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Is It ADHD or Is Your Child Just Sleepy?

Photograph by Twenty20

Kids don't always think things through and can sometimes be impulsive. But when unpredictability is accompanied by hyperactive behavior and mood swings that interfere with day-to-day activities, the diagnosis is almost always the same: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

U.S. health officials estimate that children with these symptoms make 6 million doctor visits per year. To make matters worse, 8 out of 10 of them will wind up leaving with a prescription for a central nervous system stimulant drug like Ritalin, Focalin or Adderall.

The idea of medicating a child at a young age is unfathomable to many parents. Even so, most parents will follow their pediatrician's advice—despite the nauseating side effects that these drugs can produce—because they want their kids to feel better.

But what if sleep worked just as well?

Scientists are now proposing that much of ADHD may, in fact, be a problem associated with lack of regular circadian sleep. The study suggests that nearly 75 percent of children and adults with ADHD also have sleep problems. Until now, these have been thought to be separate issues, but Sandra Kooij, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at VU University Medical Centre, Amsterdam, and founder and chair of the European Network Adult ADHD, says otherwise:

"There is extensive research showing that people with ADHD also tend to exhibit sleep problems. What we are doing here is taking this association to the next logical step: pulling all the work together leads us to say that, based on existing evidence, it looks very much like ADHD and circadian problems are intertwined in the majority of patients," she writes.

Because the day and night rhythm is disturbed by lack of sleep, physical processes such as body temperature, movement patterns and timing of meals can also be disturbed, just to name a few.

"If you review the evidence, it looks more and more like ADHD and sleeplessness are 2 sides of the same physiological and mental coin," Kooij writes.

So, the question remains: Does ADHD cause sleeplessness or does sleeplessness cause ADHD?

"If the latter," says Kooij, "then we may be able to treat some ADHD by non-pharmacological methods, such as changing light or sleep patterns, and prevent the negative impact of chronic sleep loss on health."

Though we still don’t know the answer, it's safe to assume that more tests will soon be underway. Until then, it's always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to behavioral issues. Keep an eye on your little ones, make sure they're getting enough sleep and if you don't like what the doctor is telling you, get a second opinion before beginning medications to modify behavioral issues.

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