ADHD and Substance Abuse (2023)

ADHD may last into adulthood about a third to half the time, and some studies have shown that children with ADHD may be more likely than the general population to develop alcohol and substance abuse problems when they get older.

Are Drug Abuse and Alcoholism More Common Among People With ADHD?

Several studies have shown a strong connection between ADHD, drug abuse, and alcoholism. ADHD is five to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in people without the condition. Among adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse, the rate of ADHD is about 25%.

It is also more common for children with ADHD to start abusing alcohol during their teenage years. In one study, 14% of children ages 15-17 with ADHD had problems with alcohol abuse or dependence as adults, compared to peers without ADHD. Another study found that at a mean age of 14.9 years, 40% of children with ADHD began using alcohol, compared to 22% of children without an ADHD diagnosis -- a strong predictor of alcohol and substance abuse in adulthood. Young adults (mean age of 25), on the other hand, were just as likely to use alcohol whether or not they had an ADHD diagnosis, but those with ADHD were likelier to use alcohol excessively .

Researchers have also found links between ADHD and the use of marijuana and other recreational drugs, particularly in people who also have other psychological disorders (such as obsessive-compulsive disorder). What's more, people with ADHD typically start having problems with drugs and alcohol at an earlier age than people without the condition.

Why Are People With ADHD More Likely to Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

People with ADHD tend to be more impulsive and likely to have behavior problems, both of which can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, researchers say. Also, both ADHD and alcoholism tend to run in families. A child with ADHD who has a parent with alcoholism is more likely to also develop an alcohol abuse problem. Researchers have pointed to common genes shared between ADHD and alcoholism.

(Video) ADHD and Substance Abuse: Catherine Fassbender, Ph.D. (2017)

Are Stimulant Drugs for ADHD Addictive?

Parents sometimes worry whether the stimulant drugs their children are taking to treat ADHD (such as Ritalin and Adderall) are themselves addictive. Stimulant medications work by raising levels of a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain, which helps improve focus and attention -- skills that people with ADHD often find difficult to master.

Dopamine also affects emotion and the feeling of pleasure, creating a "high" that makes people want more. Because cocaine and other street drugs also raise dopamine levels, there has been concern that ADHD stimulants might be similarly addictive. Ritalin's ability to increase energy and focus has even led some people to refer to it as the "poor man's cocaine."

There have been reports of people using ADHD stimulants that weren't prescribed for them. People have crushed and snorted Ritalin tablets or dissolved the drug in water and taken it intravenously. Studies show that abusing Ritalin can lead to dependence on the drug. When carefully taken as prescribed, though, Ritalin is less likely to be addictive in children or adults.

In large doses -- greater than what is typically prescribed for ADHD -- Ritalin does have effects similar to those of cocaine. But researchers have found marked differences between the two drugs. One of the factors that leads to addiction and drug abuse is how quickly a drug raises dopamine levels. The faster dopamine levels go up, the greater the potential for abuse. One researcher found that Ritalin takes about an hour to raise dopamine levels in the brain, compared to only seconds with inhaled cocaine. The doses of Ritalin and other stimulants used to treat ADHD tend to be lower and longer-acting, which reduces the risk of addiction. Long-term use of all stimulants can sometimes lead to a phenomenon called tolerance -- that is, higher doses are needed to achieve the same effect of a controlled substance. If and when this happens, a doctor may then be more likely to consider using nonstimulant medicines to treat ADHD.

Does Taking Stimulants for ADHD Lead to Substance Abuse Problems?

Many parents are concerned that giving their children stimulants to treat ADHD might lead the children to start experimenting with other types of drugs. Several studies have set out to investigate the possible link between prescribed ADHD stimulant medication and substance abuse problems, and there doesn't appear to be a strong connection.

(Video) ADHD and Substance Abuse

One of the longest-term studies, which followed 100 boys with ADHD for 10 years, showed no greater risk for substance abuse in boys who took stimulant drugs compared to those who didn't take the drugs. An earlier study by the same authors even suggested that stimulant use might protect against later drug abuse and alcoholism in children with ADHD by relieving the ADHD symptoms that often lead to substance abuse problems. The earlier the stimulants are started, the lower the potential for substance abuse down the road.

