How many kids get potent drugs ranges wildly across ZIP codes
For some, a question of balancing nutrients
BY MARK SKERTIC STAFF REPORTER
Twice a day, Alexandria Horel swallows a handful of pills that alter her behavior.
They help her pay attention, sit quietly at school, make it through a family meal without jumping in and out of her seat.
Alexandria is not taking Ritalin, Dexedrine, Adderall or any of the other popular stimulants used by millions of American children each day to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Rather, she downs specially prepared capsules packed with vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
"They keep me in balance,'' the eighth-grader explained.
Without the pills, she and her doctor say, she's the kind of student who can't sit still at school, wants to keep talking no matter what and just can't focus on the work in front of her.
Alexandria is a patient at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in west suburban Naperville. Located in a nondescript office park near Interstate 88, the center has gained a national reputation for treating ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and other disorders by looking for chemical imbalances in the body.
"When a child has attention deficit disorder, you can give them Ritalin--a medication, a stimulant,'' said William Walsh, a research biochemist and the center's founder. "You can do that, but we think it's better to treat the root cause.''
For Alexandria, that meant determining if her internal chemistry was out of whack. Among her problems, the center's doctors concluded, was a zinc deficiency, which can prevent the brain's neural transmitters from working properly. The problem may have been there from birth. As a baby, Alexandria never really napped, her mother, Melinda Horel, recalled. Instead, she was the kind of baby who, when put into her crib, cried or sang until exhausted and only then fell asleep--and only briefly.
Things didn't change as Alexandria got older.
"In school, she was not able to pay attention, she would blurt things out,'' her mother said. "She would get up, be very demonstrative. She never sat through a meal. It was exhausting. Frustrating.''
They tried Ritalin and then Dexedrine, both strong stimulants, but quickly abandoned them. Alexandria just seemed to get more hyper.
Then Alexandria's family took her to Pfeiffer.
Hair, blood and urine samples were taken, and a complete family medical history was compiled. Sometimes patients lack essential fatty acids or have too much copper, Walsh explained. Their bodies might be low in some vitamins and have too much of others. When biochemistry is out of balance, he said, the brain's ability to send and receive information is impaired.
Alexandria's test results were compared with a massive biochemical database the center has built to see whether her body chemistry was off. Supplements, which are prepared at the center's pharmacy, were prescribed.
The Pfeiffer Center claims an 85 percent success rate, but Walsh adds an important caveat: during the screening process, those who are unlikely to be helped by the treatment are turned away. "There are disorders we're not very successful with--Tourette's, obsessive/compulsive disorders, Down syndrome,'' he said.
If he tried to treat those patients, he said, he would be wasting their time and money.
Success has come in treating problems such as ADHD, autism and schizophrenia, he said.
But not all doctors are persuaded. Dr. Julian Haber, author of ADHD: The Great Misdiagnosis , is among those skeptical of claims that medical problems can be reversed with diet and nutritional supplements.
"This is nothing new--if it worked so well more people would be doing it,'' said Haber, a developmental/behavioral pediatrician in Texas.
Before they can be accepted as effective, the treatments used by the Pfeiffer Center need to be rigorously tested under accepted research guidelines, he said.
"You can't just go by testimonials," Haber said, comparing them to the testimonials made in advertisements a century ago extolling the virtues of wonder drugs. Without studies to back up claims, Haber said, "it's just the wonders of sassafras, the wonders of snake oil.''
Walsh said he's proud of the center's success and the effect it has had. A former Argonne National Laboratory researcher, he began to chart the connections between body chemistry and behavior while working, as a volunteer, with state prison inmates in the 1970s. In 1982, he founded the Health Research Institute. In those early days, he worked closely with Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, a biochemical therapist and founder of the Princeton Bio Center in New Jersey. Pfeiffer died in 1988. When the Naperville treatment center opened the following year, it carried his name.
Walsh, who goes by the title of senior scientist, is trained in chemical engineering. He leads a team of doctors and nurses.
Treatment at the Pfeiffer Center doesn't guarantee that drugs won't be necessary, Walsh emphasized.
"Our goal is not to get rid of medications--some children need them,'' he said.
Joyce Tokarz of Mokena, for example, watches every day as her 12-year-old daughter Amy take a combination of Pfeiffer-prepared pills, including amino acids, calcium, magnesium, zinc and other supplements. But Amy also takes a daily dose of Adderall.
"It's a strong item, it's like speed, and I don't want her to get addicted,'' Tokarz said. "I want her to eventually be off all drugs completely.''
Amy was 41/2 when she was adopted by the Tokarz family. She had developmental problems from the start, but they became more of a problem as she moved forward in school.
"She can be sitting, doing her homework, and she'll just stop, walk away from it and do something else,'' Tokarz said.
But the combination of a better diet, the supplement pills from Pfeiffer and Adderall seems to be helping, she added.
"This is the first year where she's learning and comprehending,'' Tokarz said. "It's sticking with her now. She's picking it up faster because she's able to comprehend now.''
"Better screening for chemical imbalances combined with more traditional approaches is a better way of finding the answers patients need to live healthy lives,'' said Robert deVito, professor emeritus at Loyola University's Stritch School of Medicine and Pfeiffer's senior consulting psychiatrist.
"Looking at vitamins, minerals, amino acids--that's just another way to help people,'' deVito said.
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