Can Caffeine Treat ADHD?

Caffeine is probably the most popular unofficial treatment available for ADHD. While caffeine doesn’t pack the same punch as other stimulants like amphetamine from the perspective of treating ADHD, many ADHDers — especially undiagnosed ADHDers — rely heavily on the world’s most commonly used drug.

Given how many ADHDers use caffeine to dial back their symptoms, surprisingly little research has been done on a caffeine as a serious treatment for ADHD. What little research has been done, however, paints an unclear picture but suggests future work in this area could be promising.

One thing that is clear is that people with ADHD are drawn to caffeine at rates far higher than neurotypicals. A 2010 study published in Children’s Health Care found that among a sample of 448 test subjects, teenagers with ADHD were twice as likely to use caffeine as those without. So ADHDers themselves seem pretty convinced caffeine is an effective treatment for ADHD, or at least seem to value the effects of caffeine more highly than most people.

And in fact, there is some evidence that ADHD can relieve symptoms of ADHD up to a point. A study appearing in 2000 in Journal of Attention Disorders found that in children with ADHD, caffeine worked better than a placebo at decreasing hyperactivity, reducing teachers’ ratings of symptom severity and improving planning and executive functioning. However, the study also found that methylphenidate and amphetamines worked even better than caffeine, leading the authors to suggest that caffeine may be most effective as a treatment for ADHD in combination with traditional stimulant medications.

Another study done in 1985 also points to caffeine as a potentially helpful ADHD treatment, both alone and in combination with stimulants. In particular, hyperactive children committed fewer errors of commission (or, in non-scientific terms, why-the-F-did-I-do-that moments) when they were treated with amphetamine, caffeine or both.

Given these hints that there really could be something to caffeine as a treatment for ADHD, researchers have recently started to make noises about looking into caffeine’s effects on ADHDers more systematically. A 2014 article published in Journal of Psychopharmacology reviewing available scientific evidence on caffeine as a treatment for ADHD concluded that although it has long been shunned as a serious clinical treatment for ADHD, caffeine could ultimately turn out to be a useful addition to psychiatry’s ADHD-busting toolbox. Meanwhile, a 2010 article in Medical Hypotheses raised the idea of tea as a treatment for ADHD, largely because of the beverage’s caffeine content.

Although these handful of studies indicate caffeine could be potentially helpful for relieving ADHD symptoms, a lot of research still has to be done before caffeine’s role in treating ADHD can be established on strong scientific grounds. However, ADHDers in their self-medication need not be as methodical as scientists in their research, so if you’re looking for a folk remedy to take some of the edge off your ADHD, there’s really no reason not to try a cup of coffee (as long as your expectations aren’t too high —  there is reason to believe that caffeine won’t be as powerful as traditional medications for getting ADHD under control).

And next time you find yourself sipping a hot beverage, remind yourself that you’re not just indulging yourself, you may actually be on the cutting edge of ADHD research!

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