Caffeine is not just in coffee. Today we find caffeine in energy drinks, candy bars, tea, and soda. The natural boost from caffeine releases dopamine in our brains, which adults with ADHD swear helps them stay focused. But is caffeine safe and does it work to improve ADHD symptoms?
Does caffeine improve ADHD symptoms in kids?
ADHD- MIllions of Children and Counting
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a commonly diagnosed, neurodevelopmental disorder, and chronic condition that affects millions of kids and adults. Boys are diagnosed more frequently than girls and symptoms can appear as early as age 3. Hyperactivity, difficulty concentrating, troubles in school, low self-esteem are some of the common symptoms of ADHD, but there are three subtypes:
- Predominantly inattentive: The majority of symptoms relate to the inability to focus on a particular activity or interaction.
- Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive: The majority of symptoms are excessive or abnormal activity and impulsive behavior.
- Combined: This is a mix of inattentive symptoms and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms
The causes of ADHD are unconfirmed but doctors list premature birth, family members with ADHD, exposure to environmental toxins like lead, and exposure to drugs, smoking and/or alcohol in utero as potential contributing factors. Although many parents report experiencing a worsening of symptoms with sugar, artificial food dyes, and screen time, these have not yet been proven as definitive links but are recommended to be limited for the child with ADHD.
Caffeine for ADHD and Hyperactivity? Sounds Like A Contradiction…
It may seem counterintuitive to use a stimulant for a condition that can result in hyperactivity and impulsivity, stimulant pharmaceutical medications (psychostimulants) are actually the most commonly prescribed for ADHD. According to WebMD,
Stimulants appear to boost and balance levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These medications help improve the signs and symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity — sometimes effectively in a short period of time.
Different types of stimulants may be prescribed- either fast-acting or long-acting and often dosing and specific medication have to be adjusted several times to have the best effects for the child. Side effects of stimulants may include an increased risk for psychiatric problems, weight loss or difficulty maintaining weight, and heart issues.
Caffeine is also a stimulant and also appears to normalize levels of dopamine in the brain. A 2013 study from European Neuropsychopharmacology shows that caffeine may improve the attention spans of people with ADHD.
Another review, from the Journal of Psychopharmacology, goes on to recommend the use of caffeine for adults with ADHD. The use of caffeine in children witH ADHD is much more conservative than when they try it in adults. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says many children already exceed safe levels of daily caffeine in the diet, mostly through soda intake. It is unclear if the positive results for adults using caffeine for ADHD treatment would be the same in a child’s brain.
How Does It Work?
The effects of caffeine vary from person to person. For some, it causes agitation and anxiety and others feel calmed by it. One major concern about using caffeine in food products to manage ADHD is dosing. Food products with caffeine can vary in the amount of caffeine they contain, even different brands of coffee are going to have a different dose of caffeine per cup. And there are concerns about overdosing on caffeine, especially with children already taking stimulant medications.
There are risks involved with taking any stimulant, be it a prescribed pharmaceutical or regular use of caffeine.
People with anxiety disorders, heart conditions, kidney disease, or liver disease may be recommended by their physicians to avoid all stimulants, including caffeine. Caffeine can also lead to trouble sleeping, lower appetite, headaches, or tics. If you or your child experiences any side effects, talk to your doctor.
What Do Parents Say about Caffeine and ADHD Symptoms in Kids?
The anecdotal response from parents also varies. You can find a number of parents touting the benefits of caffeine for children with ADHD online. One mother online reported giving her 8-year-old, unmedicated child diagnosed with ADHD, a cup of caffeinated tea in the morning and she immediately noticed his attention span and general attitude improved. She continues to do this daily. Is this result from the tea, or is it the result of the child believing he received medicine (placebo effect)?
Other Treatments For ADHD Symptoms in Kids
There are alternatives and complementary therapies to help manage ADHD symptoms besides caffeine. The use of counseling, behavioral therapy, massage therapy, mindfulness and meditation, dietary supplements, herbal medicine, and acupuncture have all been used to help kids with ADHD. As a complex, neurodevelopmental condition, kids will likely benefit from a holistic approach to managing their symptoms and creating a foundation to educate them on how to manage themselves as adults.
Using caffeine to treat ADHD symptoms in kids has enough scientific backing that it’s worth a conversation with your child’s physician to see if he or she thinks it may be an alternative worth exploring for your child. It is not recommended to try caffeine for ADHD on your own, especially if your child is already taking pharmaceutical medications for ADHD. Talk to your healthcare provider and discuss if caffeine may be something to help manage ADHD symptoms for your child.
Have you tried caffeine for ADHD with your child? I’d love to hear about your experience.
For more information about ADHD see the ADHD Resource Center from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry