Is There a Connection Between ADHD and Addiction?

By Geoffrey A. Booth, M.D., Medical Director, LifeSync Malibu

Most people associate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with the image of a busy six-year-old who struggles to stay on task at school. What isn’t so widely known is that ADHD is also prevalent among adults.

Adults that struggle with the effects of ADHD may turn to a substance, such as alcohol or drugs, to help them manage the disruptive symptoms. In addition, teens with ADHD are more prone to experimenting with substances, versus peers without ADHD. The connection between ADHD and addiction is increasingly being recognized in clinical settings.

Learning to live with ADHD without the use of substances is critical, as the risk for developing a substance use disorder will only worsen the individual’s overall quality of life. Read on to learn more about adult ADHD and the connection to substance abuse and addiction.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurological disorder that manifests with problems related to the limbic region of the brain, the area responsible for executive functions. Executive functions include focus, concentration, decision-making, impulse control, memory, and emotion regulation. The impaired executive functioning seen in those with ADHD has the potential to disrupt careers, relationships, and family life.

In prior years, there were two diagnoses used for this disorder, ADD and ADHD, with the “H” for hyperactivity delineating the difference. Now, individuals with the symptoms of ADHD, but without the hyperactivity or impulsivity features, are diagnosed with ADHD, Inattentive Type. This represents a subtype of ADHD in which the main symptom is inattention. This is the most common type among adults with ADHD.

The cause of remains a mystery, although there are certain factors that may be involved. These include:

Genetics. ADHD will sometimes run in families. Also, ADHD is a risk if there is a family history of other mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety disorder.

Toxin exposure. There is some evidence that points to the possibility that lead exposure, such as in pain or old pipes, during childhood may be a risk factor for ADHD. Also, exposure to pesticides or PCBs may play a role. It is thought that these toxins may interfere with brain development.

Premature birth. A connection has been made between being born prematurely, or the mother having had a difficult pregnancy, and ADHD.

Exposure to substances in utero. There is a possible link if a pregnant woman drank alcohol, used drugs, or smoked during pregnancy

Faulty neural pathways. Possible developmental impairment with the central nervous system

According to data provided by the American Journal of Psychiatry, approximately 4.4% of U.S. adults struggle with ADHD.

Symptoms of Adult ADHD

The symptoms of ADHD vary depending on the age of the individual. A child with ADHD might be fidgety, in constant motion, and seems to talk excessively, where an adult with the disorder might be forgetful, easily overwhelmed, and prone to distraction.

In most cases, adult ADHD is an outgrowth of childhood ADHD, then subsequently teenage ADHD. It rarely emerges for the first time in adulthood. Instead, over the years as the disorder goes undiagnosed, the individual develops strategies for coping with or managing the symptoms. Later in life, if these efforts are no longer effective, the person may seek out psychological guidance and be diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood.

Symptoms of adult ADHD may include:

Prone to angry outbursts
Makes errors on the job due to not paying attention to instructions
Low tolerance for frustration
Avoids tasks that require sustained attention
Forgetting important due dates for projects
Easily overwhelmed, becoming confused when faced with multiple tasks
Difficulty sustaining attention at work, college, or social events
Fails to complete assignments at work or school
Poor listening skills
Chronic boredom
Tendency to be late for work, appointments, classes, or meetings
Easily distracted by external stimuli

ADHD tends to affect more males than females by a large percentage (38% women vs. 66% men). In addition to co-occurring substance abuse, individuals with ADHD are more prone to depression and learning disabilities.

ADHD and Addiction

Noting that ADHD is often a lifelong struggle, a link has been found between
ADHD-related impulsivity during the teen years and increased substance use. For example, 40% of teens with ADHD start experimenting with alcohol at age 15, versus 22% of teens who don’t have ADHD.

Likewise, links between ADHD and substance abuse are found among young adults. Among young adults with a mean age of 25, 44% of those with an alcohol use disorder met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. The data indicate that people with ADHD are more apt to abuse alcohol than those without ADHD. Similar links have been identified between marijuana and other drugs and those with ADHD, especially if the individual also has co-occurring OCD.

There are two explanations that help us understand this relationship between ADHD and substance abuse. One is, as mentioned above, the disruption of executive functioning that would normally control impulsive behaviors. The other is the use of the substance as a means of self-medicating the ADHD symptoms.

Tips for Healthy Management of ADHD

In addition to therapy and medication, there are some very effective complementary strategies to help better manage ADHD symptoms:

1. Exercise. It has been said that the effects of exercise are akin to medication. Movement and exercise are particularly advantageous for people with ADHD. Exercise causes the body to release endorphins, which can improve executive functioning.

2. Nutrition. A healthy diet provides the individual with the necessary nutrients for optimum brain health and functioning. The diet should be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, and legumes, whole grain breads, pastas, and rice, and plenty of organic vegetables and fruits.

3. Organizing tools. Adults with ADHD can reduce stress levels associated with organizing tasks, showing up for appointments, and staying on top of due dates. Daily to-do lists or smartphone apps that aid in organizing can be great coping tools.

4. Manage stress. Learning how to effectively manage anxiety and stress is an essential skill for those with ADHD. Examples of these might include practicing mindfulness, deep breathing techniques, and guided imagery.

5. Avoiding triggers. Adults with ADHD likely know the situations that could trigger the disorder. Awareness of these triggers allows the person to actively avoid them.

While ADHD may present certain challenges in daily life, the disorder can absolutely be managed through proactive behaviors that help minimize the symptoms.

About the Author</h2

Geoffrey A. Booth, M.D. is the Medical Director of LifeSync Malibu, an exclusive rehabilitation program located in the heart of Malibu. Dr. Booth has treated thousands of addicts over the years and now has dedicated most of his clinical time to providing medical care and detoxification to clients who suffer from substance abuse. He is committed to helping them establish the foundations for long-term sobriety. While not working, Dr. Booth has a rich personal life filled with activities surrounded by friends and family.


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