Caffeine and ADHD

The most common treatment for ADHD is stimulant therapy. These drugs can improve your focus and attention span and help control impulsive behavior.

The most widely used stimulant, and the most popular drug in the world, is caffeine. It's in coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, and other foods.

A few studies have looked at how caffeine can affect ADHD symptoms, but the results have been mixed. Even though caffeine is a stimulant, it's not generally recommended as a treatment for ADHD because it hasn't proved to be as effective as prescription medications.

How It Works

Stimulants, including caffeine, raise the amount of specific chemicals that your brain uses to send signals. One of these is dopamine. It's linked to pleasure, attention, and movement.

When you have ADHD, doctors often prescribe stimulants to help you feel more calm and focused. Some researchers believe that because studies show the caffeine in tea can improve alertness and concentration, it might work for ADHD, too.

Some scientists think caffeine has potential as an ADHD treatment because of its effect on dopamine levels, which improved memory and attention in rats. In another study, when hyperactive rats were given caffeine before they went through a maze, they got better at it. This suggests caffeine can improve spatial learning. While these studies are interesting, rats aren't people.

The Downside

More than 400 milligrams of caffeine is more likely to cause problems including:

A study found that caffeine was much less effective than dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) and methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin), two kinds of medication commonly used to treat ADHD.

For Children

Experts don't recommend giving caffeine to children, especially if they're taking prescription medication for ADHD. Kids may be more vulnerable to the side effects of caffeine. And it's possible that it can affect brain development in growing children.

While an older study found that high doses of caffeine (600 milligrams) every day helped control hyperactivity symptoms in children, there were many side effects.

Kids with ADHD generally have more sleep problems and have trouble staying alert during the day. Caffeine can disrupt sleep, which could make these issues worse.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no children should have energy drinks, since the high levels of stimulants -- including caffeine -- can cause serious health problems.

Is It Right for You?

Caffeine, like ADHD medications, may affect one person differently than another. Talk to your doctor before you start to use caffeine to help your symptoms.

If you're taking a prescription stimulant, also taking caffeine could cause more or worse side effects.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 31, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic. "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Stimulant Therapy."

Brain Research Reviews: "Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects."

University of Washington, Eric H. Chudler, PhD: "Caffeine."

Current Pharmaceutical Design: "Potential therapeutic interest of adenosine A2A receptors in psychiatric disorders."

Translational Psychiatry: "Caffeine increases striatal dopamine D2/D3 receptor availability in the human brain."

National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines."

ADDitude: "Caffeine."

Medical Hypotheses: "Tea consumption maybe an effective active treatment for adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)."

European Neuropsychopharmacology: "Caffeine regulates frontocorticostriatal dopamine transporter density and improves attention and cognitive deficits in an animal model of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder."

Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: "Objectively measured hyperactivity -- II. Caffeine and amphetamine effects."

Archive of General Psychiatry: "Methylphenidate vs dextroamphetamine vs caffeine in minimal brain dysfunction: controlled comparison by placebo washout design with Bayes' analysis."

Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: "Characteristics of adolescents and young adults with ADHD who divert or misuse their prescribed medications."

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: "Caffeine Use in Children: What we know, what we have left to learn, and why we should worry."

International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology: "Caffeine improves spatial learning deficits in an animal model of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- the spontaneously hypertensive rat (SHR)."

Sleep: "Sleep and alertness in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review of the literature."

Pediatrics: "Clinical Report -- Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate?"

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