Can drinking a cup of coffee help ADHD symptoms? Some experts say “yes” but with limited effectiveness. Caffeine is a stimulant and for millions of people in the United States and around the world it is used on a daily basis to help with alertness in the morning and to fight sleepiness during the day. A cup of coffee can help increase attention and focus, but lacks the overall effectiveness of traditional stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, Concerta or Adderall.
A number of studies have been completed on caffeine and ADHD, but the results are mixed. Some studies found that caffeine helps on tasks involving memory and others have found caffeine to improve concentration but decrease short-term memory. Other studies have found that two to three cups of coffee has the same effect as a low dose of methylphenidate (Ritalin). Caffeine, like stimulant medications, may have a different effect on each person. For some, two cups of coffee each morning can help improve alertness and attention, for others it may not help at all.
Benefits of Caffeine
There are certainly benefits to using caffeine to help with mental alertness. It is easy to find, accessible, inexpensive and doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription. You don’t even need an official ADHD diagnosis to use caffeine. Because stimulants tend to calm people with ADHD down, caffeine can do the same. While your spouse might drink a cup of coffee and be wired, you may be wired before drinking the coffee and calm afterwards. Some adults with ADHD say a cup of coffee before bedtime helps them sleep better.
Disadvantages of Caffeine
On the other hand, caffeine is short-acting. The alertness usually wears off after a few hours and it is not as powerful as stimulant medications. The higher doses that are required to sustain mental focus can make you edgy, jumpy, nervous and shaky. When caffeine is wearing off, especially if you have ingested a high amount, you can experience a mental “crash.” You may pay for your short-term relief of ADHD by feeling irritable, tired and unmotivated. You also can develop a dependence on caffeine, feeling sluggish if you don’t have your morning cup of java and for long-term users of caffeine, going without it often causes a headache that can last anywhere from one to three days.
As with stimulant medications, caffeine can cause side effects, such as increased heart rates, increased blood pressure and worsen anxiety disorders and respiratory disorders. Heavy, long-term use of caffeine has been associated with hand tremors. It is important to monitor your intake of caffeine and if you notice side effects or health concerns, limit or discontinue consuming foods and drinks with caffeine and talk with your doctor about your symptoms.
Children and Caffeine
While it may be just fine for you to have one or two (or three or four) cups of coffee each day to help control ADHD symptoms, it probably isn’t a good idea to give caffeine to your child. Jay Hoecker, M.D., Mayo Clinic Pediatrician, in an article on ADD/ADHD Treatments.com explained, “…too much caffeine also can cause insomnia, nervousness, irritability and increased heart rate. Because of their smaller body size, children are even more susceptible to these effects than adults are. For these reasons, most pediatricians discourage caffeine consumption in children.”
Before using caffeine to treat your child’s ADHD, consult your doctor and find out if this is a safe alternative.
Collingwood, J. (2010). Caffeine’s Effect on ADHD Symptoms. Psych Central
Lesk, V. E. and Womble, S. P. Caffeine, priming, and tip of the tongue: evidence for plasticity in the phonological system. Behavioral Neuroscience, Vol. 118, 2004, pp. 453-61
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.