ADHD - Nature, Nurture or Trauma? An Ayurvedic Practitioner with ADHD tendencies weighs in.
When I finally got the courage to take one of the many online ADHD tests, I was both unsurprised, relieved and also curious when I realize that I had often, throughout my life, checked most of the boxes for a textbook case of ADHD. My therapist agreed, but wondered how a formal diagnosis would help, if I was not willing to take prescription medication for the condition and did not plan to be under the care of an MD for it. While many find instant identification and relief in diagnosis, like I did, when both the basic screening tests and the therapist supported my notion, the sheer numbers of women I know who are highly intelligent, driven Moms, who have been recently diagnosed is, in my mind, something to look at. Is it possible that so many of us have an inborn "brain problem" that requires a life of drugs to manage, or was something else happening here?
Often a "clutterbug" or someone who had a highly organized chaos around me ("I know where my history book is, Dad, I saw it under the laundry pile"...spoiler alert, it was there! Why didn't I move it when I saw it the first time?) I have, in the past, been notorious for missing appointments when I don't set about 6 phone reminders. The dreams that plagued me as a child were the classics of being sent to a math test I had not taken a single class for all year. My nightmares were those of unpreparedness. I was the person who would forget something at your house when I visited, almost every time. I held shame and embarrassment that I had high ambitions but felt those around me didn't expect me to really achieve my goals. The energy I got from others was that they felt I was too "irresponsible" or "chaotic" to really be fully reliable. My clutter was, for many in my life, a sign of someone who didn't care, not of someone managing a large view of life and a ton of very focused goals.
The flip side, however, was always a veracious drive and deep sense of creative passion. I could disappear into tasks and the elusive "flow state" many struggle to achieve, comes very naturally to me...when uninterrupted, of course. That beautiful state can tip into obsessive, when breaks are not intentionally taken, but the volume and complexity of work that I can produce has always been a strength to me, and perhaps, piles of clutter, to others. Ayurveda and understanding my body and mind type have been invaluable in the process of addressing my own physical and mental health.
As a mom, I have learned to clean regularly and organize my habits, pay people to do things I cannot effectively do myself and lean into what author Gay Hendricks calls my "zone of genius" and outsource my "zones of incompetence". These hacks have lead me to be able to build and sell a company, start another and maintain the complex schedule of a Mom with 2 young boys and the life of a startup CEO. While I see the temptation to use stimulant psychiatric drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, as a person who practiced actively as an Ayurvedic practitioner for more than a decade, I can safely say that seeing the damage these drugs can cause, longterm, was not worth the "supermom" feelings they might have produced for me. These stimulants are in fact used by MANY women who work out, look great, and "have it all". I have questions, not judgements.
As an Ayurvedic practitioner, and looking through this lens, ADHD can be seen clearly as an elemental imbalance, which is why we would not necessarily separate it from PTSD when symptoms come up similarly. We would also not treat it as an inherent problem with the brain, divorced of life experience and conditions. ADHD is a condition of what we refer to as "Vata-Pitta" imbalance. Without going into deep explanation of the Ayurvedic and elemental systems of Eastern Medicine, I will give a basic primer. Your "Dosha" sometimes referred to as your "body-mind type" is literally "That which goes out of balance". There are 3 primary Dosha , and they can manifest, in each person as a combination, unique to them, through traits (nature) and states (nurture). Vata is the air and ether elements, with attributes of cold, dry, light, rough and mobile. Pitta is the fire and water elements, with attributes of hot, dry, light, mobile and slightly oily. Kapha is the elements of water and earth, with traits of heaviness, hard, cold and stable. Someone with a straight Vata imbalance shows anxiety, fear, lack of focus and sometimes physical issues like constipation, dry skin, desire for crunchy, hard foods and inability to sit still. Someone with a straight Pitta imbalance often feels irritable, angry, obsessively focused and has physical issues such as loose stools and ulcers and skin conditions characterized by redness and irritation. Those with a Kapha imbalance often experience heavy moods, melancholy, slow digestion and putting on weight when eating very little as well as skin conditions that involve scarring and oozing.
