The Definitive Guide to CBD for ADHD

Last updated:

About 6.4 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. This condition affects executive function. If it is not identified, children may be mistakenly branded as delinquents or troublemakers. ADHD can also make it hard for adults to concentrate, potentially affecting their job performance and communication skills. CBD oil may be helpful for reducing symptoms of ADHD without the side effects of a stimulant medication.

What Is CBD?

CBD is an exogenous cannabinoid that works with the body’s endocannabinoid system. Although CBD comes from cannabis, it doesn’t have mind-altering effects and has been found safe for use, as we explain in the last section of this article. It also has fewer side effects than most prescription ADHD medications.

CBD comes in many forms, including inhalants, edibles, tinctures and oils. Most experts recommend that people use it on a regular basis to help relieve symptoms of psychological disorders or attention issues.

ADHD: A Snapshot

ADHD is a disorder that impacts:

• Memory

• Concentration

• Learning

• Self-control

• Organization

Symptoms typically begin to appear between the ages of 3 and 6. Because many kids have high energy and don’t always want to sit still, ADHD may be overlooked or misdiagnosed. Milder forms of the condition might not be diagnosed until children are at least 8 years old. The average age of diagnosis for severe ADHD is 5 years old.

Many people have trouble concentrating at times. For people with ADHD, the struggle may be constant. Children with ADHD often exhibit hyperactivity along with impulsivity and inattention.

However, symptoms of the condition aren’t always obvious. Some children with ADHD don’t move around constantly or do poorly in school. If they have ADHD, kids may develop “hyperfocus,” concentrating very well on activities that they find extremely interesting.

This can make it hard to accurately diagnose the disorder. Teachers may tell parents that their child simply has more energy than others. Parents may believe that their talkative children are simply fun-loving and don’t have the willpower to focus on schoolwork.

What Causes ADHD?

ADHD can be genetic. Scientists have pinpointed a cannabinoid receptor gene that affects levels of stress hormones and dopamine as well as learning and memory functions.

Environmental factors can also contribute to ADHD. Some researchers have found links between ADHD and pesticides. Children who are exposed to alcohol or tobacco in the womb are more likely to develop ADHD. Certain food additives have also been associated with the condition.

There is no proof that eating too much sugar, watching TV or playing video games causes ADHD. Parenting styles or lack of discipline won’t cause the disorder. However, children with ADHD may need parents to set certain guidelines and support their learning in different ways than kids without the disorder. Stress at home can make symptoms worse.

As we discuss later in this article, ADHD can cause other problems that further disrupt learning and behavior. Those issues can affect stress and sleep habits, which make it even harder for people to function. This causes a cycle that can be addressed by CBD, a cannabinoid that is found in the cannabis plant.

Does ADHD Affect Adults?

Many children experience a reduction in ADHD symptoms as they get older. However, some enter adulthood with ADHD symptoms. Up to 5 percent of American adults struggle with ADHD. Although ADHD affects more male than female children, it affects men and women relatively equivalently as adults.

Adults with ADHD may have similar symptoms as kids with the disorder, including:

• Difficulty following directions

• Trouble remembering information

• Concentration problems

• Poor organizational skills

• Difficulty finishing work in a reasonable time frame

ADHD in adults may be confused with other mental or physical disorders. It can be associated with some surprising symptoms, such as:

• Anxiety

• Depression

• Chronic boredom

• Tardiness

• Forgetfulness

• Anger issues

• Low self-esteem

• Substance abuse

• Mood swings

How Does CBD Compare To Traditional ADHD Medication?

Approximately 6 percent of American children take medication for ADHD. Most of these medications are stimulants.

Stimulants work quickly and reduce symptoms in up to 80 percent of children with ADHD. Non-stimulant medications are also available. They can take longer to work, though. Some doctors prescribe antidepressants alone or with other ADHD medications. These can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in kids and adolescents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a combination of therapy and medication for children who are at least 6 years of age. But many parents don’t want to give pharmaceuticals to their children. They may be concerned with the side effects or the long-term consequences.

Many ADHD medications have side effects. There have not been many long-term studies on the adverse effects of ADHD drugs on young children.

What researchers do know is that ADHD medications may work by increasing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain. Stimulants make dopamine and norepinephrine more abundant. These neurotransmitters contribute to cognitive functions that have to do with alertness, focus, motivation and sustained thought.

It’s especially interesting that people with ADHD respond differently to stimulants than people who don’t have the condition. Brain imaging shows less blood flow to certain areas of the brain in individuals with ADHD. Stimulants can increase activity in those regions, improving attention and memory. If you don’t have ADHD, you might just feel awake, alert and high when you take stimulants.

Side Effects

ADHD drugs can impair certain cognitive functions in people who don’t need them. They are also associated with many side effects, including:

• Sleeping problems

• Dry mouth

• High blood pressure

• Stomach pains

• Inflammation

• Increased appetite

• Numbness in the extremities

• Weight loss

Children who take certain stimulants may experience delayed growth. For this reason, many parents don’t want to give their children medication for ADHD.

Most researchers have found that CBD is associated with no significant side effects. It doesn’t appear to influence heart rate, body temperature or blood pressure. Doses of up to 1,500 milligrams per day are well-tolerated in humans. When side effects from CBD have been noted, they have primarily included:

• Fatigue

• Diarrhea

• Changes in appetite or weight

However, experts agree that CBD’s side effect profile is preferable to that of many other medications. It could interfere with certain drugs, though. If you’re already taking medication for ADHD, you should check with your doctor before discontinuing its use or introducing CBD as a form of treatment.

Can You Take Medication for Attention Problems Without an ADHD Diagnosis?

