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Does coffee help ADHD? Over the last ten years, a body of research has accumulated suggesting caffeine can help reduce symptoms.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and enhances the brain’s production of dopamine. This chemical controls the brain’s ability to concentrate and focus. The stimulation from caffeine can cause a person to feel energized, which is why many people drink it to stay awake, study or work.
ADHD Medication Side Effects
Stimulants such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) and methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin) are often prescribed by doctors to stimulate the release of dopamine, thereby reducing some of the overactivity of ADHD and increasing concentration. They also help with impulsive behavior and self-regulation.
Unfortunately, these drugs also have many possible side effects including sleep problems, decreased appetite, weight loss, increased blood pressure, dizziness, headaches and stomach aches, moodiness and irritability, nervousness, tics (abrupt repetitive movements or noises) and even personality changes.
The idea of using caffeine, which could be seen as more natural is very tempting but is it safer, and is it effective? Could coffee be drunk as an alternative to traditional drugs or even as a supplement that might have fewer side effects than the traditional drugs offered?
ADHD Self-Medication With Caffeine
There is very little research into the use of coffee to treat ADHD, but there is considerable anecdotal evidence to support using caffeine to help ADHD sufferers. Some people report that caffeine helps them to feel calmer although others report an increase in anxiety.
ADDitude magazine carried out a survey in 2017 with caregivers and adults who were trying different treatments. The results showed that different people tried different things with some recommending caffeine as they felt it had a positive effect and others avoiding caffeine due to negative effects and health concerns.
Caffeine works as an adenosine substitute, which is a chemical produced in the brain that signals to the body that it’s time to unwind. David DiSalvo in Forbes explains that caffeine replaces adenosine in the brain’s receptors and interrupts the nervous system. This allows the dopamine and glutamate, the brain’s natural stimulants, to have a superior effect than they would if the adenosine wasn’t obstructed by the caffeine.
“It’s not the caffeine that’s doing the stimulating,” DiSalvo says. “Instead, it’s keeping the doors blocked while the real party animals of the brain [neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate] do what they love to do.”
This means that people feel more attentive and experienced improvements in their working memory, feel less tired, feel more energized, and have improved concentration.
Caffeine makes blood vessels smaller and reduces the flow of blood. Just like traditional stimulant drugs, caffeine can reduce the blood flow which could reduce the activity in parts of the brain that are overactive, thereby improving brain function. One recent study found that caffeine improved memory and concentration. Other studies have found that caffeine alone is less effective than prescribed drugs.
According to the Department of Pharmacology in Brazil, the use of caffeine to treat ADHD produces inconclusive results. They did find in laboratory tests that there was an improvement in the spatial learning capacity of the participants after a small dose of caffeine. The study did not find any negative effects of using caffeine in this way. However, it must be noted that this study has limited value as it was only carried out on rats.
In 2013, the European Neuropsychopharmacology published a study that found that caffeine could be useful as a treatment, as it appears to regulate levels of dopamine and improve attention in people with ADHD.
In contrast, the Psychopharmacology journal published a review in 2014 that called for further examination of caffeine’s medicinal potential as a treatment in ADHD as there was not yet enough evidence to support its use. It did find that caffeine represses the action of adenosine receptors in the brain. Cognition and attention involve the adenosine receptors and the review reported that this could contribute to the stimulating effects of caffeine in people with ADHD.
The Problems With Caffeine
One problem with using caffeine is the variation of caffeine content between most food products and drinks. It can be impossible to know the exact caffeine content in different products. Each cup of coffee made can have a slight variation. This can cause complications in measuring the caffeine dose. The Mayo Clinic recommends that 400mg of caffeine is safe for adults but only 45 mg to 85mg is safe for children or adolescents depending on their age. The difficulty measuring caffeine content in coffee may make it harder to justify using it safely.
Some health risks are caused by ingesting caffeine. People with anxiety disorders, high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease, or glaucoma would be advised not to drink coffee as would pregnant women. Too much caffeine can also cause anxiety, sleeplessness, nausea, and stomach pain. In addition, it can increase blood pressure and heart rates.
A side effect of caffeine is that as a stimulant it can keep people awake. Now that is a problem for someone with ADHD who could already suffer from the effects of sleeplessness such as irritability, forgetfulness, poor concentration, and being extra emotional. Making these symptoms worse would be a good reason to avoid caffeine. People may also need to consider the timing of drinking coffee to avoid insomnia as a caffeinated drink before bed could make symptoms worse.
Balancing the levels of dopamine is not easy which is why getting the dosage of traditional drug treatments for ADHD is difficult. Caffeine may not be enough by itself to treat ADHD. Doctors prescribe medications that contain higher, controlled measures of stimulants that specifically treat ADHD. Caffeinated drinks may provide too little caffeine, particularly for people with severe ADHD. Using caffeine, more than 400mg, in addition to prescribed treatments could increase the effectiveness of treatments to such an extent that it could, in turn, increase the side effects.
Using caffeine in children and adolescents would not be recommended as it may affect brain development. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet given a recommendation of safe levels for young people but studies have shown that caffeine affects children differently to adults. It can interfere with brain development and growth. Children with ADHD already often have sleep problems and this could cause them more problems. Taking caffeine in addition to other ADHD medications can cause an excess of stimulants, which may increase the risk of adverse effects.
Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., M.B.A., who wrote More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults With ADHD and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians, observed that caffeine does improve function but he adds that those taking ADHD medication may experience more agitation after drinking too much caffeine. as well as possibly interacting poorly with other medications.
The clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, Larry Silver, M.D., does not recommend using caffeine to treat ADHD as the amount needed to have a convincing effect on the brain would also cause agitation.
No study has conclusively found caffeine as effective as prescribed stimulants.
Is Coffee Right For You?
Recent research has found that there is a genetic component to ADHD and there are differing types. Genetic mutations cause different parts of the brain to develop at different rates to the brain’s regulators and the different trajectories mean that different treatments may be required. In other words, everyone with ADHD is different. This means that individuals need to seek individual advice from their medical practitioners. What works for one person may not work for another.
Although coffee is a common beverage it is worth people with ADHD checking with an expert before increasing their intake. Medical experts recommend that individuals work with their doctor to discuss using coffee as an alternative or in addition to existing medication. Doctors recommend that, under their supervision, it may be possible to experiment with using coffee to monitor the effects and see if there is a benefit to their condition. Hopefully, there will be some more research carried out in the future which may mean that caffeine could potentially be taken in a more controlled medicated way to help with ADHD in a gentler way to existing medication.