Understanding the Link Between ADHD and Alcohol Use

Understanding the Link Between ADHD and Alcohol Use


ADHD is a developmental disorder that commonly affects children, this lasts throughout adolescence and adulthood. If the symptoms are not diagnosed or managed it can cause issues relating to alcohol use disorders. There is evidence that it is associated with inappropriate levels of usage or misuse of alcohol. Before understanding the connection let’s look at the basics of it and alcohol use.

What is ADHD 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by decreased attention span, impulsiveness, hyperness. These challenges often manifest more intensely and frequently in children with it compared to their peers, impacting their performance and behaviour at school, and social settings. It is largely hereditary, with a significant genetic component, and other factors such as premature birth, exposure to environmental toxins, or maternal drug use during pregnancy can increase the risk.

Read More: ADHD: Diagnosis, Types and Treatment

Alcohol and Its Effects

We all are aware of the risks associated with alcohol consumption, especially for patients with mental illness and disorders. Alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the central nervous system. It is widely used for recreational or stress treatment because of its ability to promote feelings of relaxation and lower anxiety. However, alcohol also affects cognitive abilities, especially those controlled by the brain’s frontal lobe. This region is in charge of executive function, impulse control, and decision-making skills which are frequently already impaired in people with it.

Read More: The Hidden Struggles of Adult ADHD

Why ADHD Patients turn to Alcohol

It is essential to understand the reason that sets the association between alcohol usage and ADHD.

  • Reward-seeking Factors: it is linked to deficiencies in the brain’s reward and executive function systems, which increases a person’s tendency to seek out quick rewards—like alcohol—for themselves .The desire for immediate rewards can drive people with ADHD to seek the pleasurable effects of alcohol.
  • physical factor: deficits in the dopamine pathway, which is essential for reward and pleasure, are due to it. Drinking raises dopamine levels, which momentarily corrects this deficit and fosters a feeling of well-being.
  •  Psycho-social factors: ADHD patients may experience extreme  and elevated stress, worry, and despair as a result of social, academic, and professional obstacles, may prompt them to turn to alcohol as a coping strategy.
  • Impulsivity: a core symptom of it, impulsivity can make individuals more prone to drinking without considering the consequences. Leading to a cycle of impulsive decisions. It cause impulsive decisions, and alcohol causes impulsive decisions. 
  • Challenges with Managing Emotions: difficulty regulating emotions can lead to using alcohol to self-medicate emotional distress.
  • Genetic Factors: common genetic variants may make people more prone to alcohol use problems and ADHD.

Read More: Understanding ADHD in Women: Symptoms and Recognition

Research and effects of Alcohol consumption for ADHD patients

To better understand the relationship between alcohol and ADHD, researchers have conducted studies, some of which are mentioned below

  • Binge drinking: a 2015 study found that young adults with ADHD have higher rates of binge drinking, which can lead to numerous negative health and social outcomes.
  • Impairment: a 2009 study revealed that participants with ADHD exhibited more significant signs of alcohol impairment, The ability to engage in normal activities was gravely impacted by alcohol abuse.
  • Early alcohol exposure: studies have found, people with ADHD typically start drinking earlier in life, than their peers who don’t have. More severe ADHD symptoms have been linked to an earlier onset of alcohol usage, according to a 2018 twin study. The likelihood of subsequently adopting risky drinking habits is raised by this early exposure
  • Long-term impairment: another study stated that Alcohol use can worsen ADHD, Long-term alcohol consumption is linked to cognitive impairments, affecting decision-making, memory, and speech, which can further aggravate ADHD symptoms. This creates a vicious cycle where ADHD symptoms drive alcohol use, and alcohol use, in turn, exacerbates ADHD symptoms.
  •  Higher Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder: study conducted  in 2011 states that childhood ADHD is a significant factor for developing alcoholism . The impulsivity and poor executive functioning associated with ADHD increase vulnerability to substance use disorders. Individuals with ADHD may use alcohol as a form of self-medication to cope with their symptoms, leading to dependency and abuse.

Read More: The Jellinek Curve: Five Phases of Alcohol Addiction

Prevention and Treatment Strategies

  •  Integrated Treatment Approaches: for individuals with both  ADHD and alcoholism, a mixed approach can be adopted. These approaches should address both conditions simultaneously, utilizing a combination of behavioural therapies, medication, and support groups. Alcoholic Anonymous groups can be challenging for adhd patients as their policies are against any form of medication or substance, so ADHD medications may not be provided.
  • Early Intervention: when children, are diagnosed earlier with ADHD, with proper attention, medication and support, it’s less likely that they might turn to alcohol for help.
  • Support Systems: family, and friends, can provide ADHD patients the necessary support to manage their symptoms and avoid substance abuse.
  • Education: proper education regarding mental health and illness can prevent future substance abuse or dependence.

Stimulant Medications and Alcohol

Adderall and Ritalin are commonly prescribed for it. These medications increase central nervous system activity, helping to improve focus and reduce hyperactivity. At the same time, alcohol slows the central nervous system. When both are consumed, alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of medications and lead to various adverse effects:

  • Dehydration
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Overdose
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Irregular Heart Rate
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Impaired decision making
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Increased body Temperature

The interaction between ADHD and alcohol is complex and potentially hazardous. Addressing the underlying causes of alcohol use in individuals with it, such as impulsivity and reward-seeking behaviour, is essential for prevention and treatment. Education and appropriate therapeutic interventions can help reduce the reliance on alcohol and improve the overall quality of life for those affected by it.

References +
  • Elkins IJ, Saunders GRB, Malone SM, et al. Associations between childhood ADHD, gender, and adolescent alcohol and marijuana involvement: A causally informative design. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2018 Mar;184:33-41. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.11.011. PMID: 29402677; PMCID: PMC5818293.
  • Howard, A. L., Molina, B. S., Swanson, J. M., Hinshaw, S. P., Belendiuk, K. A., Harty, S. C., Arnold, L. E., Abikoff, H. B., Hechtman, L., Stehli, A., Greenhill, L. L., Newcorn, J. H., & Wigal, T. (2015). Developmental progression to early adult binge drinking and marijuana use from worsening versus stable trajectories of adolescent attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and delinquency. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 110(5), 784–795. https://doi.org/10.1111/add.12880
  • Weafer, J., Fillmore, M. T., & Milich, R. (2009). Increased sensitivity to the disinhibiting effects of alcohol in adults with ADHD. Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, 17(2), 113–121. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015418
  • Lee, S. S., Humphreys, K. L., Flory, K., Liu, R., & Glass, K. (2011). Prospective association of childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use and abuse/dependence: a meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 31(3), 328–341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.01.006

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