How are Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Treated in People with ADHD?

It's important to remember that not everyone with ADHD will develop an alcohol or substance abuse problem. In adults who do develop a problem, doctors suggest treatment with nonstimulant medications, including atomoxetine (Strattera), viloxazine (Qelbree), clonidine (Kapvay), or guanfacine (Intuniv, Tenex), and sometimes certain antidepressants such as bupropion (Wellbutrin) and desipramine (Norpramin).

Whether Ritalin and other stimulants are effective treatments for ADHD patients with substance abuse problems is less clear. These drugs may be useful when prescribed in a long-acting form and in a controlled way to minimize the risk for becoming physically dependent on or misusing them. Individual or group therapy, as well as 12-step support groups, can also be an important part of the substance abuse program for people with ADHD.

What About Self-Medicating My ADHD?

Self-medication is when you turn to things like prescription or illegal drugs, caffeine, exercise, or alcohol.

Just like ADHD meds, marijuana, alcohol, and other substances also can boost your dopamine levels. That’s why some people find them so appealing.

(Video) ADHD and Addiction : Treatment ADHD and Substance Abuse Problems

Alcohol. People with ADHD turn to alcohol for different reasons:

  • To ease the distress that comes with the condition.
  • Help them deal with social and academic problems.

Many don’t realize alcohol will make their symptoms worse.

There’s a strong link between impulsive behavior, which is common in ADHD, and heavy drinking.

You may be self-medicating if you have more than 14 drinks a week if you’re a man or more than seven drinks a week if you’re a woman.

Illegal drugs. Some people believe that marijuana can help ease ADHD symptoms. But research has found almost no proof of this. In fact, cannabis -- which more states are legalizing for medical and recreational use -- can actually worsen your attention, impulse control, focus, and organization. Doctors advise against using pot to treat ADHD symptoms, even as a last resort. Stay off cocaine, heroin, and other illicit drugs.

Caffeine. Research shows that while caffeine may improve your concentration, it doesn’t work as well when taken as medication for ADHD. And too much caffeine can make your memory worse. If you’re a healthy adult, chances are that a couple of cups of joe a day may help perk up your mind. But if you drink more than that or can’t seem to cut back, talk to your doctor. Kids and teens should avoid any caffeine, since it can cause poor sleep and affect their growth.

(Video) Why ADHD is Linked with Addiction

Cigarettes. While you may think that lighting up may calm you down, research shows that it can backfire and make you more hyper and your ADHD symptoms harder to manage.

Besides the major health risks, smoking may also:

  • Boost your anxiety
  • Make it harder to focus when you try to quit
  • Lower brain function after just 12 hours without a cigarette
  • Raise your odds of relapse if you do quit
  • Thin your brain’s frontal cortex, which helps you with learning, memory, attention, and motivation

If you smoke and you have trouble quitting, see your doctor.

Prescription drugs. Misusing any drugs can be harmful, even deadly. It can lead to seizures, heart attacks, or strokes. Take medications only for their intended use and at the prescribed dose.

If you’re on ADHD meds and self-medicating, tell your doctor. You may need to adjust your dose or switch to another drug.

(Video) ADHD & Substance Abuse Medications - Pharmacology - Nervous System | @LevelUpRN


Is ADHD linked to substance abuse? ›

Children and teens with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely ​than other kids to smoke, drink, or use drugs. They experiment with all three at younger ages than those children without ADHD. They are also at a greater risk for developing a substance use disorder.

Can substance abuse make ADHD worse? ›

Several studies have shown a strong connection between ADHD, drug abuse, and alcoholism. ADHD is five to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in people without the condition. Among adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse, the rate of ADHD is about 25%.

How many people with ADHD have substance abuse? ›

A recent survey found that more than 15 percent of adults with the disorder had abused or were dependent upon alcohol or drugs during the previous year. That's nearly triple the rate for adults without ADHD. Alcohol and marijuana were the substances most commonly abused.

