If you have adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you can usually manage your symptoms with medications or psychotherapy. But sometimes you may feel those treatments don’t work well for you. Or you may dislike how ADHD drugs make you feel.
People with ADHD tend to have low levels of dopamine, a brain chemical that affects your emotions and moods. Just like ADHD meds, marijuana, alcohol, and other substances also can boost your dopamine levels. That’s why some people find them so appealing. Some can help, but others can make your condition worse.
You may think that a drink or two (or more) will help your mind settle down. But it’s a bad idea. Up to nearly half of adults with ADHD have issues with alcohol use or dependence. They also start drinking at an earlier age. Alcohol may make you feel better for a short while. But over time, drinking too much can damage your heart, brain, and liver, and it makes you more likely to get cancer. The harm can be even greater if you mix alcohol with your ADHD meds.
Warning signs: You may be self-medicating if you have more than 14 drinks a week if you’re a man or more than 7 drinks a week if you’re a woman.
Untreated ADHD raises your chances for substance abuse. Children with ADHD are twice as likely to abuse or become dependent on cocaine as those without the condition. Researchers think it’s because ADHD tamps down activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that oversees impulse control.
Some people believe that marijuana can help ease ADHD symptoms. But research has found almost no proof of this. In fact, cannabis -- which more states are legalizing for medical and recreational use -- can actually worsen your attention, impulse control, focus, and organization.
Warning signs: Doctors advise against using pot to treat ADHD symptoms, even as a last resort. Stay off cocaine, heroin, and other illicit drugs.
A cup of java may seem like an ideal substitute for ADHD drugs. After all, caffeine is the world’s most popular stimulant. And the most widely prescribed ADHD drugs also are stimulants. Research shows that while caffeine may improve your concentration, it doesn’t work as well when taken as medication for ADHD. And too much caffeine can make your memory worse.
Warning signs: If you’re a healthy adult, chances are that a couple of cups of joe a day may help perk up your mind. But if you drink more than that or can’t seem to cut back, talk to your doctor. Kids and teens should avoid any caffeine, since it can cause poor sleep and affect their growth.
Smoking is twice as common among people with ADHD, and it’s much harder for them to quit. This may be because nicotine in cigarettes helps you focus. But while you may think that lighting up may calm you down, research shows that it can backfire and make you more hyper and your ADHD symptoms harder to manage.
Warning signs: If you smoke and you have trouble quitting, see your doctor. If your ADHD is severe, one study found that taking the ADHD drug methylphenidate (Concerta) while using a nicotine patch can make quitting much easier.
Workouts are proven to relieve symptoms of ADHD, especially in kids. Exercise boosts blood flow to your brain, including the area that controls attention. Exercise also signals your brain to release more dopamine.
But you can overdo a good thing. One study found that people who had been diagnosed with ADHD in childhood were more than three times as likely to exercise too much as people who had never had ADHD. Excessive exercise isn’t so much about how much you work out. It’s whether exercise keeps you from tending fully to the rest of your life.
Warning signs: If your exercise habits regularly get between you and your family and friends -- you skip your mother’s birthday party to fit in a run -- or you keep working out even if you’re hurt, you may be dependent or even addicted. Talk to your doctor about how to get help.
You can abuse legal drugs, too. You may take prescription medication like opioids and over-the-counter drugs like cough suppressants to get high or more than the regular dose. As many as 1 in 4 people misuse their ADHD meds, usually by taking too much. That makes your symptoms worse, not better.
Warning signs: Misusing any drugs can be harmful, even deadly. It can lead to seizures, heart attacks, or strokes. Take medications only for their intended use and at the prescribed dose. Get help if you can’t stop.
Other Therapy Options
The widely used stimulant ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin can be taken safely for a long time. The drugs themselves do not make you more likely to abuse alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, or cocaine later on in life. If you’re on ADHD meds and self-medicating, tell your doctor. You may need to adjust your dose or switch to another drug.