There are complex relationships that can occur between alcohol and ADHD; sometimes, a person might be more prone to abuse alcohol because of these coexisting conditions. In other cases, an individual might develop a polydrug substance abuse disorder because of a combination of medication and alcohol. We talk in more detail below about these relationships between ADHD and alcohol abuse.
What is ADHD?
ADHD stands for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in childhood, often first diagnosed when someone is a child. Then, the symptoms tend to continue into adulthood. A child with an attention disorder can experience problems controlling impulsive behaviors and paying attention, or they may be overly active.
It’s normal for kids to have difficulty focusing or behaving appropriately occasionally, but with ADHD, the child doesn’t grow out of the behavior. The symptoms are ongoing, can be severe, and cause problems in functionality at home, school, and in relationships. Core symptoms in a child might include:
- Daydreaming frequently
- Misplacing items often
- Fidgeting or squirming
- Excessive talking
- Making careless mistakes
- Having a hard time resisting temptation
- Inhibitory control
- Impulse control issues
- The trouble with taking turns
- Problems getting along with others
There are three types of attention deficit disorders; they are based on the particular attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms someone experiences.
- Predominantly inattentive presentation: In this situation, it’s hard for someone to finish tasks, pay attention to details, or follow instructions. Someone with a diagnosis of this type of ADHD might be easily distracted or forgetful of the details of daily routines.
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation: In this type of ADHD, someone could talk or fidget a lot, have a hard time sitting still, and be restless or behave impulsively.
- Combined presentation: Symptoms of this type will usually include symptoms of the above types equally.
Researchers are studying the risk factors and potential causes of this disorder, which may help reduce the risk of someone developing it in the future. The causes aren’t known, but research, as it stands currently, shows genetics are a big part of it.
Scientists are also looking at risk factors such as premature delivery and low birth weight, brain injury, alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, and exposure to environmental toxins or risks during pregnancy.
People with this mental health condition usually receive a combination of treatments—most often, psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and medication. Effective treatment plans can look different for everyone.
Broadly, medications can fall into two categories—stimulants and non-stimulants.
Stimulants are the first-line treatment, and this category includes amphetamines and methylphenidate.
Non-stimulant medication is reserved for patients who don’t benefit from stimulant medications or don’t tolerate them well. Non-stimulants include atomoxetine, clonidine, and guanfacine.
Finding the right medication and dose, as well as other treatment options, can take time and is often reliant on trial and error working closely with a treatment provider.
The most frequently prescribed ADHD medications include Adderall XR, Concerta, Dexedrine, Evekeo, and Focalin XR. Other options include Ritalin, Straterra, and Vyvanse.
Medications tend to work best when combined with behavioral treatments like cognitive therapy.
The Link Between Alcohol and ADHD
Is there a link between ADHD and alcoholism?
Researchers do believe there are associations between ADHD and alcohol abuse. This doesn’t mean everyone with attention disorders will abuse alcohol, but having this mental health condition can increase the risk.
ADHD is considered a risk factor for alcohol abuse but not a cause, because it can increase the risk of abusing or developing an addiction to other substances, such as stimulants or depressants. This is true of other mental disorders and alcohol’s effects.
The links between alcohol and ADHD include:
- In a twin study in 2018, more severe cases during childhood was associated with earlier use of alcohol and more frequent or heavier use.
- Based on a 2015 study, people with ADHD are more likely to engage in binge drinking in early adulthood.
- In a study conducted in 2009, participants were more likely to show increased sensitivity to alcoholic beverages and greater impairment.
- Alcohol impairment is thought to make some symptoms of ADHD more severe. For example, people who drink and have the condition could have more problems focusing and higher levels of impulsiveness. Long-term alcohol use can cause problems with decision-making, cognition, memory, and speech, and the effects could make the symptoms worse.
- Childhood ADHD, according to a systematic review in 2011, increases the risk of alcohol use later in life.
When someone has ADHD, they may be at a higher risk of abusing alcohol because they’re attempting to self-medicate. Self-medication is one reason people with all types of mental health disorders will have higher rates of substance abuse.
If you have ADHD symptoms and attempt to deal with them on your own with drug abuse or alcohol, it will end up worsening the problem. This includes abusing illicit drugs or prescription drugs.
There are also theories that when you have a mental health disorder, including ADHD, it affects the same areas of your brain as addiction, and there may be similar susceptibilities.
Alcohol, Depression, and ADHD
There are complex relationships between the use of alcohol, ADHD, and psychiatric disorders like depression. None of the three cause each other, but they are often related.
- People with ADHD are more likely to both experience depression and use alcohol, alcohol use is associated with depression.
- People with ADHD, according to a study in 2019, may be at a higher risk for simultaneous heavy drinking and depression.
- Alcohol affects brain chemistry, and worsening symptoms lead to a higher risk of depression.
- Getting involved in a cycle of alcohol abuse can be difficult to break out of. For example, after you drink heavily, you could wake up feeling depressed, guilty or anxious. You could be restless or have a harder time than normal focusing. Then, you might drink to cope with whatever you’re experiencing.
The Risk for Substance Use and ADHD
Alcohol isn’t the only substance people with ADHD abuse. In a 2017 review, researchers found ADHD is a risk factor for other types of substance abuse and dependence.
The link is likely related to common symptoms like impulsivity, hyperactivity, and problems with emotional function. These three symptoms also play a role in substance use, so someone with ADHD is at a higher risk of addiction.
Someone who is diagnosed with ADHD and a substance use disorder needs specialized treatment.
What Happens When You Take ADHD Medicine and Alcohol?
Combining your ADHD medication with alcohol can heighten the effects of both and put you at risk of serious consequences and complications. The interactions between medication and alcohol depend on the particular type of medicine.
When someone uses stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, most commonly prescribed, they increase the activity of the central nervous system. Alcohol, by contrast, decreases CNS activity. Rather than one canceling out the effects of the other, alcohol changes how your body processes your ADHD medication.
This can lead to symptoms like high blood pressure, chest pain, irregular heartbeats, a racing heart rate, and problems sleeping.
Using ADHD medication and alcohol together can also cause a greater risk of overdose and alcohol poisoning. Over time, taking both substances regularly and at the same time puts you at more of a risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Alcohol Abuse Treatment in the San Francisco Bay Area
While there are links between the abuse of alcohol and ADHD, there are steps you can take to avoid this situation. There are also treatment programs available that can consider your unique needs and co-occurring disorders. Reach out to learn more, whether you’re struggling with alcohol-related problems, illegal drugs, or co-occurring mental health issues.