The question of whether cannabis helps or hinders Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has long been debated by researchers. And there’s still a lot to consider, especially for those who’ve struggled with pharmaceutical ADHD treatment options and need alternatives.
What is ADHD?
A neurological disorder that impacts the parts of the brain that help us plan, focus on, and execute tasks, ADHD affects approximately 11 percent of children and almost five percent of adults in the U.S. ADHD symptoms typically show up at an early age, though they can become more noticeable when a child starts school. The average age of an ADHD diagnosis is 7 years old.
ADHD symptoms fall into three sub-types (inattentive, hyperactive, or combined) and can be more difficult to diagnose in girls and adults.
Hyperactive: People with hyperactive ADHD tend to act with little impulse control. They may exhibit symptoms like fidgeting, squirming, and talking at inappropriate times, trouble sitting still, or acting without thinking.
Inattentive: People with the inattentive subtype of ADHD have difficulty focusing, finishing tasks, and following instructions. They are easily distracted and forgetful. They may be characterized as daydreamers–losing track of conversations, work assignments, cell phones, etc. often.
Combined: Combined-type ADHD sufferers display a mixture of all the symptoms described above.
How Is ADHD Treated?
According to the Mayo Clinic, standard treatments for ADHD in adults typically involve medication, education, skills training, and psychological counseling. A combination of these is often the most effective treatment. These treatments can help manage many symptoms of ADHD , but they don’t cure it.
ADHD drugs are thought to help improve symptoms by enhancing and balancing neurotransmitters. Medications used to treat ADHD include stimulants, such as amphetamines or Adderall, and nonstimulants, such as atomoxetine (Strattera) or bupropion (Wellbutrin). Non-stimulants can be used if the side effects from stimulants are too much to handle or if other medical conditions prevent use of stimulants.
While these drugs can effectively improve concentration, they can also cause some serious potential side effects including sleep problems, mood swings, loss of appetite, heart problems, and even suicidal thoughts or actions.
Children with ADHD tend to have more problems focusing and may not grow out of this behavior at the same rate as their peers. The CDC notes that when a child is diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), parents often have concerns about which treatment options to choose. What works best depends on the individual child and the family. It is recommended that parents work closely with others involved in their child’s life—healthcare providers, therapists, teachers, coaches, and other family members.
ADHD is not on the autism spectrum, but the two conditions have some of the same symptoms. And having one of these conditions increases the chances of having the other. In recent years, experts have changed the way they think about how autism and ADHD are related. Sometimes these overlapping symptoms cause a child to be incorrectly diagnosed.
While most ADHD diagnoses occur in childhood, some people aren’t diagnosed until adulthood. ADHD doesn’t start in adulthood, though. While they may not have been recognized or diagnosed, the symptoms were present.
Adults with ADHD often have accompanying disorders such as personality disorders, anxiety disorders, intermittent explosive disorder, learning disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). ADHD symptoms in adults can be mistaken for other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
What Are Some Natural and Other Lifestyle Factors that Might Help Treat ADHD?
Diet Changes: Certain food colorings and preservatives may increase hyperactive behavior in some children. The Mayo Clinic noted avoiding foods with these colorings and additives:
- sodium benzoate, which is commonly found in carbonated beverages, salad dressings, and fruit juice products
- FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow), which can be found in breadcrumbs, cereal, candy, icing, and soft drinks
- D&C Yellow No. 10 (quinoline yellow), which can be found in juices, sorbets, and smoked haddock
- FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine), which can be found in foods like pickles, cereal, granola bars, and yogurt
- FD&C Red No. 40 (allura red), which can be found in soft drinks, children’s medications, gelatin desserts, and ice cream
- Chemical additives/preservatives such as BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), often used to keep the oil in a product from going bad and can be found in processed food items such as potato chips, chewing gum, dry cake mixes, cereal, butter, and instant mashed potatoes
Outdoor Exposure: A 2011 study supports the claim that regular exposure to outdoors and green space is a safe and natural treatment that can be used to help people with ADHD.
Behavioral Therapy: Therapy can sometimes be beneficial for children with more severe cases of ADHD. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that behavioral therapy should be the first step in treating ADHD in young children. This approach works on resolving specific problematic behaviors and offers solutions to help prevent them.
What Role Could Cannabis Play in Treating ADHD?
More research is needed to determine if cannabis can have benefits for adults with ADHD. Like most states with medical cannabis programs, Ohio does not include ADHD as a qualifying condition for getting a license. A few, such as Oklahoma and Pennyslvania, leave the decision up to doctors.
These days, more ADHD patients and parents of children with the condition are curious about whether cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive extract of the cannabis plant, can be beneficial in managing ADHD symptoms.
CBD has shown promise for treating some health experts, and many experts believe its calming effects could help those with ADHD. However, research is still emerging and caution should be used.
There’s little research about the effects of different forms of cannabis for people with ADHD. However, CBD seems to show more promise for treating ADHD, compared to cannabis that contains THC and CBD. Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific situation.
- A 2016 study analyzed online posts mentioning cannabis and ADHD. It found that 25% of those posts stated a positive impact of cannabis on ADHD symptoms, as opposed to 8% that said it was harmful.
- A small 2020 study of 112 adult patients with ADHD who used medical cannabis found that those who took a higher dose of medical cannabis components, like CBD, took fewer other ADHD medications. Interestingly, the findings revealed that higher-dose consumption of phyto-cannabinoids and terpenes was associated with ADHD medication reduction.
- A 2021 study of 1,700 students found that those with ADHD self-reported that using cannabis improved their ADHD symptoms and lessened their side effects from their ADHD medication.
- A 2022 study describes 3 patients with ADHD who added cannabis to their treatment regimen and experienced positive therapeutic effects. The improvements in their symptoms and quality of life were substantial, such as the ability to keep emotions in check (3 patients) or to obtain and excel at a new job with more responsibility (2 patients). Notably, all 3 patients used cannabis as an adjunct to their other medications (e.g., stimulants, antidepressants, or mood stabilizers).
- A 2019 medical review of 83 studies found that there was “scant” and “insufficient” evidence on the effectiveness of cannabis to treat mental health conditions, including ADHD.
- Although ADHD is most often diagnosed in children, cannabis should not be used by most young people. Even states with recreational cannabis laws typically don’t allow people under 21 years old to purchase or consume cannabis. Medical cannabis programs for children are extremely limited, and ADHD is typically not a qualifying condition.
- Because a child’s brain is still developing, there may be risks in using cannabis for treating ADHD. They may cause altered brain development and cognitive impairment.
- Nonstandard or inconsistent dosing is often listed as a drawback of cannabis by medical practitioners, but cannabis patients say they disagree. The freedom to dose as needed instead of on a set interval schedule was a benefit that patients often cited.
As with all treatment options, you should talk with your medical care team to discuss the benefits and potential risks of medical marijuana for treating your ADHD and whether it might be right for you!