Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a disorder characterized by inattentiveness, overactivity, impulsivity, or a combination. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or AACAP, notes that approximately 3 percent to 5 percent of school-age children have ADHD. Children with ADHD might have difficulties in school or problems with relationships, so undiagnosed or untreated ADHD can have a lifelong impact. Treatments for ADHD can include medications, behavioral or cognitive therapy. Some people wonder whether caffeine also might be helpful.
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According to the AACAP, ADHD is not “just” a behavior problem and the children or teens who have ADHD often are not able to control their behavior. The ADHD behavior symptoms such as impulsiveness must be much more severe than in a child of the same age without ADHD and must last for at least six months. The National Institutes of Medicine notes that children with ADHD actually have differences in their brains that can be seen with imaging studies. ADHD children also handle neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline differently from their peers, and also might have psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder or depression. Adults also can have ADHD and when diagnosed they usually receive similar treatment.
While it might seem counterintuitive, drugs that stimulate the brain are the most effective treatment for ADHD and oddly help make people with ADHD calmer. Commonly used ADHD medications include Adderrall, Focalin, Dexedrine, Ritalin and Concerta. One drug, Strattera, which is in a different class and not considered a stimulant, also is prescribed for ADHD. These drugs have risks: The National Institute of Mental Health cautions that there have been some rare deaths in children with heart problems who used ADHD drugs. In addition, they have side effects, the most common of which for the stimulant drugs are decreased appetite, sleep problems, stomach aches and headaches. Occasionally, children will develop sudden, repetitive movements or sounds called tics or have changes in personality so that they seem to show little emotion. Rarely, children report hearing voices or having hallucinations. Strattera might increase the risk of suicide in children and teens. Serious symptoms might develop suddenly, and a child or adolescent on Strattera should be carefully watched for changes in behavior. Finally, ADHD medications can be expensive.
Caffeine for ADHD
With what might seem like a lot of potential downsides to medications, some people are wondering if caffeine might be a better choice for managing ADHD. Marjorie Roth Leon, Ph.D., of National-Louis University, reviewed a number of studies that looked at the use of caffeine for ADHD. Roth found that caffeine did improve hyperactivity and function. In the June 2001 issue of “Monitor on Psychology,” Leon stated that "compared to giving children with ADHD no treatment whatsoever, caffeine appears to have potential to improve their functioning in the areas of improved parent and teacher perceptions of their behavior, reduced levels of aggression, impulsiveness and hyperactivity, and improved levels of executive functioning and planning." Two other researchers, M.D. Schechter and G.D. Timmons, reported in the May-June 1985 issue of the "Journal of Clinical Pharmacology" that 600 milligrams of caffeine effectively controlled ADHD symptoms, but also produced side effects. A 600-milligram dose of caffeine is about the equivalent of six 8-ounce cups of plain coffee. Diogo Lara, in the 2010 issue of the "Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease," reported that caffeine intake of less than 6 cups a day was associated with fewer depressive symptoms, fewer cognitive failures and a lower risk of suicide. Lara added that caffeine’s therapeutic effects on depression and ADHD need more study and that high doses of caffeine can induce anxiety, panic and even psychosis. Caffeine does have the advantage of being readily available and inexpensive compared with ADHD prescription medications.
Considerations and Warnings
ADHD is a complex disorder and can affect almost all areas of a person’s life. Caffeine might have the potential to help in the treatment of ADHD, but it is not considered an accepted treatment. Nor are there dosage recommendations for managing ADHD with caffeine. Caffeine's side effects, such as insomnia, could make ADHD symptoms worse. A frank discussion with your health care professional is wise if you or your child have been diagnosed with ADHD, or have symptoms that might be caused by ADHD. Together you can develop the best treatment plan for your situation.