Are we raising a generation of addicts?

Do you remember the following commercial that ran on TV a few years ago? It showed a series of kids talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up: a teacher, an astronaut, a fire fighter. Then there was a shot of a kid being chased by cops and finally captured, while the voice-over said, “No one says, ‘I want to be a drug addict when I grow up.’ “

Of course, none of us want children – especially those we know and love – to grow up to be drug addicts. But I’ve wondered for a while now if we aren’t raising a generation that thinks every problem can be fixed with a pill. After all, that’s what we’ve been teaching them. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been stunned with our willingness to put children on prescription medications, particularly those designed to control their behavior. And a new report I read this week makes me even more concerned about how we’re treating our children and grandchildren.

An article was published in the August 22 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, one of American’s leading medical journals. The title? “Ritalin Acts Much Like Cocaine.”

If you have young children or grandchildren, I’m sure you’ve heard of Ritalin. It’s the brand name for a drug called methylphenidate, and it’s taken every day by five million children in America and thousands more abroad. In fact, it seems like every other kid on the block is on it these days. It’s the most commonly prescribed drug to address Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which, in theory, is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. And since ADHD hit the mainstream in the 1980s, prescriptions for Ritalin have been flying off of doctor’s notepads with alarming frequency.

The most disturbing story I’ve heard came from my friend, Maria, about her son, Matthew. When Matthew was about 15 months old, he was having trouble adjusting to the arrival of his new baby sister, Elizabeth. As many children do in that situation, he was reverting back to a lot of his “baby-ish” habits, trying to nurse, that kind of thing – all stuff that seemed pretty normal. Keep in mind, he was only 15 months old and still a baby in his own right. But it was hard for Maria to handle – so she asked her pediatrician for ideas on how to deal with it. His solution? A prescription for Ritalin. He suggested she drug a 15-month-old baby because he wanted attention from his mother.

That was about 10 years ago. Maria never filled the prescription – and quickly changed pediatricians. Matthew has grown up to be a normal, healthy, active boy. But that type of experience is still all too common today.

Ritalin has become a first-line of defense against any child who speaks out in class or hits another kid with a pencil. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid that was called being a kid.

And an incredible number of prescriptions for Ritalin are still being given out despite the fact that doctors know very little about how Ritalin actually works in the body. The JAMA study includes this quote from Nora Volkow, MD, one of the lead researchers on the study team: “As a psychiatrist, sometimes I feel embarrassed [about the lack of knowledge of methylphenidate] because this is, by far, the drug we prescribe most frequently to children.”

‘Embarrassed’?! How about ‘outraged’? How about ‘disgusted’? How about ‘ashamed’?

It is, in fact, one of the reasons Dr. Volkow and her colleagues have spent the past several years tracing the effects of addictive drugs on the brain – including Ritalin. As it turns out, they got more than they expected: “We were surprised as hell,” she said (another direct quote from the JAMA article). “We didn’t expect this.”

Comforting words for parents and grandparents everywhere, huh?

The surprising, unexpected thing Dr. Volkow and her team found was that methlyprenidate was a more powerful stimulant than cocaine. All stimulants work by blocking the transporters that bond with dopamine, the brain chemical that triggers feelings of pleasure. Without sites to bond to, excess dopamine remains in the system and provides the rush that addicts crave. Previous research has shown that cocaine blocks about 50% of the dopamine transporters. But Dr. Volkow’s research found that the typical dose of methylprenidate given to children (.5 mg/kg) blocked a full 70 percent of the dopamine receptors.

Dr. Volkow comments on the findings with another comforting statement: “The data clearly show that the notion that Ritalin is a weak stimulant is completely incorrect.”

Critics were quick to jump in and ask, “If Ritalin is more powerful than cocaine, why aren’t kids addicted?” The answer is two-fold. First, researchers have found that people with ADHD have many more dopamine transporters than people without the condition. Second, kids take Ritalin in oral form, which provides a much slower release of the active ingredient and a prolonged effect on the brain, rather than one quick intense ‘hit’ that happens in seconds, as in the case of cocaine.

Ok, so kids aren’t staggering through the halls at school, looking for their next hit of Ritalin. But experts admit that the process for diagnosing ADHD is far from perfect. There is no blood test you can take, no definitive way of declaring that a child has ADHD.

So, while Ritalin may really help kids whose brains have too many dopamine transporters – what does it do to the kids who don’t?

And on top of all of this, no one ever seems to talk about the alternatives that are available to address children’s behavioral concerns. HSI panelist Dr. Allan Spreen has devoted an entire chapter to the issue in his book “Nutritionally Incorrect.” He writes that over 90 percent of children’s behavioral problems can be attributed to food allergies, chemical sensitivities, malnourishment, and even high levels of toxic metals in their tissues. There are plenty of other practitioners out there who believe that most cases of ADHD (and other behavior problems) can be addressed nutritionally and naturally. Parents need more information on the alternatives, and encouragement to try them, before resorting to prescription drugs like Ritalin.

We’ll continue to bring you information about the many ways parents and caregivers can address children’s health issues naturally. If you have a grandchild who is currently on Ritalin, please pass this e-mail on to his or her parents. The world needs more teachers, astronauts, and fire fighters. It sure doesn’t need any more drug addicts – whether those drugs are legal or not.

Copyright 1997-2002 by Institute of Health Sciences, L.L.C.