No matter where you go, you’re bombarded with reminders about alcohol. For those young and naturally curious or individuals recovering from alcohol abuse, it’s hard not to think about the legal substance. If you’re driving down the road listening to the radio, you might hear a glass getting filled, and bubbles as the announcer describes how smooth the drink is. So, you turn down the radio volume only to see a billboard of another alcohol brand. It’s never-ending, and someone curious about trying alcohol might only have these thoughts reinforced when they see their heroes on TV with a glass or someone “cool” in an ad. It’s even worse if you have a condition like ADHD and you’re looking for relief and turn to alcohol.
Alcohol abuse isn’t a rich or poor problem; the substance will adversely affect people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that an estimated 3 million people die each year from alcohol abuse globally, equating to 5.3 percent of all deaths. Alcohol abuse is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions, and 5.1 percent of the global burden of disease and injury is linked to alcohol, measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). There is also a causal relationship between harmful drinking and a range of mental and behavioral disorders, such as ADHD.
Harmful alcohol use extends beyond yourself. While it’s easy to believe when you go out drinking, you can’t hurt someone else. When you lose your ability to think clearly, you could get behind the wheel of a vehicle and harm someone. Alcohol can also cause a person to lose their mind and enter into fits of rage, causing them to engage in domestic violence and harm their spouse. It also results in a significant social, health, and economic burden on society as a whole.
Alcohol abuse in the United States is a whole other issue. According to a study conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 25.8 percent of all people over age 18 admitted to binge drinking in the previous months, with another 6.3 percent engaging in heavy alcohol use. Binge drinking is a dangerous practice that can harm a person who doesn’t have alcohol use disorder (AUD). Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking occurs when men consume five or more drinks and women who consume four or more drinks in a two-hour span.
Alcohol abuse can result in alcohol use disorder. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol use disorder is an impaired ability to stop or control your alcohol use, despite adverse occupational, social, or health consequences. It’s also known colloquially as “alcoholism.” It’s considered a brain disorder, which can range from mild to severe. Lasting changes in the brain due to alcohol abuse leave individuals vulnerable to relapse.
In 2019, an estimated 14.1 million adults were diagnosed with AUD. Even worse, an estimated 414,000 adolescents were diagnosed with the condition. Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use contribute to the development of AUD, as well as drinking at an early age, genetics, and mental health conditions like ADHD or childhood trauma. Those who fail to get treatment for ADHD may turn to alcohol to self-medicate and cope with their symptoms. While boys exhibit more common signs of the disorder, girls show their signs differently, making the condition challenging to diagnose. For that reason, abusing alcohol might be the only way to cope with their symptoms.
It’s important to understand the relationship between ADHD and alcohol abuse. You must also know how to recognize tolerance, dependence, and options for treatment.
What Is ADHD?
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the more common mental disorders that affect children. However, it also affects many adults. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), an estimated 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults have the disorder. It’s more common in boys than girls, but it’s more challenging to diagnose in girls. It can lead to disruptions in class and problems with schoolwork.
There are different signs for the condition, and they go as follows:
- The inability to concentrate, a short attention span, and being easily distracted
- Making careless mistakes, such as on schoolwork
- The inability to stick to tedious or time-consuming tasks
- Losing things and forgetfulness
- An inability to listen to instructions
- Always changing an activity or task
- Inability to organize tasks
Hyperactivity and Impulsiveness
- Always moving or fidgeting
- Excessive talking
- Inability to concentrate on tasks
- Excessive physical movement
- No sense of danger
- Inability to wait their turn
- Acts without thinking
- Can’t wait their turn and interrupt conversations
These symptoms can wreak havoc in children’s lives and cause them to underachieve or have poor social interaction with their peers, adults, or teachers. Since acting without thinking and having no sense of danger is one of the symptoms, it can cause kids to be more impulsive and experiment with drugs or alcohol. Once a person with ADHD tries alcohol, they might notice their anxiety and other associated symptoms of the disorder disappear. It might be the answer to the question they’ve always sought and could lead to a disastrous path of alcohol abuse and addiction.
How Does Alcohol Affect Someone with ADHD?
It’s hard to ignore the research that links alcohol abuse and ADHD. Those with ADHD are more likely to start drinking earlier in life and drink more than someone without the same condition. With that being said, not everyone with ADHD will abuse alcohol, but the risk of developing AUD is much higher.
