Treating ADHD with Traditional Chinese Medicine

The second post of our series in Traditional Chinese Medicine ( see the overview and introduction here) deals with an increasingly common childhood condition, Attention Deficit Disorder, (ADD) now usually abbrieviated as ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Alarming numbers of children world wide are being prescribed methylphenidate – known under its trademark Ritalin- or amphetamines. Amphetamines? That’s right – known also as speed.

Why are our children being prescribed substances which in adults are known to cause substance abuse? Before we go any further, it’s important to state that sometimes chemical drugs can really help people, and after all, its about finding what works and helping people deal with their conditions. Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, over at , describes how some of these prescription drugs have really helped her.

The reality is, stimulant drugs are being prescribed more and more for children with a set of behaviours conveniently labeled as AHDD. Over the last two decades there has been a 20% increase in AHDD Diagonosis and a 2012 study found that up to 8% of teenagers in the USA had taken Ritalin or other ADHD drugs WITHOUT a prescription. Incredibly, children as young as three are being prescribed these kind of drugs. (

The American Society of Neurologists has expressed concern over the rapid rising of prescription medication for this condition. ( Rettner, 2013)

In this article, we look at this set of behaviours from a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) perspective.

From the outset, it’s important to point out that diagnostic processes in TCM are radically different from those in allopathic medicine. In order to prescribe effective treatment, any healing modality needs diagnostic theories.

Chinese medical theories are essentially related to ancient Chinese philosophy. The five element theory is one part of this. People can be said to have wood, metal, earth, air or   personalities under this system. Dr Stephen Cowan, a New York pediatrician, has made extensive studies of children diagnosed with ADHD and he addresses the condition in respect to the Five Element theory. His conclusions explain why some children respond to amphetamine type drugs and some don’t.

Wood type personalities – phsycial, natural leaders, wanting to always succeed- respond well to these drugs because they like speed, action sports, and even thrive on emotional conflict. As Dr Cowan has explained, these type of children like the effect of amphetamines, as it supports their natural tendencies, but the problem becomes these children get very addicted to the chemical stimulant.

Fire types, on the other hand, are social beings, pleasure seekers who like to entertain others and are fascinated by the world. They do not respond to, and do not like to take these chemical drugs as the stimulant narrows their focus but dims their heightened perceptions of the world. “The “focus” that parents and teachers prize seems to drain all the fun out of living.” Says Eric Goldman.

Here’’s what Goldman says about Earth kids.

Earth kids on stimulants often develop physical symptoms, especially stomach aches. The improved focus induced by the stimulant tends to be applied not to schoolwork, but to the social dramas that hold pride of place in their minds.”

Metal kids? The type that are detail orientated, like order, value precision and get easily stressed when small details do not concur with their vision of how things should be – what happens to them when treated with stimulants?

“Give stimulants to a Metal kid and you create a detail monster. “They become super-hyper-focused, and where once they lost the forest for the trees, now they’re losing the trees for the bark,” explained Dr. Cowan.”

Deep thinkers, wisdom seekers who think and feel profoundly, and are often off in their own dream-space, are Water types. “Water kids on stimulants tend to become even more remote” says Goldman.

Treatment thus depends on effective diagnosis, and Dr Cowan’s treatment procedure includes dietary advice, acupuncture, and breathing techniques.

(The above description of the five elements and ADHD treatement is taken from :

There is evidence for children diagnosed with ADHD to have different responses to intellectual stress in brain activities, especially in the prefrontal cortex. Herbal treatments such as Gingko help improve blood profusion to the brain. (Dye, n.d)

In an extensive study conducted by researchers at a Chengdu Hospital( Chengdu is in Sichuan, Western China, home of the pandas), 34 studies, 28 trials, and over 3,000 participants were included. Their conclusions were

“This systematic study of the literature suggests that, in the assessment of TCM versus MPH for the treatment of ADHD in children, TCM was superior or similar to MPH for short-term treatment, and TCM had a more stable effect than MPH over long- term treatment. “

(Lan, Zhang and Luo, 2009)

Another more recent study from 2016 found that ‘

Acupuncture produced an 84.45% total effective rate as a standalone therapy and outperformed Chinese herbal medicine, which achieved a 78.77% total effective rate

(Sourced from

The above article mentions more Traditional Chinese Medical diagnostic tecniques.Pulse rates ( in TCM there are pulses for each internal organ) are measured to determine the strength and quality of internal organs functioning. This then determines the acupuncture points chosen.

