ADHD medication can be addictive with  heavy side-effects
ADHD medication can be addictive with heavy side-effectsThinkstock

There are two types of ADHD: one is a true brain imbalance, and the other is a personality type where the child (or adult) is just not fitting into the box. The child whose brain is functioning perfectly and has nothing out of balance, tragically becomes a victim of an unforgiving system; a system where expectations are the same for all children, regardless of the varying temperaments, talents, strengths and shortcomings of each individual.

These energetic children, who cannot “conform” but have all the potential for success if given the right tools, are the reason why educational reform is in order. This is not my department, except to say that if your child fits into this category, drugs are not the answer.

If there is a true imbalance, stimulant drugs (like Adderal, Concerta and Ritalin…) are only able to mask symptoms temporarily while possibly causing permanent damage in the long-run. While other treatments will rarely have the same extreme and quick effects that drugs can have, there are many options that will gently help a child grow and develop without endangering him mentally or physically.

Despite the fact that many educators are eager to give children stimulants to control hyperactivity or attention problems, many parents are reluctant. Sometimes parents are coerced into drugging their children with the reassurance that they can cease treatment after a few months, when the child improves. This is misleading, because children do not usually stop taking stimulants after a short time-period, unless the side effects were unbearable, or the drug was not working for them.

Children who respond as intended, may end up taking stimulants (possibly with continuously increasing doses and drug combinations) for many years.  Many, will even become physically or mentally dependant on the drugs. So parents may be roped in to medicating their children with the expectation of a short-term treatment, only to discover afterwards that there is no end in sight.

Many people receive false reassurance about stimulants. The common refrain that people tell me is, “My psychiatrist told me that you cannot become addicted to Ritalin because it has a very short half-life.”  Meaning, its effects are immediate, and then it flushes out of the system. This is contrasted with longer half-life drugs like the antidepressant Prozac, which can take a few weeks before the therapeutic effects become apparent. It takes time for Prozac to accumulate in the body, and withdrawal can be long and drawn-out.

It is a misconception that the short half-life of stimulants prevents them from causing addiction. What it does mean is that many people experience withdrawal symptoms from these drugs on a daily basis. For children, this can manifest as a rebound of hyperactivity in the afternoon and sleeplessness at night. In fact, drugs with a short half-life can be the mostaddictive, because the user experiences withdrawal every few hours, and then craves another pill.

It is well known that we are now facing an epidemic of prescription-drug addiction. According to psychiatrist and drug expert, Peter R. Breggin, M.D., “All psychiatric drugs are drugs of dependence”. Dependence means that the user experiences unpleasant effects when they try to stop using it. This invariably leads users to continue taking the drug even when they want to discontinue.

Some psychiatrists mistakenly believe that patients will only become addicted if they abuse the drug and not use it as-directed. This “blame the victim” mentality has caused tremendous amounts of undue suffering.

In truth, when psychiatric drugs are taken long-term, most if not all patients become dependent. One must think long and hard before initiating drugs. It is a lot easier to start psychiatric drugs than to stop.*

Most educators and therapists do not know or believe the real dangers of stimulants. When parents take the time to do their own research, many will choose safer options regardless of how much cooperation stimulants induce. We must weigh the dangers of the “illness” against the dangers of the treatment. If the treatment is more dangerous than the condition it is treating, then its use is hard to defend.

According to researchers at John’s Hopkins University, “Habit-forming ADHD drugs can have significant side-effects, including anxiety, elevated blood pressure, and seizures”. Additionally, every year, a small number of children die of heart failure due to stimulant drugs, taken within normal dosage range.

Tragically, the children whose lives were sacrificed were not being treated for a life-threatening condition. They were being drugged for a behavioral problem. Even though deaths are a rare reaction to Ritalin, a handful of deaths is a hefty price to pay for a drug to help children behave better in school.

*Caution: If parents choose to discontinue medicating their child, the process must be carried out carefully to avoid dangerous withdrawal reactions. This is especially true for any child who has been taking psychiatric drugs for an extended period of time. The dose should be reduced very slowly (in measures of about 10% at a time) over a few weeks or months under the careful supervision of a physician who understands the necessity of slowly weaning off of psychiatric drugs.

Next week: Are the therapeutic effects of stimulants actually the drugs "side-effects" ?

Yael Tusk, M.S.O.M. is a general practitioner of Chinese Medicine in Jerusalem. She has been treating both adults and children for over a decade. Feel free to contact her at [email protected] to schedule an appointment phone consultation or to receive her free newsletter. Look out for her upcoming myth-busting book on health.