Here’s How Caffeine Affects ADHD
By Lisa Frania — / Lifestyle
How Does Caffeine Affect ADHD?
For those of you who have—or think you have—attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the connection between caffeine and ADHD is important. People with ADHD are likely to depend on caffeine quite a bit because the medications used to treat ADHD all work on the dopamine system, which is the reward center in the brain.
It’s no surprise that caffeine is the most used natural stimulant in the world—more than 85% of Americans have a least one caffeinated drink a day. We reach for it in the morning, afternoon and even at night to help us feel alert, focused—AND we crave the great taste! That makes it a habit for most.
Because caffeine is so loved—and broadly consumed—it's important to know how it affects people with ADHD. In the world of ADHD, people use caffeine in two main ways: Most people with ADHD use caffeine for stimulant therapy treatment. Stimulant therapy uses drugs—particularly caffeine—to send the right messages to the brain, therefore improving focus, attention span and impulsive behaviors. In this case, consuming additional caffeinated beverages improves the effectiveness of the medication. Still others with ADHD feel more comfortable avoiding the stimulant therapy completely and choose to treat ADHD solely with caffeine instead.
Caffeine and ADHD: Can it Help?
What is ADHD?
Caffeine is a stimulant that affects your body’s central nervous system and raises the brain’s production of dopamine—often referred to as the feel-good chemical, which is responsible for pleasure, attention, movement and stops us from feeling tired, too. ADHD or not—consuming coffee, caffeine in particular, makes us happy, laser focused and energetic.
What is Caffeine?
We all know that caffeine is a great fix for sharpening focus and fighting off fatigue in the short term, and it offers a load of health benefits in the long term too. In addition to alertness and increased focus, caffeine may help weaken headaches, boost memory and even ward off certain diseases, including cancers, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
But we also know that caffeine affects people differently, depending on how much caffeine is consumed and the age of the individual. For most people who add too much caffeine to a normal dopamine level, it will push those levels up too much and may create some problems. Studies have shown that too much caffeine can lead to negative side effects:
For most people who have ADHD, caffeine is their natural drug of choice—quite literally—as it is nature made, easily accessible and offers two benefits: It fills the dopamine deficiency in the brain and helps with lack of focus and attention.
With ADHD, dopamine levels are already low. Adding caffeine will increase the dopamine, which ultimately gets the levels just right, helps settle down the areas of the brain that are overactive and gets them to cooperate better with other areas of the brain.
Just like ADHD medications, caffeine can imitate some of the good effects of those medications and even make the effect of the medication stronger and more powerful (called synergy). Some research supports that caffeine makes blood vessels smaller and reduces blood flow. (That’s exactly why caffeine gives us headache relief.) It can then boost concentration and have a calming effect.
But here’s where it gets tricky. For those with ADHD, too much caffeine—or caffeine in addition to certain prescribed medications—may interact negatively and cause excessive jitters, affect mood and focus, increase anxiety, agitation and impede social skills. Those with ADHD, especially children, shouldn’t use coffee (caffeine) in place of their medications. Use it in partnership with ADHD medications.
In order to boost focus and concentration, it’s best to keep caffeine consumption in the light-to-moderate range. Adding a few cups of coffee throughout the day may be just what the doctor ordered. And as a side note, people who regularly use stimulant medication for ADHD tend to not crave as much caffeine in general.
What are the Benefits of Caffeine and ADHD?
- Doctors often prescribe stimulants to ADHD patients because it helps them feel calm and focused—added caffeine can have a “synergistic” effect and can further help with focus.
- Because of the dopamine increase, it can help improve memory and attention.
- It gives you a boost of physical energy.
- If you’re a “snoozer” in the morning, the reduction in fatigue is a plus, and it helps you get your day started.
- And, of course, a fresh hot cup of java hits the spot—every single time.
What's the Bottom Line on Caffeine and ADHD?
Caffeine affects everyone differently—as do ADHD medications. Caffeine has been found to calm some people, while increasing anxiety in others. It's important to keep in mind the potential interactions between caffeine and ADHD medications.
- While it may help some, too much caffeine for others may decrease the effectiveness of your medication.
- Combining stimulant medications and added caffeine consumption will give you a double dose of their side effects.
- Stimulants—whether natural, caffeinated coffee or ADHD medication—show a high risk of addiction, especially when they’re taken together.
- Too much caffeine may cause headaches and nausea and can make you feel anxious. (To help this, don't drink coffee on an empty stomach, and drink plenty of water.)
- Both ADHD and caffeine can make it difficult to fall asleep. Caffeine interferes with your sleep pattern, especially depending on what times of the day you drink coffee. People with ADHD should drink caffeine in the morning and avoid it in the evening or late at night.
Even though caffeine is a natural substance, it still may impact ADHD symptoms and medication. Just remember—everyone is different. Some people find that a mug of caffeinated coffee in the morning helps their ADHD, while others find it doesn’t offer any benefit. For that reason, listen to your body and follow up with your doctor to find out what works best for you.
RELATED: Why is Coffee Good For You?