Caffeine is one of the most popular psychoactive substances in the world, next to alcohol and nicotine. It’s a minor stimulant that’s found in coffee, tea, and a variety of medications. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that can increase energy levels, wakefulness, and suppresses appetite. It can also cause some side effects like increased blood pressure, insomnia, and anxiety. Because caffeine is so prevalent, it’s important to know how it will affect medications, disorders, and conditions that you’re dealing with.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that’s thought to be caused by a lack of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. It’s often treated with stimulants. So how does caffeine affect ADHD? Does it make it better or worse? Learn more about how this common substance affects people that have ADHD.
Like many psychoactive drugs, caffeine works by influencing naturally occurring chemicals and receptors in the brain. Specifically, it binds to receptors that are designed to interact with a chemical called adenosine. When adenosine binds to its receptors, it activates them to slow down nervous system activity and promote sleep. When someone introduces caffeine into their system, it can bind to adenosine receptors as an antagonist. That means it binds to receptors and keeps them inactive, blocking adenosine from binding and activating it. For that reason, caffeine can stave off sleep and increase wakefulness. It also triggers the release of adrenaline, which is the fight-or-flight hormone. That can create feelings of elevated energy and increased focus.
Even though caffeine is a stimulant and ADHD is often treated with stimulants, caffeine doesn’t work in the same way as medications like amphetamines. While it may increase wakefulness, it doesn’t cause the same effects on dopamine that makes ADHD medications helpful in treating the disorder. However, caffeine does raise dopamine levels, but drinking a cup of coffee may not be as effective as a carefully prescribed dose of ADHD medication.
Caffeine also constricts blood vessels in the brain in a similar way that ADHD medications do. It’s thought that decreased blood flow can help calm down overactive regions of the brain. For the same reason, caffeine is also found in some headache medications.
Still, some of the effects of caffeine may worsen some symptoms of ADHD. For instance, ADHD can cause insomnia and anxiety, which are both side effects of caffeine consumption. Sleep deprivation can also lead to cognitive issues that someone with ADHD may already struggle with, like forgetfulness and focus.
Caffeine and ADHD medications like Ritalin and amphetamines are all stimulants. Taking a stimulant medication and then drinking several cups of coffee can lead to overstimulation, heart palpitations, insomnia, and other potentially serious side effects. On the other hand, having a moderate amount of coffee when you’re taking an ADHD medication might not cause any adverse effects. Still, it’s important to ask your doctor or pharmacist if coffee is safe when you are taking the medication and how you should moderate caffeine intake. If you start to experience symptoms like headaches, tremors, heart palpitations, anxiety, hallucinations, or jitteriness, stop taking caffeine and speak to your doctor as soon as possible.
Psychology Today. (n.d.). Dopamine. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June 6). Prescription Stimulants. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, September). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
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