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Caffeine as ADHD Treatment?


I wasn’t going to write about caffeine or coffee as an ADHD treatment. I don’t really know if it is consider natural at all, as it is also a stimulant like all other ADHD medications.

Anyway, I was in my office the other day talking to a co-worker in the afternoon when my boss walked in with a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew in his hand. He loves Mountain Dew and he drinks a lot of it. I don’t know how much exactly, but I always see a bottle of Mountain Dew – big or small on his desk.

Then it dawns on me that I should write about caffeine. My boss is not hyperactive or anything. He hides in his office all day looking busy, but probably having hard time focusing on task. He talks 10,000 miles per hour, and talks people’s ears off. I’m pretty sure he has undiagnosed ADHD or ADD, and using caffeine as his treatment.

I started to learn about caffeine as ADHD treatment many years ago, when Child Psychiatry started sending their ADHD patients to see me. These children with ADHD are usually underweight because of poor appetite, an extremely common side effect of ADHD medications. I came across one patient who has mild ADHD symptoms. Instead of being put on medication, his/her psychiatrist suggested the family to give couple ounces of caffeine soda everyday, and it works.

At first I thought it was odd. But it makes perfect sense. All ADHD medications such as methylpenidate and amphetamines, are stimulants, and so is caffeine, except caffeine does not need prescription and readily available in beverages.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is an inability to regulate attention. Magnetic resonance imaging studies suggest a weakening of inhibitory signaling in the frontal cortex in the ADHD brain. Stimulants, such as caffeine, help stimulate the frontal cortex to wake up the area that regulates attention. And that’s how caffeine and other stimulants work. In a normal person without ADHD any stimulants will make this person wide-awake, hyper, anxious and even cause insomnia. However, in someone with ADHD, stimulants have the opposite effect. It calms the nerves, helps the brain focus and process information. It may make the person drowsy or sleepy too in some cases.

In the ADHD brain, stimulants, such as mehtylpenidate, amphetamines and even caffeine works by increasing dopamine levels and blocking the reuptake of norepinephrine in the brain.

SIDE EFFECTS Treating children with ADHD with caffeine is controversial. It may cause insomnia, nervousness, irritability and increased heart rate. And in a growing child, caffeine may also stunt growth. In my practice I always warn parents to avoid caffeine in their children’s diet. All ADHD medications have the same side effects.

Caffeine, like all other stimulants, suppresses appetite and stunts growth.

Most children take their medication in the morning with breakfast, so breakfast is usually their best meal of the day. Once the medication kicks in the appetite become non-existent. Then come evening when the medication wears off, their appetite is back.

WHAT TO DRINK? There are a lot of beverages, especially energy drinks that are loaded with caffeine. Do not try caffeine supplements or sports performance-enhancing supplements that are really loaded with caffeine. Those you have to be very careful, especially if you have any heart problem.

For children, 1-2 ounces of coffee will work. I find that coffee somehow works better than caffeinated soda. Not sure why, maybe the high fructose corn syrup in regular soda.

Again consult your doctor or your child’s pediatrician/psychiatrist before adding caffeine or caffeine-containing beverages to the daily routine.

How much caffeine?

Keep Calm and Drink More Coffee

Keep Calm and Drink More Coffee

Can Coffee Help ADHD?

Coffee has long been known for its ability to increase alertness, reduce daytime tiredness and improves mental focus and concentration. Caffeine is the main chemical compound that gives coffee its special power.

Of course, it’s a “stimulant”.

Caffeine is probably one of the most consumed drug in the world — more than alcohol, and more than tobacco. About 90% of adults worldwide consume it daily.

Most of the caffeine is consume in the form of coffee (think Starbucks), and tea consumption is trailing right behind coffee. And caffeinated soft drinks and energy drinks are growing popularity among children and young adults.

The average American consumes about 280mg a day, equivalent to about two cups of brewed coffee.

So, what does caffeine has to do with ADHD treatment? Doesn’t coffee or caffeine cause more hyperactivity?

Well, caffeine is a potent stimulant, just like the stimulants used to treat ADHD/ADD. It may not be as powerful as the amphetamines and methylphenidate (Ritalin), but it sure can help people with ADD/ADHD to function and focus better at work, in school, and in society.
Caffeine has been studied for ages as a potential treatment for ADHD. But its use as a “therapy” is not widespread because research studies show that it is less effective than the common stimulants used. However, one could have argued that the caffeine doses used in these studies were too low to have a consistent effect. And, of course, if caffeine is shown to be more effective or just as effective, pharmaceutical companies would lose a lot of customers to Starbucks.

