Over-the-Counter (OTC) ADHD Medication

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The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any question you may have regarding dietary supplements.

Over-the-counter ADHD treatment alternatives can be a helpful way to ease symptoms for people who are hesitant about prescription stimulants or want to combine their prescriptions with other treatments to enhance symptom relief. It can also be a way to ease symptoms as you wait for a formal diagnosis—which can be a long and frustrating process for some.

With that in mind, many of the supplements and home remedies you’ll see online don’t have much scientific evidence to back them up. To help you navigate the vast and confusing world of ADHD treatment alternatives, here’s an overview of the non-prescription options with the most substantial evidence backing their efficacy.

Caffeine

Caffeine is perhaps one of the most thoroughly studied and one of the most widely used forms of self-medication among people with ADHD. In animal studies, caffeine consistently and significantly improved memory and learning. Meanwhile, a review of human studies found similar positive cognitive benefits, including increases in:

The doses that provided the optimal benefits for ADHD patients were typically between 200–400 mg. That’s roughly two to four cups of coffee.

While caffeine is believed to be the main active ingredient responsible for easing ADHD symptoms, coffee also contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, both of which may also play a role.

If that’s the case, drinking coffee rather than taking caffeine supplements might be the best way to get these potential benefits. If you’re not a fan of coffee, green tea and black tea have a similar profile of caffeine, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds—but they only contain about a third of the caffeine.

Like other stimulants, caffeine can have side effects including increased anxiety symptoms, insomnia, dehydration, and cardiovascular problems. If you drink multiple cups a day, work with your healthcare provider to create a plan for curbing those side effects.

Aromatic Amino Acids

While most known as the building blocks of protein, amino acids also serve other functions in the body—one of which is acting as a precursor to neurotransmitters. Precursors are the compounds needed to create the chemical reaction that produces a new compound. You can think of them as the ingredients in a recipe that come together to make the dish.

To make dopamine, for example, your brain needs to combine phenylalanine and tyrosine. To make serotonin, it needs tryptophan. These three amino acids—phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan—are collectively known as aromatic amino acids.

ADHD symptoms are largely the result of low dopamine levels, the neurotransmitter that acts as a “go” signal, motivating a person to take a particular action or make a decision. So the idea is that increasing your intake of the aromatic amino acids your body needs to make dopamine will help your body produce more dopamine. That, in turn, should help ease ADHD symptoms.

While some studies have found a link between amino acid supplements and improved cognitive functions, the studies are small and not always focused on ADHD patients specifically. However, increasing your tyrosine and phenylalanine intake may still be useful as part of a combination treatment.

Antioxidants: Maritime Pine Bark Extract and Ginseng

Oxidative stress—when cells and tissue are damaged by free radicals from your environment—has recently gained attention as a possible contributing factor in ADHD. The existing research is still too new to draw any firm conclusions but early data suggests that reducing oxidative stress may also reduce ADHD symptoms.

This involves increasing your intake of antioxidants. Two of which show early promise include:

  • Maritime pine bark extract: One of the most widely recommended for ADHD—this supplement is a natural plant extract found to contain a combination of procyanidins, bioflavonoids and phenolic acids, which offer extensive natural health benefits. Also known as pycnogenol, maritime pine bark extract includes a potent antioxidant that has been found to improve attention and visual-motor coordination while reducing hyperactivity in children with ADHD.
  • Ginseng: There are somewhat limited studies on ginseng, another potent antioxidant, as a treatment for ADHD. Daily ginseng supplements were associated with reduced inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity in children with ADHD. While dosing varied, 1,000 mg per day was associated with positive results.

Iron and Zinc Supplements

Nutrient deficiencies are another focus of research into the contributing factors of ADHD and while the data is mixed, the most consistent findings suggest that iron and zinc levels are often lower in ADHD patients compared to control. Moreover, as levels of these two minerals are brought back to normal, ADHD symptoms like inattention and hyperactivity tend to decrease.

However, it’s worth noting that research on iron or zinc supplements as a treatment is mixed, possibly because the body doesn’t absorb these nutrients efficiently so it’s hard to achieve consistent dosing and, therefore, consistent results.

Heme-iron (found in meat and fish) is absorbed at rates of 15% to 35% while non-heme iron (from plant sources) is only absorbed at rates of 2% to 20%. Meanwhile, your body absorbs anywhere from just 16% to 50% of the zinc you consume.

Low absorption and such a wide range of absorption rates make it difficult to know how much of these nutrients you’re actually absorbing—which, in turn, makes it difficult to figure out what dose you would need to see an improvement in ADHD symptoms.

Instead, it may be more worthwhile to add iron and zinc-rich foods to your diet as a way to bolster the effects of your other treatments.  A few foods that are high in both:

  • Red meat. A 3.5-ounce serving of ground beef contains about 44% of your daily zinc requirement and 15% of your iron.
  • Poultry. A 3.5-ounce serving of turkey delivers about 14% of your zinc and 8% of your iron.
  • Dark chocolate (70% or higher). A 3.5-ounce serving of dark chocolate contains around 30% of your daily zinc and over 60% of your daily iron requirement. As a bonus, dark chocolate also contains caffeine and antioxidants, which are also thought to help with ADHD symptoms.
  • Seeds. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds contain as much as 43% of your zinc and 16% of your iron. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are also good sources of both.

Remember that absorption rates are low and vary widely for both of these so you may not necessarily absorb all the iron and zinc you eat. Conversely, taking a supplement might end up adding too much of the mineral to your system.

Your healthcare provider can test your iron and zinc levels to get an estimate of how efficiently your body absorbs these minerals and whether or not supplements might help.

A Note on Buying and Using OTC Supplements

While the word “natural” can make these seem like safer alternatives to prescription stimulants, it’s worth remembering that the supplement market is not as closely regulated as the medication market. That means the supplements you see on store shelves don't need to meet the same rigorous standards of safety and efficacy that medications do.

While that’s not an automatic deal breaker, it does mean that the burden is on you to do the research and learn which brands you can trust and which supplements actually have scientific backing. Reading this overview of your options is a great first step. If you’re considering trying any of the over-the-counter ADHD medication alternatives, here are some tips to keep in mind as you shop around:

  • Check for a USP or ConsumerLab label. Lack of regulation means supplements may not even contain the ingredient (or the dosage) the label says it contains. US Pharmacopoeia (USP) and ConsumerLab are two independent, nonprofit research labs that test and verify consumer products. Seeing either on the label confirms that the supplement does indeed contain the ingredients listed at the dosage claimed—and without any contaminants or unsafe additives.
  • Choose products with detailed active ingredient lists. Some natural supplements are made of extracts while others are just a whole root or plant ground up and packed into a capsule. Both can be safe and effective (if verified) but the dosing will vary between them. It’s the difference between “50 mg of caffeine” and “50 mg of coffee.” That 50 mg of coffee contains caffeine but also the bean itself with its other compounds. To make sure you’re getting your desired dose, choose supplements with labels that break down the exact amount of each active ingredient.
  • Always consult your healthcare provider about new supplements. Even though you may not need a prescription to get anything on the list above, you should still consult your provider about the appropriate dosing and possible drug interactions with any other medications you’re taking (for ADHD or anything else). A healthcare professional can help you come up with a personalized treatment plan so that you can get the maximum possible benefits with the least possible risk.
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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.