How Does Caffeine Affect People With ADHD?

people holding coffee

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If you have—or suspect you have—attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may wonder about the relationship between caffeine and ADHD. Caffeine is one of the world's most popular drugs for a reason. Most people love that it helps them feel alert and focused and some people simply enjoy it for the taste.

But if you have ADHD, you may be more drawn to it because caffeine and the medications used to treat ADHD all work on your dopamine system, the reward center in your brain.

Here’s what you need to know about caffeine, and how it may affect people with ADHD, especially if you are also already taking stimulant medication to manage ADHD symptoms.

What Is Caffeine?

Caffeine is one of the most commonly used substances in the world—research shows thatmore than 85% of Americans will have at least one caffeinated drink a day.

Caffeine is found in:

  • Coffee
  • Energy drinks
  • Chocolate
  • Tea
  • Soda 

Caffeine is classified as a central nervous system stimulant,meaning that it's a drug that increases alertness, energy, and attention. It generally works by blocking the neural receptors that make us sleepy.

Instead, the activation of these receptors creates a chain reaction that ultimately leads to producing more adrenaline, which gives you that extra boost of energy and concentration.

Similar to other drugs used more recreationally, caffeine also increases the amount of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain.

While caffeine can be helpful for those with ADHD, it also has diminishing returns as. For example, caffeine can increase anxiety symptoms. This may actually decrease your ability to concentrate.

Also, as caffeine is a highly addictive substance, it is very possible—and common—for one to develop a tolerance for caffeine meaning they will need more to get the same effect. 

Excess caffeine may also lead to insomnia, resulting in fatigue. Tiredness can lead to even more issues with concentration. Additionally, coffee may lead to an increase in cortisol,the stress hormone.

Elevated levels of cortisol have been associated with cognitive issues.

Caffeine and ADHD: Can It Help?

However, caffeine may be used to treat ADHD, according to some research. Tea, particularly green tea, may be beneficial. It is thought that l-theanine (an amino acid in tea), which helps with anxiety, also increases dopamine in the brain. Fifty percent of people dealing with ADHD also deal with anxiety.

In children, at least, while traditional stimulant medications outperform caffeine in treating ADHD symptoms, there is still more of a benefit to using caffeine versus not. Some benefits seen include reduced hyperactivity, increased executive function, and decreased explosiveness.

Caffeine can even calm children with ADHD, paradoxically. Of course, little research exists on the long-term safety of caffeine use in children.

It may also depend on the medication; Ritalin (methylphenidate) appears to be much more effective than caffeine while Adderall (dextroamphetamine-amphetamine) is not quite as dramatically effective as caffeine.

In the three core symptoms of ADHD (attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity), methylphenidate was more effective than caffeinein reducing only hyperactivity. Amphetamines were more effective than caffeine in reducing both hyperactivity and impulsivity. Caffeine and medications seem to be about equal in effectiveness for attention.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a condition that involves inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which lead to difficulties managing behaviors and attention. It is primarily passed on through genes,though not all of those who inherit the gene will end up showing symptoms of ADHD. 

It is believed that people with ADHD have dysfunction within the dopamine system within their brains, leading many to seek—usually, illegal—drugs that will release dopamine. Therefore, it makes sense that people with ADHD would seek caffeine, as it both satisfies those dopamine deficiencies as well as helps with the inattention inherent in ADHD.

“Caffeine [use] can often be an inadvertent or unintentional effort at self-medication in people with ADHD,” says Brit Barkholtz, MSW, LICSW. Indeed, research proves that those with undiagnosed ADHD are likely to seek out stimulants to self-medicate, including parents who take their children’s ADHD medication. 

Interaction Between Caffeine and Medications

Most medications for ADHD, with the exception of Strattera (atomoxetine), are stimulant medications that speed up the body and brain’s processes; similarly, caffeine is also considered a stimulant drug. Since both of these substances work similarly in the body and brain, the effects of the two combined may be intensified.

Additionally, both caffeine and ADHD pharmacological stimulants carry high risks of addiction, especially when taken together—and people with ADHD are already at a higher risk of substance use issues. One study puts that risk at three times more than those who don’t also deal with ADHD. However, those who take medication to treat their ADHD are less likely to develop substance use disorders.

Some of the risks of combining stimulant ADHD medication and caffeine:

  • Jitteriness/jumpiness
  • Elevated heart rate 
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety 

Benefits of Caffeine And Medication

A small studyfound that in some cases, at the right dose, caffeine and ADHD medication together may actually have a synergistic effect, helping symptoms such as impulsivity, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity. In these situations, one may even need less of their stimulant medication than previously thought. 

How Caffeine Affects People With ADHD Differently

In some areas, caffeine affects people with and without ADHD similarly. However, where these paths diverge is how caffeine affects overall functioning. In one study, children with ADHD’s functioning had greater improvement with caffeine than those who didn’t have ADHD. Caffeine also seemed to make the kids with ADHD happier than it did the kids who didn’t have ADHD.

Stereotypes exist of both people with ADHD and people who use caffeine bouncing off the walls, but if you’re experiencing other ADHD symptoms and you find caffeine has more of a calming and focusing effect on you than an energizing effect, that could be worth looking into, says Barkholtz.

Caffeine affects everyone differently, but particularly those with ADHD, so consult with your doctor to see if caffeine use is appropriate for you or your child. If you are already using caffeine or stimulant medications, do not stop either without talking to your doctor, as withdrawal symptoms may occur.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer using her experiences to help others. She holds a master's degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University and is a board member of Still I Run, a non-profit for runners raising mental health awareness. Theodora has been published on sites including Women's Health, Bustle, Healthline, and more and quoted in sites including the New York Times, Shape, and Marie Claire.