The Truth About ADHD and Caffeine
Caffeine — in a travel mug, Hershey wrapper, or mid-day Coke — is a natural stimulant that boosts dopamine production in the brain. This helps to explain why so many adults with ADHD say they couldn’t live without it. But is caffeine a safe and effective treatment for symptoms? Here, we study the research and ask the experts.
Coffee, tea, sodas, energy drinks, chocolate — many of us consume caffeine throughout the day for a quick, temporary energy surge. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and boosts dopamine production — both of which help the body with movement, attention, and focus.
In the context of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), treatments often include stimulant medication, which has a similar effect. But is caffeine a viable option to help manage ADHD symptoms? Is it safe for adults and children? What about side effects? Here, we break down the most common effects of caffeine, its safety, and the most recent research available.
How does caffeine affect the brain and body?
Caffeine affects each individual differently. While most experts deem moderate consumption of this natural stimulant safe1, too much caffeine may result in side effects that range from nervousness, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and upset stomach to restlessness, migraines, sleeplessness, and muscle tremors.
“In a general sense, caffeine does tend to improve our performance,” noted Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., M.B.A., the author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults With ADHD and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians4, in a video5 for ADDitude. He adds, however, that those taking ADHD medication may report feeling extra jittery after consuming too much caffeine. And when certain medications combine with caffeine, they may interact poorly.
How does caffeine affect the ADHD brain and body?
In adults and children with ADHD, results of caffeine consumption remain largely anecdotal. The stimulant calms some people, while increasing anxiety in others. However, many parents and adults with ADHD report light to moderate caffeine use as a way to help boost focus and concentration. Tuckman, however, notes that patients taking a stimulant medication for ADHD tend to crave caffeine less.
“The amount of caffeine you’d need to consume to affect ADHD would probably cause agitation,” said Larry Silver, M.D.6, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “I don’t recommend drinking caffeinated beverages [or taking caffeine-containing pills] as a way to treat ADHD.”
How much caffeine is safe?
The Mayo Clinic7 reports 400 milligrams of caffeine each day is safe for an adult; that’s about four cups of coffee. In children, the maximum caffeine intake varies by age, with the 4- to 6-year-old age range at 45 milligrams per day, and 85 milligrams (roughly one 8-ounce cup) for a 10 to 12 year old. Pregnant women or those trying to conceive should limit caffeine to a maximum of 300 milligrams per day.
What does the research say about treating ADHD with caffeine?
Researchers studying caffeine in relation to ADHD is nothing new, but the actual body of research remains relatively small and inconclusive.
A 2011 study8 published in the Journal of Medical Hypotheses and Ideas reports tea consumption may prove effective to help treat ADHD in adults. Another study9 that same year found a significant improvement in attention deficit disorder in rats who consumed caffeine.
A 2014 review10 in the journal Psychopharmacol called for further investigation of caffeine’s therapeutic potential as a therapy or an adjunctive agent in ADHD. And a 2013 study11 published in European Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that caffeine could be useful as a treatment, as it appears to normalize levels of dopamine and improve attention in people with ADHD.
What’s the bottom line on caffeine and ADHD?
In 2017, we received more than 4,000 responses to our ADDitude survey12 from caregivers and adults navigating ADHD treatment. When asked about dietary habits, one respondent reported: “We try to reduce sugars, caffeine (chocolate), and increase protein,” while another noted that “caffeine is good, but not excessive amounts.” And yet another responded that she uses fish oil, caffeine, vitamin D, and exercise to manage symptoms.
In other words, it appears there is no single best practice being recommended by medical professionals or followed by patients.
The bottom line on caffeine use: While one person may manage symptoms with a cup of coffee in the morning, another may not. What works best isn’t always the treatment recommended by their doctors or used by the most people.
1 Melanie A. Heckman, Jorge Weil, Elvira Gonzalez De Mejia. “Caffeine (1, 3, 7‐trimethylxanthine) in Foods: A Comprehensive Review on Consumption, Functionality, Safety, and Regulatory Matters.” Journal of Food Science (2010): https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2010.01561.x
2“Caffeine’s Effect on Memory, Cognition, and Alzheimer’s.” Caffeine Informer. Accessed December 20, 2018. https://www.caffeineinformer.com/bad-memory-drink-more-caffeine
3Kumar, Prakash M., Swe Swe Thet Paing, HuiHua Li, R. Pavanni, Y. Yuen, Y. Zhao, and Eng King Tan. “Differential Effect of Caffeine Intake in Subjects with Genetic Susceptibility to Parkinson’s Disease.” Nature News. (November 02, 2015.) Accessed December 20, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep15492
4“More Attention, Less Deficit.” More Attention, Less Deficit. Accessed December 20, 2018. http://adultadhdbook.com/
5ADDitude Magazine. “ADHD and Caffeine: Is It An Effective Alternative Treatment?” YouTube. (August 17, 2011.) Accessed December 20, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPf2FYryyDU
6Larry Silver. “Caffeine as a Treatment.” ADDitude. (July 07, 2017.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.additude.com/caffeine-as-a-treatment/.
7“Caffeine: How Much Is Too Much?” Mayo Clinic. (March 08, 2017.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/art-20045678.
8Kezhi Liu, Xuemei Liang, Weihong Kuang. “Tea Consumption Maybe an Effective Active Treatment for Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” NeuroImage. (February 01, 2011.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306987710003531?via=ihub.
9Miguel Caballero, Fabiana Núñez, Siobhán Ahern, Maria L. Cuffí, Lourdes Carbonell, Silvia Sánchez, Víctor Fernández-Dueñas, Francisco Ciruela. “Caffeine Improves Attention Deficit in Neonatal 6-OHDA Lesioned Rats, an Animal Model of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” NeuroImage. (February 27, 2011.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304394011002412.
10K. Ioannidis, S. R. Chamberlain, and U. Müller. “Ostracising Caffeine from the Pharmacological Arsenal for Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder–was This a Correct Decision? A Literature Review.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. (September 2014.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24989644.
11Pablo Pandolfo, Nuno J. Machado, Attila Köfalvi, Reinaldo N. Takahashi, Rodrigo A. Cunha.”Caffeine Regulates Frontocorticostriatal Dopamine Transporter Density and Improves Attention and Cognitive Deficits in an Animal Model of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” NeuroImage. (May 04, 2012.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924977X12001071.
12Devon Frye, and Anni Layne Rodgers. “Special Report: How You Are Treating ADHD or ADD Today.” ADDitude. (September 27, 2018.) Accessed December 21, 2018. https://www.additude.com/adhd-treatment-options-caregivers-adults-survey-results/.