How many people do you know drinks coffee every day...like their lives depend on it?

Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people are already using caffeine to self-medicate themselves or their children.
Many adults with ADHD symptoms are already using coffee daily to help them stay focus on task and get through the day. In fact, some can’t do without it.

I used to have a boss who drinks 2 liters of Mountain Dew a day. And recently I learned that one of the doctors that I work with consumes about 10 cups of coffee a day.

Ok…caffeine may not be as strong as the prescribed ADHD stimulants, but continuous oral infusion likes these makes up for it.
As opposed to common notions that caffeine makes you hyper, many people find coffee to the calming and soothing. Some even become sleepy with coffee consumption.

Let’s take a look at how coffee or caffeine helps in ADHD.

Caffeine, or 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, affects our brain chemistry by blocking the adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is a central nervous system neuromodulator that binds to very specific receptors. When adenosine binds to its receptors, neural activity slows down, making you feel tired and sleepy.

As a consequence of blocking the adenosine receptors, caffeine also affects other major neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and, in high doses, on norepinephrine too. 

The activation of numerous neural circuits by caffeine also causes the pituitary gland to secrete hormones that in turn cause the adrenal glands to produce more adrenalin. Adrenalin is the “fight or flight” hormone, which increases your attention level and gives you an extra burst of energy.

By affecting these other neurotransmitters, caffeine is able to deliver a major boost of energy to mental alertness even when we are well-rested.   By increasing the transmission of dopamine, caffeine improves our mood and may protect brain cells from age and disease related degeneration.  By increasing the activity of acetylcholine, caffeine increases muscular activity and may also improve long-term memory.  By raising and adjusting serotonin levels, caffeine relieves depression, makes us more relaxed, alert, and energetic, and it also relieves migraine headaches by causing constricting blood vessels in the brain.

Why Drink Coffee to Treat ADHD?

First of all, it tastes better and it’s a lot cooler be seen drinking a cup of latte, Cappuccino or Expresso than seen taking ADHD stimulants.
Many people with ADHD function well enough with just caffeinated beverages to make it through life. Cost of coffee is more affordable compare to expensive ADHD medication. Not to mention all the side effects of these medications - anorexia, weight loss, loss of appetite, somnolence, sleep disturbance, zombie-like…

The use of caffeine does not have to be supervised by a health professional because it is not a dangerous controlled substance. Did I mentioned that one possible side effects of ADHD medication is ”suicide ideation”?

No, thank you…I rather have a hyper and inattentive child than a suicidal one.

And for some, they just don’t want to have to carry the burden of the diagnosis of having a "mental" disorder. Some occupations exclude candidates with any kind of mental disorders.

Both caffeine and Ritalin are absorbed into the bloodstream within about 45 minutes and wear off after 3 or 4 hours.

Caffeine certainly appears to be beneficial for some adults and children with ADHD. But just because it is easily accessible without a prescription, it is still a drug and does have side effects. Overconsumption and/or abusive use of anything (even if it’s good) can be dangerous.

How to Incorporate Caffeine into Your Daily Routine to Help You Focus?

The best and most natural way to get your daily caffeine is from coffee or tea.

A combination of caffeine-and-fat is the most effective for kids, teens and adults with ADHD.

Start with adding small amount of instant organic coffee powder or Starbucks microbrew with coconut cream in the morning. The caffeine, as we know by now, would provide the focus and concentration you need. The fat, specially medium chain triglyceride (MCT), in coconut cream will provide a sustained level of energy for the brain. The fat in the coconut cream also helps to absorb the caffeine better, which is soluble in fat.

A diet free of dairy, wheat, processed foods, processed fruit juices, food dye and any artificial food additives would complement nicely to better mental focus and concentration.

Monitor the amount of coffee taken. 100 mg of caffeine is equivalent to the low therapeutic dose of 5 mg of Ritalin.

An 8-oz cup of brewed coffee has about 135 mg of caffeine, black tea 60 mg, green tea 30 to 40 mg; and most caffeinated sodas have 35 to 55 mg and Red Bull energy drinks have up to 80 mg.