.

Case Study #2

When one young woman came to learn meditation, she was struggling to get through college and was noticeably anxious. Despite the medications, she was taking a break from school -- the strain had become overwhelming.

An MRI brain scan had revealed "functional holes" in her prefrontal cortex -- the area of the brain most involved in executive functions. She was hopeful but apprehensive about returning to school.

The young woman took to meditation immediately. She described an inner calm unlike anything she had ever experienced. As weeks passed, she appeared progressively more collected, with a new steadiness and confidence.

After a couple months of twice-daily meditation, she began to gradually decrease her medications. She took on a full load of classes and started making As for the first time.

Like many who come to learn meditation, both were looking for a way to cope. What they got was much more: a lifelong tool, a do-it-yourself technique to expand consciousness and awaken the transcendent -- bringing more "being" into life.

"I just wanted to get off the meds," said the 14-year-old boy. "I never knew there would be so many other benefits."

For more by Jeanne Ball, click here.

For more on meditation, click here.

For more on ADHD, click here.

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