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Additives, stress hormones linked to hyperactivity

Kids bouncing off the walls? For parents of approximately 2 million U.S. children, the answer is yes. But for an increasing number, the solution to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is not medication, but rather a natural approach. And now a pair of studies confirms that dietary and supplemental measures may be the way to go.

In a report published in the Sept. 6 edition of The Lancet, researchers concluded that common preservatives such as sodium benzoate (often used in soft drinks) and several artificial colorants caused hyperactivity in children who had not previously been diagnosed with ADHD.

For six weeks, researchers gave drinks containing the additives (in mixtures comparable to those in commercially available beverages) to 3-year-olds as well as 8- and 9-year-olds. Every other week, the children received placebo drinks that looked and tasted the same. Both the toddlers and the older children showed significantly more wriggling, fiddling and restlessness, and had shorter attention spans, after ingesting the additive-laced juices.

This information may inspire yawns in naturals shoppers who've long sought to control their children's ADHD through diet. For decades, many parents of hyperactive children have avoided purchasing food with dyes, preservatives and artificial flavors. But until now, scientific evidence to support these changes was sparse.

The new research, funded by Britain's Food Standards Agency, was "a well-designed study that seems to be demonstrating modest effects for a combination of food additives and preservatives in preschool and school-age children," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of development and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. But, he added, "I don't think people can come away and say, ?This is why kids are hyper.' I don't think it changes our thinking about ADHD in general."

Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, highlighted a primary concern with the study. "They mixed four colors—two yellows and two reds," in the drinks given to the children, he said. "It might just be that certain combinations will [cause hyperactivity], and not just one color." And, he warned, "If a kid is hyperactive and these colors are removed from the diet, there is no guarantee the hyperkinesis will go away."

But a separate study, set to be published in Nutritional Neuroscience, found that pycnogenol, an extract of pine bark, reduces hormones associated with stress, which may reduce symptoms of ADHD. Researchers tested the adrenaline and dopamine levels in 57 children, with an average age of 9 1/2. They then gave pycnogenol supplements to 41 children and placebo to 16, and after a month, retested the hormone levels. They took urine samples a third time one month after discontinuing treatment. They found that in the children who took pycnogenol, adrenaline production was decreased 26.2 percent and dopamine levels were 10.8 percent lower. Paired with a 2006 study in which teachers reported decreased hyperactivity and inattention after treatment with pycnogenol, the current study corroborates pycnogenol's effect on ADHD.

"The findings acknowledge that children with ADHD have dramatically elevated levels of stress hormones known to increase heart rate and blood pressure, causing excitement, arousal and irritability, as compared to children without ADHD symptoms," said Dr. Peter Rohdewald, one of the study's authors. "Pycnogenol's ability to naturally treat symptoms of ADHD is what makes this extract exceptionally pleasing to parents who may be uneasy about medicating their children with stimulant medications," he said.

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