Although ADHD isn’t responsible in any way for alcohol abuse, it’s long been seen as a risk factor. The links between alcohol use and severe childhood ADHD include earlier alcohol use, the increased risk of binge drinking, increased sensitivity to alcohol’s effects, and more severe ADHD symptoms. Alcohol impairment can worsen the disorder’s symptoms and cause a person to have even more trouble focusing and become more impulsive. Long-term alcohol abuse is attributed to a decline in cognition, memory, decision-making, and speech.
Alcohol Abuse and ADHD Medications
Abusing alcohol can interact with ADHD medications you may take. It’s important to know these interactions and avoid the substance.
Adderall and Ritalin are the most common medications used to treat ADHD. These drugs work by increasing central nervous system (CNS) activity. On the other hand, alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, decreases that activity. You might think these drugs cancel each other’s effects. However, alcohol changes how your body processes the medication, leading to adverse side effects.
The most common side effects of mixing prescription stimulants with alcohol include the following:
- An inability to sleep (insomnia)
- High blood pressure
- Racing heart rate
Using prescription stimulants along with alcohol also increases your odds of developing alcohol poisoning and overdosing. Stimulants will dull and mask the effects of alcohol, causing you to drink more than you would regularly. Once they wear off, you’ll start feeling the heavy impact of excessive alcohol consumption and fall unconscious. Using both substances regularly can also put increased strain on your heart, raising the chances of a heart attack or stroke.
Although you’ve likely only heard about stimulant drugs to treat ADHD, a medication like atomoxetine (Strattera) is a nonstimulant drug used to treat the disorder. The only reported side effect of the drug among heavy drinkers who used this medicine was nausea. However, you should avoid drinking while using the drug.
Other Pressing Factors
There are other risk factors to take into consideration when taking ADHD medication and consuming alcohol. We’re all different, and our bodies will react as such, but it’s heavily dependent on whether your medication is short-acting or long-acting and the dose. Generally speaking, you should always avoid alcohol, especially high-intensity drinking, when using ADHD medication. You should always talk to your doctor to see if it’s safe to enjoy a glass of wine occasionally.
The Effects of Alcohol Abuse and ADHD
One of the main reasons people use alcohol is to relax. As a depressant, it produces anxiolytic effects similar to benzodiazepines. It’s not unusual to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine after a long day to unwind, but when that glass turns into a bottle, or that bottle can turn into six bottles, problems will arise, especially if you’re using medication. In the case of alcohol abuse and ADHD, alcohol can actually have the opposite effect.
Surprisingly, the effects of alcohol are similar to that of ADHD. In both, the frontal lobe of your brain is affected and impairs your ability to think when intoxicated. Coupling these effects with ADHD can cause your mind to go into a more dangerous state and lead to high-intensity or binge drinking.
Why Do Those with ADHD Turn to Alcohol?
The topic of ADHD has soared in popularity in recent years, but the understanding of the disorder remains the same. According to a 2010 Michigan State University study, an estimated 1 million children were misdiagnosed with ADHD. The condition, which the media popularized, was the easy answer to a child struggling in class. However, genuine ADHD is far more complex than an inability to focus.
Those battling the condition need to be stimulated continuously. The part of the condition that makes them hyperactive makes it hard to focus on tasks they don’t consider stimulating. The result? They’ll create their own stimuli. In children, it presents itself as an inability to concentrate on anything but messing around, but it’s not that. It’s more noticeable inside a classroom because they’re expected to sit silently for several hours.
When it comes to adults, they have far less supervision, meaning they can act on their urges for excitement without the same consequences, which is one of the primary reasons they turn to alcohol. Because of the effects of alcohol and ADHD, there is a dangerous window of limited control. It can lead to lapses in memory and increase the odds of developing AUD as they get older.
ADHD is five to 10 times more common in adult alcoholics than it is in those without the condition. Among adults getting treated for alcohol and substance abuse, the rate of ADHD is a staggering 25 percent. Children with ADHD are far more likely to abuse alcohol in their teens, followed by developing a dependence by adulthood. Due to the similar effects of ADHD and alcohol, those with ADHD who start drinking find it much harder to cease use.
Although alcohol may seem to help a person with ADHD, especially when they’re battling confidence issues, these issues are short-lived, and the adverse effects of daily consumption will catch up. Anyone who attempts to self-medicate with alcohol will eventually develop dependence and eventual addiction.
Is ADHD Considered a Co-Occurring Disorder?
