About 11 percent of U.S. children (or 6.4 million) have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),1 which is characterized by a pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity that interferes with learning, daily functioning and relationships. Rates have been increasing by about 5 percent a year.2
Among very young children (2 to 5 years), behavior therapy is the first-line treatment recommended for ADHD, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
However, data from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that about half of preschoolers with ADHD were taking medication, and 1 in 4 were being treated only with medication.3
Further, only half of 4- to 5-year-olds with ADHD received behavior therapy, despite it being the recommended go-to treatment. By age 6, the so-called “best practice guidelines” for ADHD include treatment with both medication and behavior therapy.
It’s a sad state of affairs on multiple fronts, the first of which surrounds the accuracy of ADHD diagnoses. Misdiagnosis is common, which means many children may be taking medications unnecessarily. The other glaring issue is the dangers of ADHD drugs, which are immense.
Kids taking these powerful drugs may suffer from side effects ranging from sleep problems and loss of appetite to seizures and increased heart rate, which is why alternative treatment options are urgently needed. Fortunately, one age-old option, essential oils, has shown promise in helping to relieve the symptoms of ADHD.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated, aromatic plant extracts that have been used for thousands of years for emotional, cosmetic, medical and even spiritual purposes. The term “essential oil” actually comes from the idea of “quintessential oil.”
Aristotle believed that in addition to the four physical elements (fire, air, earth and water) there was a fifth element, quintessence.
This was considered to be the “spirit” or life force of the plant, and distillation or evaporation were used to remove the “spirit” for human usage (this is also why distilled alcoholic beverages are referred to as “spirits”).4
Today, essential oils, which contain complex mixtures of beneficial plant chemicals, are extracted from plants via two primary methods: distillation, which has been used since ancient times; and expression or cold pressing, which is used to extract citrus essential oils.
Essential Oils May Improve ADHD Symptoms
Research by the late Dr. Terry S. Friedmann, a physician who believed in treating the body, mind and spirit as one, showed that vetiver oil (vetiver is a type of Indian grass) was beneficial for children with ADHD.5
When the children inhaled the oil three times a day for 30 days they had improved brain wave patterns and behavior and did better in school. Eighty percent of the children also improved when using cedarwood oil similarly.6
Cedarwood essential oil was chosen for the study because it has a high concentration of sesquiterpenes (they make up 50 percent of its constituents), which improve oxygenation of brain cells.
“When the essential oil is inhaled, the micro droplets are carried to the limbic system of the brain, which is that portion that is the processing center for reason, emotion and smell, and to the hypothalamus, which is the hormone command center.
The essential micro droplets are also carried to the lungs where they enter the circulatory system.”
Improvements in brain activity were revealed via electro-encephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical impulses moving through the brain. This allowed researchers to determine whether the children’s brains were functioning primarily in a beta (i.e., alert) state or a theta state (i.e., lack of focus).
Improvements in beta-theta ratios were noted following the use of vetiver essential oil, while parents also noted improvements in symptoms. Friedmann reported:8
“I received several letters from parents of the ADHD children stating that their behavior at home had improved for the better.
In several cases, they also stated that school educators informed them that their performance was observed to improve in the classroom. The report cards in some of the subjects had reflected this improvement as well.”
Vetiver Essential Oil May Improve Alertness
A recent study published in the Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmacology also showed vetiver essential oil to have particular promise for ADHD.
The animal study revealed changes in brain activity suggestive of increased alertness,9 while research on human subjects revealed faster reaction times and stimulation of sympathetic nerve activity following inhalation.10 The former study’s researchers wrote:11
“Ultimately, the stimulating effects of vetiver EO [essential oil] might be beneficial for learning and memory processes. In conclusion, the present findings provide information that vetiver EO may be used as a stimulant to improve alertness and task performance.”
Rosemary, Lavender and Other Essential Oils
Beyond vetiver and cedarwood, rosemary essential oil has also shown promise for increasing cognitive performance. When study participants completed tasks in a cubicle diffused with the aroma of rosemary essential oil, their performance improved in both speed and accuracy.12
“The unique relationships between plant essential oil aromas and any behavioral impact are potentially due to the complex molecular composition containing a range of alcohols, aldehydes, acids, phenols, esters, ketones and terpenes,” the researchers wrote, continuing:13
“[T]his study supports the suggestion that active compounds present in aromas may be absorbed through the nasal or lung mucosa and thus provide the potential for pharmacological activity …
The small size of these lipid-soluble compounds facilitates passage across the blood–brain barrier and consequently they may produce effects at the neuronal level by either acting directly on receptor sites, or indirectly by impacting on enzyme activity.”
Lavender essential oil, on the other hand, is most known for its sedative properties. Some people with ADHD have trouble sleeping, and lavender essential oil has been found to improve sleep.14 Other essential oils that may relieve various symptoms of ADHD include peppermint oil for improved alertness as well as:
- Ylang ylang, which is known for its relaxing properties
- Frankincense, valued for inducing feelings of mental peace and calm
- Bergamot, which may help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety
- Eucalyptus, which may relieve mental exhaustion and stimulate blood flow to the brain
- Lemon, valued for improving mood and preventing emotional outbursts
For more information on which essential oils to use for different purposes, check out the Ultimate Guide to Herbal Oils.
Parents See Dramatic Improvements
One Wellington, Florida, mother, Tina Sweet, spoke with WPTV to share her experience using essential oils as a treatment for ADHD in her 11-year-old son.
“Every single day I was getting (messages from teachers saying) he won’t stay on task. He won’t stay focused. He won’t stay in his seat. He’s talking. He’s just up and running around. He just could not stay focused,” she said.15
After starting him on aromatherapy using essential oils, she said his grades improved from Cs and Ds to As and Bs. Now in fifth grade, the student is in advanced classes and described as a “calm child.” She applies essential oils to several body areas each morning and he also wears an essential oil bracelet.
Describing the use of essential oils as “life-changing,” Sweet also credits her son’s ability to cut back on his ADHD medications to the use of essential oils.
How to Use Essential Oils for ADHD
Inhalation or applying the oils topically to the skin are two effective ways to use essential oils for ADHD. Placing three to four drops of oil into a diffuser is one of the simplest methods, while some of the studies on essential oils for ADHD involved participants inhaling the scent directly from the bottle (for two or three deep breaths) three times a day.
You can also try steam inhalation by placing three to seven drops of essential oil into boiling water, then covering your head with a towel and breathing through your nose (keep your eyes closed and be careful not to get burned).
To use the oils topically, first do a test to be sure they don’t irritate your skin (apply one drop to your skin and observe it for one to two hours). Oils should be applied very sparingly to your neck, wrists, bottom of feet and/or behind your ears. You can blend them with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil, as well.
Some people like to pre-mix essential oils with fractionated coconut oil and put the mixture into a rollerball dispenser. This way you can roll on the oils whenever you feel you need them.
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