How do you treat ADHD with substance abuse? ›

Kaminer and the other authors of the study recommend that patients with ADHD who also have substance abuse disorders be treated with long-acting, slow-release stimulants. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) and Clonidine are also suggested as possible alternatives.

Are people with ADHD dopamine addicts? ›

Research suggests that people with ADHD crave dopamine. Their brains don't release or produce enough dopamine on their own. This causes a lack of focus and motivation. People who take medication for ADHD, such as Ritalin and other stimulants, get a boost of dopamine which allows them to function and focus.

What are addictive traits from ADHD? ›

It isn't uncommon for both adults and teens that have ADHD to use drugs or alcohol in the face of their ADHD symptoms. One theory is that people with ADHD might be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Individuals who have ADHD also tend to be more likely to have behavior problems and be more impulsive1.

What stuff makes ADHD worse? ›

Some of the common foods that can cause ADHD reactions include milk, chocolate, soy, wheat, eggs, beans, corn, tomatoes, grapes, and oranges. If you suspect a food sensitivity may be contributing to your child's ADHD symptoms, talk to your ADHD dietitian or doctor about trying an elimination diet.

What happens when someone with ADHD drink alcohol? ›

Though alcohol may seem like a way to cope with ADHD, long-term alcohol use can cause memory, cognition, decision-making and speech difficulties. Alcohol consumption can also cause interactions with ADHD medication, such as: Impaired judgment. Inability to know when you're getting drunk.

What things make ADHD worse? ›

11 Things That Make Adult ADHD Worse
  • Lack of Exercise. 1/11. If your memory is hazy, your ADHD may be to blame. ...
  • Eating Out Often. 2/11. ...
  • Too Much Junk Food. 3/11. ...
  • Skipping Breakfast. 4/11. ...
  • Messy Homes and Offices. 5/11. ...
  • Too Much Stuff. 6/11. ...
  • The Wrong Meds. 7/11. ...
  • Lack of Sleep. 8/11.
Nov 18, 2021

Do half of adults with ADHD have had a substance abuse? ›

Half of adults aged 20-39 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have had a substance use disorder (SUD) in their lifetime according to new research. This is markedly higher than the 23.6% of young adults without ADHD who have had a substance use disorder in their lifetime.

Is ADHD considered to be a disability? ›

Is ADHD considered a disability? Yes, ADHD is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). There are several types of disabilities, including but not limited to: learning disability.

How do you increase dopamine in ADHD? ›

You can also do the following to increase your dopamine levels:
  1. Try something new.
  2. Make a list of small tasks and complete them.
  3. Listen to music you enjoy.
  4. Exercise regularly.
  5. Try meditation or yoga.

What is the least addictive stimulant for ADHD? ›

Strattera (atomoxetine) – This prescription medication was the first non-narcotic and non-addictive medicinal treatment option for ADHD approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Does ADHD medication reduce addiction? ›

Additionally, research suggests a 10% reduction in substance use disorders for every year of ADHD treatment, especially for patients who start at an earlier age.

What happens if ADHD is left untreated? ›

Untreated ADHD in adults can lead to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. This is because ADHD symptoms can lead to focus, concentration, and impulsivity problems. When these problems are not managed effectively, they can lead to feelings of frustration, irritability, and low self-esteem.

Why do ADHD people struggle with addiction? ›

People with ADHD may be inclined to abuse drugs or alcohol to make up for the lack of dopamine in their brains, as they have lower levels of the chemical than people who don't have ADHD. Treating ADHD and substance abuse can be challenging because the medications used to treat ADHD can also become habit-forming.

What do ADHD people crave? ›

Sugar and other high carb foods boost dopamine levels in the brain, leading us to crave them more often when dopamine levels are low. Since kids with ADHD have chronically low levels of dopamine, they are more likely than other kids to crave and eat sugary or carbohydrate-heavy foods.

Is ADHD caused by low or high dopamine? ›

If your child has ADHD, they may have low levels of a brain chemical called dopamine. That's part of a mix of their genes, environment, and brain function that experts believe may cause ADHD.

