Can Cannabis Be Used To Treat ADHD?

If you're looking for a natural alternative to help you treat your ADHD, cannabis just might the day.

ADHD prescription medication next to a marijuana leaf.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is typically addressed with pharmaceutical medications like Adderall, Concerta, Dexedrine, Ritalin, and other stimulants. Recently, however, medical research, as well as anecdotal testimony, has pointed to cannabis as another effective solution for those struggling with ADHD.

What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

To first understand how cannabis can help treat ADHD, we need to understand the disorder as a whole. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in children, as it affects about 5-7% of children and adolescents. The symptoms often carry into adulthood, and an estimated 3.5% of adults are diagnosed with ADHD themselves.

There are three categories of ADHD—inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combination. Someone with inattentive ADHD will struggle with concentration, organization, and distractions. Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD patients will struggle more with impatience, filtering, fidgeting, and staying on task. Combination ADHD patients will have a mix of both symptoms.

Many children begin showing symptoms earlier than the age of seven, and most experience a combination form. There is no straightforward test that definitively defines either kind of ADHD, but the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is used to guide doctors through a standardized behavioral evaluation.

School boy shouting, mother covering her ears in background

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What Are the Causes and Treatments of ADHD?

The cause of ADHD is not clearly understood but is surely a combination of genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors that vary from patient to patient rather than one specific and direct determinant.

Medical professionals now widely agree that ADHD is strongly linked to lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. A study published in 2010 not only found ADHD patients to have lower levels of dopamine, but also fewer dopamine receptors and transporters in the areas of the limbic system responsible for emotion, motivation, and reward.

Dozens of prescription medicine bottles in a jumble. This collection of pill bottles is symbolic of the many medications senior adults and chronically ill people take.

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This association with lower dopamine levels has naturally led doctors to start prescribing medications that promote dopamine production, but there is ample controversy surrounding whether or not stimulant pharmaceuticals like Adderall and Ritalin actually improve ADHD symptoms. For instance, Methylphenidate, known best as Ritalin or Concerta is frequently used to ease ADHD symptoms. Not only is it extremely habit-forming, but it also can exacerbate symptoms—restlessness, trouble sleeping, and anxiety—associated with those it sets out to relieve.

Americans spend approximately $42.5 billion every year on these rather expensive medications. The cost, lack symptom relief, along with negative side effects like severe loss of appetite, insomnia, nausea, nervousness, moodiness, irritability and overall personality change have all led many people affected by ADHD to search for a more effective but less aggressive solution.

How Can Cannabis Alleviate Symptoms?

In 2017, researchers led by Ruth Cooper at King׳s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled experiment to assess the effects of the cannabinoid medication Sativex Oromucosal Spray in 30 adults with ADHD. They not only found that some subjects preferred cannabis over traditional ADHD medications, but also that the use of Sativex was associated with significant improvement in cognitive function, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

The researchers concluded that all the experiment was small, it provided “preliminary evidence supporting the self-medication theory of cannabis use in ADHD and the need for further studies of the endocannabinoid system in ADHD.”

Cannabis’s ability to relieve ADHD symptoms is largely attributed to the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis known as THC, which promotes dopamine production as effectively as the traditional pharmaceutical medications. Cannabinoids like THC indirectly block gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), whose job is to limit the amount of dopamine that the body naturally releases.

Young girl thinking with glowing brain illustration on grungy background

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Instead of directly forcing your body to unleash a flood of dopamine, THC simply takes away a natural barrier. According to Medium, pharmaceutical stimulants “excite the dopaminergic system,” which leads to an eventual dopamine “burn-out.”  The cannabinoid method is much more sustainable and organic.

While lack of dopamine has been labeled the most profound instigator of ADHD, Celeste Thirlwell, a physician and sleep specialist at Apollo Cannabis Clinics in Toronto, has found that the inflammation of the nervous system may also induce ADHD symptoms. CBD, the non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, has been widely credited for its anti-inflammatory properties and speculated to also play a positive role in reducing ADHD symptoms.

Strains to Combat ADHD Symptoms

Self-medication and recreational use can also be used to alleviate ADHD symptoms. Here are some of our favorite strains to target lack of focus, hyperactivity, and restlessness:

  • Cynex: A sativa-dominant hybrid, Cynex will drive you to do everything you’ve been putting off for the last few months. It will heighten both your focus and creativity so that you can have the most productive day.
  • Sour Diesel: This uplifting sativa is potent, so you have to be mindful of your dosage, but a small amount can help you fully engage with one task at a time.
  • True-OG: If you are burdened by the hyperactivity of your ADHD, True-OG is a great option to zero in on your tasks without feeling overstimulated. You’ll feel inspired to get work done without any overwhelming urgency.
  • Harlequin: One of the biggest complaints among ADHD patients is the inability to concentrate. This sativa will dispell all the distractions clouding up your cognition and help you think and concentrate clearly.
Close up of prescription pills with medical cannabis and prescription paper

iStock / UrosPoteko

How Does Cannabis Typically Interact with ADHD Medications?

Many ADHD patients may want to try out cannabis as a form of symptom relief but aren’t ready to wean off their prescribed medication quite yet. If you’re thinking of turning to cannabis as a supplement to pharmaceuticals, you should be aware of how the two medications interact. There have been reports claiming that Adderall leads to more intense cannabis highs, but the real concern is more related to how taking two medications to treat one symptom can lead to overcompensation or decrease in the effectiveness of either drug.

“I think for any other drug that is potentially sedating or has some of the same effects as cannabis, it can enhance those effects. That’s not necessarily a drug-drug interaction in the way physicians think of it, but it can enhance the central nervous system depressing effect of other medications,” Carter says. “So if a patient comes to me and they’re on something like Valium, I would try to get them off of Valium if I was going to recommend cannabis.”

If you’re thinking about using cannabis to alleviate your ADHD symptoms, ask your doctor about the best way to incorporate it into your daily medication routine.

Can Cannabis Be Used To Treat ADHD? was last modified: by
Samantha Harton
About Samantha Harton
Sam is a freelance writer and JD candidate pursuing a career in Environmental Law and Policy. She enjoys writing about sustainability, agriculture, nature, wellness, and health.