Letters from Maine

Under our noses


If you graduated from medical school after 1990, you may be surprised to learn that there was a time when the typical general pediatrician could go through an entire day of seeing patients and not write a single prescription for a stimulant medication. In fact, he or she could go for several months without writing for any controlled substance.

ADHD is a modern phenomenon. There always have been children with “ants in their pants” who couldn’t sit still. And there always were “daydreamers” who didn’t pay attention in school. But in the 1970s, the number of children who might now be labeled as having ADHD was nowhere near the 11% often quoted for the prevalence in the current pediatric population.

One explanation simply may be that the discrepancy reflects a relabeling phenomenon compounded by a heightened awareness. However, most people – including some of us who have lived and practiced pediatrics over the last 40 years – suspect that there must be some factor or factors driving the emergence of this behavior pattern among an increasing number of children.

Could there be some genetic selection process that is favoring the birth and survival of hyperactive and distractible children? In the last decade or two, biologists have discovered evolutionary changes in some animals occurring at pace far faster than had been previously imagined. However, a Darwinian explanation seems unlikely in the case of the emergence of ADHD.

Could it be a diet laced with high fructose sugars or artificial dyes and food coloring? While there continues to be a significant number of parents whose anecdotal observations point to a relationship between diet and behavior, to date controlled studies have not supported a dietary cause for the ADHD phenomenon.

Within a few years of beginning my dual careers as parent and pediatrician, I began to notice that children who were sleep deprived often were distractible and inattentive. Some also were hyperactive, an observation that initially seemed counterintuitive. Over the ensuing four decades, I have become more convinced that a substantial driver of the emergence of the ADHD phenomenon is the fact that the North American lifestyle places sleep so far down on its priority list that a significant percentage of both the pediatric and adult populations are sleep deprived.

I freely admit that my initial anecdotal observations have evolved to the point of an obsession. Of course, I tend to read the papers, such as those linking obstructive sleep apnea and ADHD, which support my contention that sleep deprivation is a major contributor. I look at the data that show that children are getting less sleep than they did a century ago and suspect that this decline must somehow be reflected in their behavior (“Never enough sleep: A brief history of sleep recommendations for children” by Matricciani et al. Pediatrics. 2012 Mar;129[3]:548-56). And, of course, I wonder whether the success and popularity of stimulant medication to treat ADHD is just chance or whether it simply could be waking up a bunch of children who aren’t getting enough sleep.

At times, it has been a lonely several decades, trying to convince parents and other pediatricians that sleep may be the answer. I can’t point to my own research because I have been too busy doing general pediatrics. I can only point to the observations of others that fit into my construct.

You can imagine the warm glow that swept over me when I came across an article in the Washington Post titled “Could some ADHD be a type of sleep disorder? That would fundamentally change how we treat it” (A.E. Cha, Sep. 20, 2017). The studies referred to in the article are not terribly earth shaking. But it was nice to read some quotes in a national newspaper from scientists who share my suspicions about sleep deprivation as a major contributor to the ADHD phenomenon. I instantly felt less lonely.

Unfortunately, it is still a long way from this token recognition in the Washington Post to convincing parents and pediatricians to do the heavy lifting that will be required to undo decades of our society’s sleep-unfriendly norms. It’s so much easier to pull out a prescription pad and write for a stimulant.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

Email him at pdnews@frontlinemedcom.com.

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