Those with ADHD are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. However, the symptoms of ADHD may not manifest until someone has developed an alcohol addiction. To find the best treatment possible, the person must work with a professional to determine which condition came first. It’s challenging to distinguish the two, especially if the person has been suffering from both for a prolonged period. With adequate therapy and counseling, the person can get to the root of the issue and pursue long-term recovery.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol affects everyone differently, especially if you’re battling ADHD. Millions of people worldwide can enjoy a glass of wine and drink moderately in social settings without falling victim to addiction. Having one or fewer drinks a day for women and two or fewer for men is viewed as moderate drinking.
Drinking alcohol frequently or amounts larger than you expect can be a sign of a more substantial issue. An estimated 18 million people in the United States live with AUD, which can be disruptive and life-threatening. Alcohol abuse can lead to severe health conditions and worsen disorders like osteoporosis. Alcohol abuse also makes it more challenging to diagnose heart disease because of how it affects the circulatory system.
Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
Those who consume large amounts of alcohol can expect the following symptoms:
- Slowed reflexes
- Slurred speech
- Inability to concentrate
- Gaps in memory, also known as brownouts
- Decreased ability to control bodily movements
- Risky behavior
- Poor decision-making
- Remaining conscious but having no memory of your actions (known as a blackout)
Alcohol Abuse Can Lead to Various Kinds of Accidents
High concentrations of alcohol in your blood can lead to breathing issues, coma, and even death. Despite its legality, alcohol is an extremely dangerous drug, and you should take caution when drinking, especially if you have ADHD or you’re taking medication. Although many people can use the drug with no ill effects, it can also lead to the following:
- Severe accidents
You must never operate heavy machinery while under the influence of alcohol. The following are signs of alcohol use disorder:
- Inability to control cravings
- Strong desire and craving to drink alcohol
- Inability to stop drinking once you’ve started
- Increased tolerance for alcohol due to continued consumption
- Lying about your alcohol consumption to friends or family
- Drinking without telling others
- Feeling unable to get through your day without drinking
Symptoms of alcohol abuse include the following:
- Taking unnecessary risks, such as driving under the influence of alcohol
- Needing a drink to relax
- Neglecting your responsibilities to drink
- Encountering legal issues due to your alcohol intake
- Issues with friends and family due to alcohol
Those who abuse alcohol will deny having a problem. However, there are ways to recognize abuse in others. Individuals who abuse alcohol drink frequently and experience issues with their family, friends, and work because of it. However, they’ll downplay the issue and lie about how much they consume.
Alcohol abuse is a diagnosable condition by itself without an ADHD diagnosis. Alcohol abuse is diagnosable when it causes the following:
- Causes harm or injury
- Impacts your relationship
- Negatively affects your quality of life
Coming to this diagnosis is not without its challenges and can be subjective. Concerned family members or friends will try to help someone when they believe their drinking has reached dire levels. However, the individual may not believe it.
Your doctor will ask about your health history and drinking habits. They could also test your blood to assess your health, paying attention to areas most impacted by alcohol, including your heart, liver, brain, and other parts of the nervous system.
Complications of Alcohol Abuse
If you’ve developed alcohol use disorder because you were trying to self-medicate your ADHD, you’ll likely continue drinking despite any health problems you develop due to alcohol use. Loved ones commonly see a problem before the individual does, so it is the individual who must understand they have a problem. Unless they acknowledge their issue with alcohol, treatment won’t be successful because it won’t be taken seriously, and they won’t benefit from the gift they’re being offered.
Alcohol abuse has short-term and long-term effects, including alcohol poisoning, liver damage, and sexual dysfunction. Other effects include cirrhosis, brain damage, and increased risk of heart disease. If you decide to stop drinking, you also encounter the risk of potentially deadly withdrawal.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, include the following:
If you’ve consumed alcohol regularly for a prolonged period, it can turn into a medical emergency. If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek medical help immediately.
- Severe vomiting
If you have alcoholism or a history of withdrawal symptoms, speak to your doctor before quitting.
Treatment for Alcohol Abuse and ADHD
As mentioned earlier, you’ll need to seek help to determine which condition came first. If you’ve been self-medicating with alcohol, you must enter medical detox before anything else. Since alcohol withdrawal is deadly, you must be monitored around the clock by a team of medical professionals to ensure your safety. The process can last anywhere from three to seven days, depending on how much you drank and if you used other medications with alcohol.
Once you’re deemed medically stable, you’ll move onto the next level of care, which could either be an inpatient/residential treatment center or outpatient program. You’ll participate in therapy geared toward getting to the root of your issue to treat your ADHD and alcohol use disorder.
The process can last anywhere from 30 to 90 days or longer. It’ll help you become more clear and learn how to deal with urges to drink and how to combat the constant need for stimuli you have as a person with ADHD.