Differing points, but also different needling techniques were used to treat the condition. Some children displayed liver and kidney deficiencies and points on these meridians were chosen. More information on treatment modalities and diagnosis related to this study can be found here

Other imbalances might be an excess of internal heat, weakness in the digestives system and low spleen energy, or stagnation of qi and blood. (Leaton, 2009)

Erica Leaton, in her Master’s Degree on children with AHDD and TCM treatments, not only gives a substantial account of different TCM diagnosis and subsequent treatment, but a very good overview of TCM theory, including yin-yang theory, the concept of qi and the meridian system. Anyone truly interested in TCM treatements of AHDD would be well advised to read her article, found here

Leaton details some more interesting studies involving ear acupuncture, where a bead is placed on acupuncture points in the ear, the replacement of Ritalin with a number of different Chinese herbs. In one study, criteria to measure success included improved sleep and a diminishment in twitching, and according to this criteria, 17 children saw a remarkable improvement, 3 a change for the better, and 2 with no results.

Let’s get back to western medicine and its side-effects. Even for children who show improvement – usually defined by being able to focus better at school – there are side effects. They have been listed as: insomnia, decreased appetite, depression, chills, headaches, increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, heart arythmia. (Leaton, 2009) In 2004, there were nearly 10 million children in the USA diagnosed with AHDD, and the company that makes a particular treatment drug made an 800 million dollar profit. ( Goldman , 2007) Goldman quotes

“Our entire society has ADHD. It is characterized by impatience, impulsivity, and unwillingness to pay attention, especially to children. Adults are working more and longer. The workloads are up, and so are the distractions. Stress and irritability are all increasing. As parents’ impatience with their own children grows, we as doctors are more apt to treat these kids with drugs.” and concludes

“The result? A nation in which 10% of all school-aged boys are called “ADHD” and put on drugs. “This is roughly the same number as people with cardiovascular disease. Unless we want a nation of speed-addled, very disconnected kids, we need to look at the issue differently.”

Frankly, do we even know that Ritalin and other drugs increase learning – the aim of the treatment? Goldman again:

“All ADHD drugs are “speed.” They will increase “focus” and the appearance of attentiveness, but there’s no evidence they improve learning. “You will focus more, but there’s no evidence of increased retention.” Until recently, there was no safety data for any of these drugs beyond one week. The longest safety study is still only one year. We simply don’t know the impact of continuous exposure.”

Post script.

I had finished this article and I came across a website started by parents of a child who died, at age 14, of a heart condition. The death certificate said

  1. *The certificate of death reads: “Death caused from Long Term Use of Methylphenidate, Ritalin.”

“According to Dr. Ljuba Dragovic, the Chief Pathologist of Oakland County, Michigan, upon autopsy, Matthew’s heart showed clear signs of small vessel damage caused from the use of Methylphenidate (Ritalin). I was told by one of the medical examiners that a full-grown man’s heart weighs about 350 grams and that Matthew’s heart’s weight was about 402 grams.”

More here

Sobering indeed, when there is an alternative.


  1. Acupunture Continuing Education, Acupuncture Improves Outcomes For Children With ADHD, 2016. Retrieved from
  2. Dye J, ADHD Medicine and Treatments. Retrieved from
  3. Goldman, E, (2007) The Five Faces of ADHD: A Chinese Medicine Approach, Holistic Primary Care. Retrieved from
  1. Lan, Zhang and Luo, 2009Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children: Comparative Efficacy of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Methylphenidate , The Journal of International Medical Research 2009; 37: 939 – 948

Retrieved from

  1. Leaton, E, (2008), Treating Children with Attention Deficit Disorders Using Traditional Chinese Medicine, Masters Research Project. Retrieved from4. Rettner, R, (2013)Doc Shouldn’t Give ADHD Drugs to Healthy Kids, Live Science. Retrieved from Madelyn Griffith Haynies article is here ps://