The word “psychotropic” usually brings to mind the Grateful Dead’s dancing teddy bears more readily than it makes you think about chugging your morning java.
But caffeine is, in fact, a psychotropic drug — which just means it alters your mental state. It’s also the only thing that seems to get us through those sleep-deprived mornings.
Caffeine is in coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, and the veins of most exhausted Americans.
But as even diehard coffee enthusiasts know, it’s hard to pinpoint the right amount of caffeine. Too little and you’re a cranky, tired mess. Too much and you’re a spastic tornado of heart palpitations and anxiety.
The good news
Consuming the right amount of caffeine can be a huge help to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Hold on — I need an ADHD refresher
Estimates vary, but up to 5 percent of U.S. adults may have ADHD. That’s about 11 million people! What’s more, about 50 percent of them also have some form of anxiety.
ADHD is likely caused by structural, chemical, and connectivity differences in the brain resulting from genetics and environmental triggers.
It has three main symptoms:
- Hyperactivity: constant movement, excessive talking and fidgeting, a feeling of intense restlessness
- Inattention: lack of focus, persistence, and organization due to actual inability, not a lack of will or comprehension
- Impulsivity: rapid decision-making with a desire for immediate reward and an inability to understand consequences
ADHD symptoms are typically managed with prescription stimulants that target the central nervous system to improve concentration. Like these medications, caffeine is a mild stimulant that can counteract ADHD symptoms.
It does so in two ways:
- It blocks adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleep, and suppresses arousal.
- It manipulates dopamine production, increasing your concentration and enhancing your overall mood.
A quick note on dopamine
Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that needs to be perfectly balanced for you to focus and stay attentive. In most people, stimulants can cause a surge in dopamine, leading to agitation and anxiety.
But in people with ADHD, dopamine levels are low to begin with, so stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines may boost their levels into the productivity zone.
A 2011 study focusing on tea supports this, showing that caffeine mimics the effects of stronger ADHD medications.
Like other stimulants, caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which means it reduces blood flow to the brain. That’s why caffeine helps get rid of a headache.
For reasons still unknown, reduced blood flow may lessen ADHD symptoms by limiting activity in overactive parts of the brain. Basically, it puts the ADHD-affected part of your brain into chill-out mode so the rest of your brain can cooperate and focus.
As good as it sounds, caffeine alone isn’t as effective as ADHD meds for a few reasons:
- It’s difficult to consume consistent amounts of caffeine and properly measure the dosage.
- Prescription meds contain higher, controlled doses of stimulants.
- Consuming caffeine along with ADHD meds can be too stimulating and cause unwanted side effects (more on that in a sec).
Caffeine can lessen ADHD symptoms in adults by:
- boosting dopamine levels in your brain to increase your energy and concentration
- reducing blood flow to your brain to improve your focus
Caffeine isn’t as effective as prescription ADHD medications.
Poor sleep quality
Caffeine can make sleeping difficult, especially if you already have trouble catching Zzz’s.
Sleep deprivation has similar symptoms to ADHD, including:
- difficulty processing information
- inability to concentrate
- reduced sex drive
- increased appetite
Try limiting your caffeine consumption to the morning and early afternoon so your body has enough time to get back to normal functioning by bedtime.
It’s not everyone’s cuppa tea
Even small doses of caffeine or other stimulants may not be your thing. Talk to your doctor before starting a new caffeine regimen. They’ll know about possible side effects based on your overall health and current ADHD treatment.
You should avoid caffeine if you:
- are pregnant or breastfeeding
- have a sleep disorder like insomnia
- are prone to chronic headaches
- have anxiety
- have irregular heart rhythms, palpitations, or high blood pressure
Side effects will depend on how much caffeine you consume and how sensitive you are to it. Over time, you may develop a tolerance for caffeine, so you’ll need to consume more of it to get the same level of benefits.
It’s important not to think of caffeine as a cure-all for ADHD.
The two main interventions for ADHD are medication and behavioral therapy.
The most common ADHD medications include:
- methylphenidate (Ritalin)
- amphetamine (Adderall)
- dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
When caffeine and amphetamines are combined, their effects become even more potent, an effect known as synergy (basically like Godzilla teaming up with Mothra).
Caffeine makes amphetamines more effective. So drink that Starbucks PSL with caution — it may supercharge your Adderall.
You can have too much of a good thing
According to the FDA, healthy adults can generally consume about 400 milligrams of caffeine (about four cups of coffee) per day without any negative effects.
Too much caffeine can cause:
- chest pain
- muscle spasms
- rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
Combining caffeine and ADHD medication increases their benefits but also increases their potential negative effects, including:
- digestive issues
- high blood pressure
- rapid heart rate
- frequent urination
Start with a small amount of caffeine and see how it affects your ADHD symptoms. It might take a little while to find the right dosage for you.
Emerging research indicates ADHD often runs in families, but it’s also revealing just how complex ADHD is.
For instance, genetic mutations at many different points in the DNA journey may be classified as ADHD. Brain regions may develop at different rates in children with ADHD.
All this makes it difficult to pinpoint a cause and even more so to determine the right course of treatment on a case-by-case basis.
Millions of American live with this condition and are totally killing it. You just need to find the combination of treatments that’s right for you.
This may include caffeine, prescription stimulants, behavioral therapy, or all of the above. Talking to your doctor is a great place to start.