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Especially in children, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often treated with prescription medications. A number of over-the-counter supplements for attention are also available, however, that can be used either alone or in combination with prescription drugs. Scientific evidence shows that stimulants are generally the most effective of these.
A stimulant is a drug that speeds up the body's central nervous system. The most commonly prescribed medications for ADD and ADHD, including Ritalin (R), are stimulants that improve improve concentration by increasing the flow of blood to the brain. Some herbal or over-the-counter supplements for attention may mimic these effects.
The natural stimulant that has been shown to be most effective for improving attention is ginko biloba, usually in combination with ginseng. A combination of these two herbs is often used to slow memory loss in older patients, but can also improve concentration in younger patients. Caffeine, the stimulant found in coffee and tea, can also improve concentration. You should be careful about giving caffeine to children who have ADHD, because it may increase hyperactive behaviors. Evidence indicates that the herbal stimulant St. John's Wort, which is often used to treat depression or other mental disorders, does not have any effect on ADD or ADHD.
Some research indicates that difficulty concentrating may be related to dietary deficiencies. Fish oil taken either as a supplement or eaten as part of a meal has been shown both to increase attention and to decrease hyperactivity. Increasing the amount of zinc in the diet can also decrease hyperactivity in children, but does not necessarily improve attention.
There are also a handful of specialized combination supplements for attention. These may contain a wide number of mineral and herbal ingredients, some of which have been proven effective at aiding attention, but others of which have not. The large number of different ingredients in these supplements may make them more effective for a wider range of patients than other single-ingredient supplements. On the other hand, they have a greater chance of interacting negatively with other medications.
In the United States, herbal supplements are not tested for safety or effectiveness to the same extent that prescription drugs are tested. They may carry more risks than traditional medicines. You should check with your doctor before beginning any supplements for attention to minimize your risk of side effects or harmful interactions.