Does CBD Have Benefits For ADHD?
Have you ever had one of those days where everything feels just a little bit harder? You lose your keys, then your wallet. You feel moody, restless, and constantly distracted at work or school. While these are common experiences among many of us, for people with ADHD, they can be a daily struggle.
Could CBD help with ADHD? As of yet, there's little-to-no research into the topic. However, studies have looked at CBD's therapeutic potential for certain symptoms associated with the disorder. Results are preliminary, but suggest promising avenues for further investigation. Let's get into the details.
What is ADHD?
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health defines it as a "brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development".
While the exact causes of ADHD are unknown, it can be influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. On a structural level, people with ADHD may display key differences in certain areas of the brain. Several studies also suggest that dysregulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine likely plays a role.
There are three main types of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, and combination type. While they present slightly differently, all three can negatively impact quality of life.
Symptoms of ADHD
ADHD is characterised by multiple problems with executive functioning. People with ADHD often have trouble concentrating, and struggle with emotional regulation.
Inattentive-type ADHD is sometimes referred to as ADD (attention deficit disorder), since hyperactivity is not present. This variant is more common in women and girls. Symptoms include:
- Difficulty focusing and being easily distracted
- Struggling to stay organised
- Frequently losing things
- Poor time-management
Hyperactive ADHD is more common in boys and men. Symptoms include:
- Restlessness and fidgeting
- Poor impulse control
- Excessive talking and interrupting others
- Nervous energy
- Decreased sense of danger
People with combination-type ADHD demonstrate symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive types.
ADHD often causes problems with school and work. The disorder can impede professional goals and negatively affect personal relationships. This can lead to low self-esteem and depression. In fact, ADHD often occurs together with other disorders. Common comorbidities include mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and learning disabilities. The effects of some of these conditions may worsen the symptoms of ADHD, leading to a vicious, demoralising cycle.
Diagnosis and treatment
ADHD is often diagnosed in childhood and symptoms can appear as early as preschool age. That said, many people are not diagnosed until adulthood. Late diagnosis of ADHD is more common with inattentive type, since the lack of hyperactivity can make symptoms less obvious.
ADHD is usually treated with stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) and amphetamines (Adderall, Dexedrine, Vyvanse). Many people with ADHD report a paradoxical calming effect from stimulants. However, the exact treatment mechanism is unclear. Since they boost dopamine, stimulant medications may address dopaminergic dysregulation thought to be linked to ADHD.
Unfortunately, these drugs are potentially habit-forming. They can also come with unwanted side effects. Patients may experience insomnia, muscle tension, and anxiety, in addition to rare but serious side effects like high blood pressure.
Benefits of CBD for ADHD
While no primary research has been done on CBD and ADHD, secondary research indicates CBD may be helpful for alleviating certain symptoms associated with the disorder. It could also help lessen the side effects of standard ADHD medication, such as insomnia.
Just remember: you should always talk to your doctor before starting a new treatment or combining CBD with other medications.
The role of the endocannabinoid system
Many adults with ADHD report self-medicating with cannabis. A related study investigated the resulting effects on cognitive performance and emotional regulation. Researchers found that adults with ADHD "may represent a subgroup of individuals who experience a reduction of symptoms and no cognitive impairments following cannabinoid use". This indicates that people with ADHD may respond differently to cannabinoids.
The study was somewhat inconclusive, and focussed on whole-plant cannabis rather than CBD specifically. However, it raises questions about a possible relationship between ADHD and the endocannabinoid system (ECS). A second study, published in 2013, also touched on this topic. It established indirect support for a link between endocannabinoid receptors and regulatory control associated with ADHD.
What is the endocannabinoid system? The ECS is a regulatory system comprised of cell receptors and neurotransmitters known as endocannabinoids. It's expressed throughout the body, including the brain, and has been shown to modulate numerous biological processes. CBD interacts with the ECS through multiple mechanisms. If a link between the ECS and ADHD is confirmed, CBD could be a fruitful area for research into natural treatments for the disorder.
ADHD and anxiety
Around 50% of adults and 30% of children with ADHD also suffer from anxiety. Anxiety can exacerbate certain symptoms of ADHD itself, like restlessness and difficulty concentrating. Attention problems and impulsivity can make social interaction challenging, leading to stress and poor self-image. People suffering from both ADHD and generalised or social anxiety disorders may thus feel overwhelmed—bombarded by a perfect storm of symptoms.
CBD may provide some shelter from the storm. A 2015 study found subjects with social anxiety disorder (SAD) to demonstrate an increase in negative self-evaluation during public speaking. However, this increase was almost eliminated when CBD was administered.
Another study found CBD to be safe and effective at treating anxiety in a 10-year old girl with post-traumatic stress disorder. Since ADHD often presents at a young age, it's notable that this study involved pediatric administration of CBD. That said, it's one of the only studies to do so. If you have a child with ADHD, make sure to consult a medical professional before deciding to administer CBD.
ADHD and poor sleep
Many people with ADHD struggle to get a good night's sleep. One study found that 67% of subjects suffered from some form of insomnia. The exact nature of this link is unknown, but multiple factors could contribute to restless nights.
For one, insomnia is a common side effect of many stimulant medications. People with ADHD may also have trouble quieting their mind at night. Since sleeplessness exacerbates the symptoms of ADHD, this could lead to a vicious cycle.
CBD shows promise for sleep support. The same study that looked at anxiety in a young PTSD patient also noted improvements in sleep quality. This is supported by additional research that draws a link between CBD, anxiety, and sleep.
Somewhat paradoxically, CBD may also combat excessive sleepiness during the day. This could make it an interesting option for people with ADHD who suffer from sleep disorders and daytime fatigue.
ADHD, impulsivity, and substance use disorder
Many adults with ADHD are more susceptible to substance use disorder. This can make healthcare providers reluctant to prescribe stimulant medications that carry a risk for addiction. Substance use disorder is a chronically relapsing condition. It's characterised by "susceptibility to stress, elevated anxiety, and impaired impulse control". Notably, these symptoms share commonalities with certain types of ADHD. Both conditions have also been linked to dopamine.
Studies have shown CBD "strongly modulates" the mesolimbic dopamine system. CBD has also shown promise as a treatment for addiction, reducing drug-seeking behaviour and impulsivity in animal models. While the link to ADHD has yet to be concretely established, this could present an interesting area for future scientific inquiry.
CBD and ADHD: Avenues for further research
ADHD is a complicated disorder that has yet to be fully understood. Researchers have investigated a variety of potential genetic and environmental causes, but few strict determinations have been made. Dopamine seems to play a role, but its exact mechanisms of influence are unclear, and other factors are likely present.
Part of the issue is that ADHD presents as a diverse and often variable set of symptoms, many of which mimic other disorders. This is further complicated by the fact that ADHD often occurs alongside depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and other conditions that overlap in terms of presentation.
Meanwhile, CBD is growing in popularity as a potential treatment for a wide-ranging set of ailments. While the research backing up its therapeutic potential is largely preliminary, it is nevertheless promising. The diversity of CBD's effects is likely due to its interaction with the endocannabinoid system, which seems to play a regulatory role in many different biological functions.
CBD and ADHD thus appear to share a level of complexity when it comes to their mechanisms of action. Crucially, the possible benefits of CBD appear to overlap with many symptoms of ADHD (and its comorbid conditions).
While no studies have focussed on CBD as a treatment for ADHD, both are the subject of growing scientific research. We can certainly expect new discoveries to emerge in the future. If you struggle with ADHD-associated anxiety, insomnia, impulsivity, or other frustrating symptoms, talk to your doctor about trying CBD oil.