Does ADHD get worse with age? ›

In general, ADHD doesn't get worse with age. Some adults may also outgrow their symptoms.

Why do ADHD brains crave dopamine? ›

Key aspects of the reward system are underactive in ADHD brains, making it difficult to derive reward from ordinary activities. These dopamine-deficient brains experience a surge of motivation after a high-stimulation behavior triggers a release of dopamine.

Can adults with ADHD love? ›

Can someone with ADHD fall in love? While all kinds of people can fall in love, the experience of people with ADHD falling in love can be more intense for them. This is because the person with ADHD can hyperfocus on the person they are in love with.

What is an ADHD meltdown? ›

ADHD meltdowns are sudden outbursts of frustration and anger that seem to come out of nowhere. If your child is struggling to control their emotions, there are ways to help them. For children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsivity can present in many ways.

What annoys someone with ADHD? ›

Sensitive to Rejection. People with ADHD are exquisitely sensitive to rejection and criticism. They can experience hopelessness and demoralization because they try to succeed by imitating the paths to success of people without ADHD, and then fail over and over again because the same paths don't work for them.

What are people with ADHD really good at? ›

These may include hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, conversational skills, spontaneity, and abundant energy. Many people view these benefits as “superpowers” because those with ADHD can hone them to their advantage. People with ADHD have a unique perspective that others may find interesting and valuable.

Why do people with ADHD drink so much? ›

Alcohol is a depressant. That is why many people use it to relax. In the case of people afflicted with ADHD, many will use alcohol to calm down the hyperactivity.

Do people with ADHD abuse alcohol more? ›

Those with ADHD are more likely to drink heavily. They are likely to binge drink more often, and they are more sensitive to its effects. Alcohol sits terribly with some of the classic symptoms of ADHD, such as impulsivity and disrupted emotional functioning.

What does emotional dysregulation in ADHD look like? ›

People who have ADHD frequently experience emotions so deeply that they become overwhelmed or “flooded.” They may feel joy, anger, pain, or confusion in a given situation—and the intensity may precede impulsive behaviors they regret later.

What age does ADHD peak? ›

The symptoms may peak in severity when the child is seven to eight years of age, after which they often begin to decline. By the adolescent years, the hyperactive symptoms may be less noticeable, although ADHD can continue to be present.

What is the burnout cycle of ADHD? ›

ADHD burnout is often something a little deeper. It refers to the cycle of overcommitting and overextending that leads to fatigue in people with ADHD. It involves taking on too many tasks and commitments, and then the subsequent exhaustion that happens when we're unable to fulfill all of our obligations.

What triggers ADHD meltdowns? ›

When we feel like we are constantly unable to do tasks asked of us, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and worthlessness, which can lead to a meltdown, too. Meltdowns may occur when deep breaths and time-outs aren't working and angry outbursts are imminent 😨 .

Can someone with ADHD abuse stimulants? ›

Substance Use Disorders

The medications most commonly used to treat ADHD are stimulants, and survey data show that abuse of prescription stimulants is on the rise.

Is ADHD a form of Autism? ›

ADHD is not on the autism spectrum, but they have some of the same symptoms. And having one of these conditions increases the chances of having the other. Experts have changed the way they think about how autism and ADHD are related.

Do you get money for having ADHD? ›

ADHD is recognised as a condition which qualifies for disability benefits and funding. The following is a summary of the various avenues to explore: The Disability Register Identity Card (for children and young people) is an invaluable card for ADHD children.

What does severe ADHD look like? ›

Adults with ADHD may find it difficult to focus and prioritize, leading to missed deadlines and forgotten meetings or social plans. The inability to control impulses can range from impatience waiting in line or driving in traffic to mood swings and outbursts of anger.

Does caffeine help ADHD? ›

Answer: Using caffeine, either in a drink or in an over-the-counter preparation, is not recommended by medical experts as a treatment for ADHD. Although some studies have shown that caffeine may improve concentration in adults with ADHD, it is not as effective as medication.

What drugs increase dopamine for ADHD? ›

ADHD Treatments That Increase Dopamine

Stimulants used to treat ADHD include: Ritalin or Concerta (methylphenidate) Adderall or Vyvanse (dextroamphetamine)

What does low dopamine feel like? ›

Low levels of dopamine can make you feel tired, moody, unmotivated and many other symptoms. Treatments are available for many of the medical conditions linked to low dopamine levels.

What is the closest thing to Adderall over the counter? ›

Vyvamind is the closest thing available over-the-counter to Adderall. Although it's not as effective as Adderall, it does have the same effects, and is legal to take without a prescription. It also contains B vitamins, which are essential for the functioning of neurons. It also helps the body metabolize dopamine.

What is the closest drug to Adderall? ›

SHORT-ACTING STIMULANT ALTERNATIVES — Currently available short-acting stimulants that may be used as alternatives to Adderall include dexmethylphenidate (Focalin, and generics), methylphenidate (Ritalin, Methylin, and generics), and dextroamphetamine (Zenzedi, ProCentra, and generics); their onset of action occurs ...

What is the most gentle ADHD medication? ›

In terms of non-stimulant medications, ADHD specialists recommend using atomoxetine as a first-choice medication for children and adults, followed by guanfacine or clonidine for children, and bupropion or nortriptyline for adults.

Which ADHD meds are most addictive? ›

Adderall and Ritalin are commonly abused among college and high school students, particularly during exam time, due to their ability to increase mental focus, concentration, and motivation. These stimulants can also provide feelings of euphoria, exhilaration, along with increased mental energy.

Can Wellbutrin be used to treat ADHD? ›

The results of this study showed a possible benefit of using Wellbutrin to treat symptoms of ADHD in adults. The researchers found evidence that Wellbutrin decreased the severity of ADHD symptoms. Wellbutrin also increased the proportion of participants who experienced a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms.

Are ADHD meds worth it? ›

Medications are the first line of treatment for ADHD. Studies have shown they're effective for about 80% of children with the condition. But you may be worried about the side effects of the medication or want to avoid taking them for another reason. For many people, behavior therapy is an appropriate option.

Why is ADHD not taken seriously? ›

“Nobody has perfect memory… but for [people with ADHD], it's extreme. They feel like they're lost all the time,” Almagor said. He believes this is why people don't take ADHD seriously. “I think that's why some people don't respect the severity of what [a person with ADHD] can experience,” he said.

What is the life expectancy of ADHD? ›

ADHD can reduce life expectancy by as much as 13 years, but its risk is reversible.

How do people with ADHD think? ›

The mind of a person with ADHD is full of the minutiae of life (“Where are my keys?” “Where did I park the car?”), so there is little room left for new thoughts and memories. Something has to be discarded or forgotten to make room for new information. Often the information individuals with ADHD need is in their memory…

Do people with ADHD get addicted to stimulants? ›

The answer to this question is complicated. Most ADHD medications are stimulants, which means they can have addictive potential. However, studies have shown that when taken as prescribed and monitored by a doctor, these medications are generally not addictive.

Do people with ADHD like to gamble? ›

Some studies show as many as 10 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with ADHD are also “problem gamblers,” meaning they keep gambling even after it is having a negative effect on their life and relationships.

Why do people with ADHD crave stimulants? ›

Key aspects of the reward system are underactive in ADHD brains, making it difficult to derive reward from ordinary activities. These dopamine-deficient brains experience a surge of motivation after a high-stimulation behavior triggers a release of dopamine.

What are people with ADHD known to be good at? ›

These may include hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, conversational skills, spontaneity, and abundant energy. Many people view these benefits as “superpowers” because those with ADHD can hone them to their advantage.

Do people with ADHD fantasize more? ›

Furthermore, individuals with ADHD reported significantly more often about paraphilic fantasies and behaviors including fetishistic and sadistic sexual fantasies.

Do people with ADHD fantasize a lot? ›

Spontaneous daydreaming can be a subtle symptom of ADHD for some people, especially girls and women. Excessive or disruptive daydreaming may also be linked to other mental health conditions, like maladaptive daydreaming.


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