ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
How Does Caffeine Affect ADHD?
Caffeine and ADHD
Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, and chocolate, and it’s one of the world’s favorite drugs. But what effects does it have on your brain? The right amount of caffeine can help you focus, but too much might make you jittery, anxious, or irritable.
People with ADHD have a unique brain chemistry that makes the picture even more complicated. Because caffeine is so prevalent, it’s important to know how it affects ADHD.
Stimulating the Body
Caffeine stimulates the body’s central nervous system. This stimulation can cause a person to feel energized, and not to feel the effects of fatigue as strongly. Sometimes the effect can be negative, however. For example, people who have trouble sleeping can experience further sleep disturbances or insomnia due to caffeine.
Caffeine also stimulates the release of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine controls the ability to focus and maintain concentration.
Sleep deprivation can cause ADHD-like symptoms, such as irritability, difficulty focusing or sitting still, and difficulty controlling emotions. In people with ADHD, sleep deprivation makes these symptoms worse.
People with ADHD should only use caffeine in the morning and should avoid consumption of coffee, tea, soda, or chocolate in the evening or late at night.
Reduced Blood Flow to the Brain
Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor. That means it makes blood vessels smaller and reduces blood flow. This reduced blood flow is why caffeine helps headaches. Amphetamine medications used to treat ADHD also make blood vessels smaller. So caffeine actually mimics ADHD medications.
Although the exact reason is unknown, reduced blood flow may help treat ADHD by reducing the activity of brain regions that are overactive, allowing them to better function and cooperate with the rest of the brain.
Dopamine levels in the brain have to be within a very narrow margin in order for a person to be able to focus on their work. But in ADHD, dopamine levels are too low. Stimulant chemicals such as caffeine or amphetamines increase dopamine levels.
For most people, adding stimulants will push dopamine levels too high, causing agitation and anxiety. But for people with ADHD, adding stimulants can get the levels just right. A few cups of coffee throughout the day can make a real difference.
Better Than Nothing, Worse Than Medication
Some studies have found that caffeine can boost concentration for people with ADHD. As is a stimulant drug, it mimics some of the effects of stronger stimulants used to treat ADHD, such as amphetamine medications.
However, caffeine alone seems less effective than prescription medications. Adults can use caffeine safely for their ADHD, but caffeine consumption can actually harm children and teens.
Combo Pack: Use with ADHD Medications
When caffeine and amphetamine medications like methyphenidate (Ritalin) combine, they experience an effect called synergy. Synergy occurs when two drugs have conflicting mechanisms of action, making their combined effect more or less powerful. Caffeine makes amphetamines less effective, so a person taking Ritalin, for example, needs more of it to feel its effects.
However, treating ADHD with a higher dose of amphetamines plus small amounts of caffeine is more effective than treating ADHD with medication alone. At high doses, caffeine no longer offers any benefits.
Anxiety and Stomach Pains
Since medication combinations are very hard to control, a person taking both amphetamines and caffeine will also get a double dose of their side effects. Both drugs can cause anxiety, difficultly sleeping, nausea, and stomach pains.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or difficulty sleeping, you may be taking too much caffeine. To control stomach pains, make sure to always take both your medication and caffeine with food. If nausea persists, talk to your doctor.
Everyone Is Different
Although emerging research is finding that ADHD is largely a genetic disorder, it’s also finding that ADHD is not just one thing. Rather, people with mutations at any number of points in their genetics might get classified with ADHD. For developing children, some brain regions might develop at different rates than the other regions that regulate them. Because ADHD has different causes, treatments can affect people differently.
Some people find that caffeine helps their ADHD, while others find that it doesn’t offer any benefit at all, or even makes their focus worse. Pay attention to your body and work with your doctor to find out what is best for you.
- Chervin, Ronald and Mindell, Jodi. (n.d.). ADHD and Sleep. Retrieved September 25th, 2013 from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/adhd-and-sleep
- Leon, M. Roth. (2009, 15 December). Effects of caffeine on cognitive, psychomotor, and affective performance of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. BMJ December 15, 2009 339: b5268. Retrieved September 25th, 2013 from http://jad.sagepub.com/content/4/1/27
- Gavura, Scott. (2011, 15 September). Caffeine for ADHD. Retrieved September 22nd, 2013 from http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/caffeine-for-adhd/