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Is Your Reaction to Caffeine a Sign You Have ADHD?

Is Your Reaction to Caffeine a Sign You Have ADHD

By Elizabeth Weiss

Your daily cup (or cups) of coffee might feel like the fuel that gets you through the day, but how your body and brain react to caffeine might be an indication that you’re dealing with undiagnosed ADHD. Whether your search for an extra jolt of focus comes from energy drinks, tea, coffee, soda or chocolate, no two people react the same to the powerful nature of caffeine — especially when ADHD is involved.

Possible Impact of Caffeine on People with ADHD

If you can drink cup after cup of coffee without any negative side effects, caffeine likely affects you differently than most coffee drinkers.

“An individual’s response to caffeine can sometimes serve as an indicator of undiagnosed ADHD,” says Dr. Ryan Sultan, a psychiatrist in New York City. While many people experience heightened jitters or restlessness in reaction to too much caffeine, those with ADHD might become more relaxed.

Of course, the impact of caffeine varies from person to person. Just because you like to drink several cups of your favorite medium roast every day and that has no effect on your nervous system doesn’t automatically mean you have ADHD.

Know What You’re Dealing With

Caffeine has power. If ingesting the substance helps someone feel like their best self, it’s easy enough to continue with the relationship.

“Coffee or caffeine in general is one of the most widely used central nervous system stimulants in the world and it creates a high level of dependency, perpetuating its use,” says Stefanie Lattner, founder and CEO of WeVibin cognitive performance therapy in Pittsburgh, Penn. The company has developed a vibrational therapy to improve focus and also developed a brain-training app for mental wellness.

Though many people report feeling more awake and able to tackle their day after a cup of coffee, alertness and attention are two different things, Lattner says.

Ultimately, the dependence on caffeine negatively impacts the sleep-wake cycle in the brain and increases alertness in the short term. But this benefit eventually leads to drowsiness, anxiety and impulsivity, which isn’t all that great for a person’s attention span, ADHD or not.

“As sleep cycles are disturbed, attention further plummets and the stress on the body increases,” Lattner says. “Then the individual may ingest more caffeine.”

Some research has been done surrounding caffeine and cognitive function. But the results don’t offer much insight into caffeine and ADHD, Lattner says — mostly because the studies that have reported positive benefits in alertness and memory have not systematically compared people with or without ADHD.

When Caffeine Matters … and When It Doesn’t

“The type and quantity of caffeine is important for me in determining if it is going to help me or make me feel miserable,” says Jessica Powell of Woodinville, Wash., who has generalized anxiety disorder and was diagnosed with ADHD in her early 40s. “If I drank too much caffeine (in non-coffee drinks) or drank coffee, my anxiety would activate, leaving me less equipped to do anything except sit there, wishing I hadn’t just drunk that coffee.”

Green or black tea, however, became Powell’s method for getting a short boost in focus and productivity without the jitters.

“The downside was that I’d have to keep drinking it and if I ingested any caffeine after noon, I would have difficulty sleeping at night,” Powell says.

Instead of continuing to play with the potential risks and benefits of caffeine consumption, Powell sought medical help.

“Caffeine is not a substitute for a proper diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment plan and ADHD management,” says Sultan, who advises consulting a healthcare provider for an evaluation if you suspect you have ADHD or are concerned about your reaction to caffeine.

Though caffeine is powerful and it helped Powell find her focus to a small degree, it is not a reliable diagnostic tool.

“Finally getting an ADHD diagnosis at age 43 and finding the medication type and dosage best for me has changed my life,” she says.

Can Caffeine Actually Help ADHD Symptoms?

For some people with ADHD, caffeine can make tasks that require sustained attention far more manageable, says Sultan. An energy boost is also possible, but not in a manic way.

“Caffeine tends to have a calming effect on individuals with ADHD, which contrasts with its stimulating impact on those without the condition,” says Sultan.

For example, someone who feels more focused and less agitated after a strong cup of coffee, especially compared to their peers, may consider the possibility of having undiagnosed ADHD if other common symptoms are present like forgetfulness, distraction, impulsivity, or hyperactivity, experts say.

Trista Best, a registered dietitian in Wilmington, Del., reinforces the idea that caffeine can have both positive and negative effects on individuals with ADHD.

“Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase alertness and improve focus in some people with ADHD,” she says. “It can temporarily boost dopamine levels, which may help with attention and concentration.”

Better organization and attentiveness are sometimes reported as welcome side effects in people with ADHD.

It’s important to remember, though, that the impact of caffeine varies greatly among individuals.

“Caffeine’s effects tend to be short-lived and can lead to crashes, making it less effective in the long term compared to prescription medications designed specifically for ADHD,” Best says.

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