For the purpose of our discussion on ADHD, I would like to talk about what happens when you combine Vata and Pitta as an imbalance, as there are several common factors that I believe underpin ADHD symptoms. At first glance, "Attention deficit" is a Vata problem. "Hyper Activity" can be both a Vata and a Pitta issue, as both are characterized by "mobility". When you put these energies together, they are light, mobile, hot, dry and agitated. The Pitta wishes to ACCOMPLISH, and the Vata cannot slow down enough to take the proper steps. Think of this combined energy like a prairie fire. There is SPACE (Vata) WIND (Vata) and FIRE (Pitta). The result is a fast moving, destructive energy without direction.
One of the physical manifestations of this is Eczema. A hot, itchy, dry skin condition aggravated by stress and anxiety... the emotional children of Vata/Pitta imbalance. In fact, the relationship between ADHD and eczema has been established and shown in Children. The mental manifestation of this can be a very BIG PICTURE view of the world, with connections seemingly everywhere, but narrowing down to articulation being more elusive. It can look like big ambitions and thinking faster than you can write or type, and getting exhausted by trying.
After a season (actually a couple of years) of being in our homes, facing ourselves and seeing how we behave in captivity, the introspection has reached a glorious peak where many of us Moms and business owners have found us staring into the reality that we fit nearly ALL the symptoms of ADHD. So, is this an epidemic or are we all born with a diagnosable "brain problem"? Are we neuro-divergent? Is there simply more variety in neuro processing than we have recognized previously? And last, why are so many of us so relieved when we see that we are not alone?
While this article cannot answer all of these questions, (or maybe any of them?) going back to basics can, in a sense, help us get back into our bodies and into our feet. If the problems we are facing are hot, dry, light, mobile and irritating, we need a cool and comforting balm for our psyches, digestion, and our lives. This starts with self-compassion and a hand up out of the darkness.
For me, this hand up was microdosing mushrooms and using tactical adaptogens and nootropic helpers. Since psychedelic mushrooms are inherently heating (read: they make some of us have loose stools), my training as an Ayurvedic practitioner showed me that holding these beautiful tools in the context of balanced formulas that could support the rest of the manifestations of this brush fire imbalance was important! In fact, the core 3 formulas of Mycrodrops are based on the concepts of Vata, Pitta and Kapha and have a stable and solid nervous system regulating base that unites them all. GROUNDED is a formula that supports therapeutic microdosing for Vata type energy (anxiety, nervousness, fear and restlessness), while FOCUSED is a balm for more heated emotions such as stress and intensity and irritability. MOTIVATED works on Kapha type imbalance to fight fatigue, procrastination and heaviness. These formulas can be used interchangeably as our experiences change from anxiety, to irritability to exhaustion, and help keep the intensity of these swings at bay, without covering up or masking.
There is mass confusion in the psychiatric community over whether something is PTSD or ADHD, and there are overlapping symptoms that can cause confusion. A great article on this can be found here, which also explores the innate vs acquired ADHD symptoms, which can realistically be looked at through an Ayurvedic lens as "Prakruti vs Vikruti" or nature vs nurture as related to imbalance. Exploring this further is something I could spend 1000 pages on, but for the purposes here, I want to help you consider other viewpoints on the nuance here.
This is a complex subject, and while I am not offering solutions or quick fixes , I am offering the chance to keep the mind open. An ADHD diagnoses does not always need to be seen in the same way as we see a "problem". When we come back to the elemental expressions, we know that choosing cooling, easy to digest, unctuous foods is a way of pacifying both Vata and Pitta, and creating an environment of stability and reducing distractions are all things that improve outcomes. While microdosing is being taken on by MANY with ADHD, it is not always successful for the reasons I mentioned above...sometimes adding mushrooms without other cooling and moisture loving herbs can have the effect of turning ADHD into anger, irritability and frustration. This does not mean we should throw the distracted baby out with the bath water. It means that we must understand that this condition is born of aggravated heat and motion, and add things to our life to antidote this. Thus, I have created formulas that are tasty, strong and intended to balance the whole energy of the condition you are trying to treat. There is no magic bullet for ADHD and other mental health concerns. It is also true that the same traits that give us ADHD can also give us impressive creative abilities and ability to achieve flow state that are beyond that of our "Neurotypical" peers. When we take these states as elemental issues, we have solutions. When we look at them as only a problem, the tendency will always be there to mask them, and medicate them until dependency on medications is the result.
Here are 5 things you can do right now to understand how your daily choices contribute to aggravation of ADHD symptoms:
- Make a list of the 3 things you dislike doing the most but you HAVE to do to feel stable and organized (like cleaning and putting away piles, for instance)Determine the cost of having help with this thing (such as a cleaner 1x a week)Think of one thing you can do to bring in enough funds for this thing that will help you. Perhaps that is an extra $100 per week. If someone did this thing for you, while you spent that time doing the thing you are AWESOME at to bring in the money, what would it do for your self-esteem and life?
- Make a short list of "other symptoms" you have with your ADHD that are physical. Do you have skin irritations? IBS (fluctuating constipation and loose stools). Make a note of your favorite foods...are these the same as your condition...hot, dry, crunchy, fast...(like hot cheetos, chips and processed snack foods with an occasional raw veggie thrown in for balance) or are they easy to digest, warming without heating and grounding (like bonebroth soup with root veggies and whole foods?) The body is all connected. Nothing is unimportant or unrelated.
- If you have ADHD and still choose coffee in the morning, decrease your caffiene with a low-acid decaf as about 50-70% of your brew, and choose to antidote it with one of our Vata or Pitta formulas (GROUNDED or FOCUSED) and see if it helps to take the edge off, and keep you in your feet! These formulas can be used for the microdoser and the non-microdoser alike.
- See if your doctor can order the Dutch Test, to fully evaluate your hormones and neurotransmitters such as Dopamine. What it evaluates are NOT common to look at through western medicine, and often not covered by insurance, but really worth it as you get to the bottom of your issues (you are more likely to get these tests from your ND) Evaluate using the data in your body. Many things can cause the symptoms listed in the picture.
- Exercise. Really. This cannot be overstated. When the mind is moving a million miles a minute in all directions, push that stress out through the body to avoid build up of anxiety.
I will leave you with this: If you, like me, fit fairly neatly into the ADHD checklist and your found your way to this article because you are trying to avoid traditional psych meds, remember that complex problems often have multi-pronged solutions. Be wary of a pill that appears to magically "fix" this problem, and see if the rest of the choices you make in daily life either aggravate or antidote the hot, fast and dry problem that ADHD is characterized by. Don't throw dependence forming medication at a problem when natural solutions will do. If you are one of the many who benefit from Stimulants for ADHD, make sure to get your neurotransmitters tested. Again, nootropics and adaptogens MAY be able to help here. Always work with your doctor. Always ask them questions and hold them accountable to leading the plan.
This article is not intended to treat, diagnose, or offer medical advice. You and your doctor should navigate these questions together. Consider a doctor who is both informed by and in support of natural solutions or working in conjunction with an Ayurvedic practitioner or Acupuncturist to get whole-person care. Coming off of prescription stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall can be dangerous when done quickly and without guidance, and is NOT suggested. If these drugs are helping you focus, use this moment to learn more about the nuance of this condition. Have you tried drugs but not therapy? Is this the fist thing you tried or the 100th? If you go straight from "I think I might have ADHD" to a prescription, consider all the steps lost in between. ADHD medication may help with some of the distracted symptoms of PSTD, but it does not cure them. Psychedelics for PTSD is being actively researched by Johns Hopkins university and MAPS with amazing results. This article is a chance to ask the questions, not judge the solutions you have tried, and to share some things that have worked for me.
You are not broken. You might, in fact, be uniquely gifted. How can you change your perspective from "I have a problem with my brain" to "I must nurture myself for who I am and what I experience every day", or "I am learning who I am and how to work with my talents and limitations to find the most embodied expression of myself." Learning you "Have ADHD" might just be the first step in self-love and self-care, if you let it be a gift and not a problem. ADHD is frustrating as an adult, and a LOT to manage. See if you can find any positives in this type of neurodivergence and ask which parts need help. What do you sacrifice when medicated on prescriptions and is there, potentially, a series of #mycroshifts that you can make to improve your experience of life, connection and attention?
I would love to hear about the ways you navigate your ADHD and what has helped you the most. Comment below and share!
Infographic credit @neurodivergent_insights on IG.