Millions of Americans suffer from attention problems from time to time. Stress, fatigue and mental illness can affect your ability to concentrate and make your thinking cloudy. However, if they don’t have ADHD, stimulants may not bring them the relief that they desire.

For people who aren’t candidates for ADHD medication, CBD can provide an effective solution for mental fog and concentration issues.

Does Research Show That CBD Helps With ADHD?

Few formal studies or clinical trials have targeted CBD as a treatment for ADHD. However, that doesn’t mean that the product won’t work for attention problems.

A randomized-controlled trial that was published in 2016 looked at the role of cannabinoids in treating symptoms of ADHD. It didn’t specifically analyze the effectiveness of CBD alone. However, like THC, CBD is a cannabinoid that affects the endocannabinoid system in mammals. Different cannabinoids have distinct effects on the body, but they are related and may all work in a similar manner.

The medication that was used for this study was Sativex, a medication that contains equal parts CBD and THC. Sativex is a mouth spray that has been approved in several countries to treat muscle spasms caused by illnesses such as multiple sclerosis.

Although Sativex is usually used for nerve pain, researchers are studying it for its ability to relieve symptoms of other ailments. Participants in the 2016 study had been diagnosed with ADHD but were not taking any medications for it. They said that cannabis helps them think more clearly, slow down overactive thoughts and be more productive.

The results were similar to the improvements that occur when people take stimulants for ADHD. Moreover, no negative effects were noted.

How CBD Can Help You Focus

Because it’s difficult to draw a specific correlation between CBD use and ADHD, it’s helpful to look at other ways that CBD can help with attention issues. CBD has been shown to help with stress, sleep, and other factors that can reduce your focus.

Reducing Stress Levels Improves Concentration

The American Psychological Association, or APA, reports that most Americans experience significant amounts of stress. About 44 percent of adults in the U.S. say that their stress levels have increased in the past five years. Approximately 33 percent of children suffer from physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, trouble sleeping or digestive issues. Plus, parents’ stress can affect children’s ability to relax.

With so many people struggling to find peace and balance in their lives, it’s no wonder that they have trouble paying attention to what’s important. Studies show that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with deficiencies in cognitive performance. Stress may not impair verbal memory or the ability to multi-task, but it has been shown to diminish the ability to concentrate.

This has huge implications for the way that CBD can be used to help people with ADHD. Children are more stressed out than you may think. When researching stress, the APA discovered that kids between the ages of 8 and 17 are apprehensive about doing well in school, finances and getting into college. Additionally, parents don’t always notice that their kids are anxious. If they do, they aren’t always clear on what’s causing the worry.

The endocannabinoid system has been found to play a major role in controlling stress. When humans are exposed to stressful stimuli, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis is activated.

Corticotrophin-releasing hormone, or CRH, neurons are abundant in a region of the brain that serves as the hub of the HPA axis. When a stimulus is interpreted as threatening in any way, a chain reaction occurs that starts with the CRH hormones and ends up with high levels of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream.

On a short-term basis, this allows people to think and act clearly in response to stress, helping them manage it appropriately. If stress hormones are chronically released, however, some people don’t adjust well. Their systems become overtaxed, and the stress hormones wreak havoc on their brain and body.

The endocannabinoid system is partly responsible for managing stress levels. When the HPA axis is activated, neurotransmitters that work within the endocannabinoid system are released. They provide signals to let the body know whether it should increase or diminish the stress response. When certain endocannabinoid receptors are activated, they reduce cortisol secretion. Activating the endocannabinoid system may also help people adapt to repeated stress.

If this is the case, then CBD, which works on the endocannabinoid system, may help with chronic and acute stress. There is ample evidence that CBD does, in fact, reduce the negative symptoms of many anxiety disorders.

If you’re experiencing stress from general anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, you might feel more balanced when you use CBD. In turn, you may notice that the reduced stress improves your focus.

For children, this may be especially promising. Young minds are especially sensitive to trauma, which doesn’t have to be violent to cause stress. Bullying, divorce and fighting at home can increase children’s stress levels and produce symptoms that are similar to ADHD.

Environmental and behavioral changes can help children deal with these types of trauma. Because CBD oil lowers stress hormone levels, adding it to the therapeutic profile can boost children’s coping skills. It works in a similar manner for adults.

Improving Sleep Quality Enhances Attention

Getting enough high-quality sleep is important for everyone, especially children. It is especially interesting that symptoms of insomnia can mimic signs of ADHD. For example, kids who can’t sleep well may:

• Have behavioral problems at school

• Be hyperactive

• Have a short attention span

• Have trouble remembering things

• Be irritable or have mood swings

At the same time, difficulty sleeping can be caused by the same issues that produce trouble with focus, such as stress and anxiety. ADHD medications can keep kids awake, interfering with their sleep and perpetuating the problem.

CBD can address this on multiple levels. We’ve already discussed the way that it can reduce stress to help with concentration. Using it could reduce dependence on ADHD medications, making a huge difference if those drugs are affecting sleep quality.

Using CBD oil can also help regulate your sleep-wake cycle. It can help you stay awake during the day so that you’re ready to rest at night. It also reduces the insomnia that stems from anxiety.

CBD Reduces Hyperactivity

People with ADHD often have trouble slowing down their bodies and brains. When your thoughts are moving a mile a minute, it’s tough to concentrate on a task, especially when it involves sitting still. Hyperactivity can occur on its own, but it is a significant problem for some individuals who have ADHD.

Signs of hyperactivity include:

• Constant talking and interrupting

• Clumsiness

• The need to move consistently

• Fidgeting

Some people with hyperactivity use extra movements to get things done. Therefore, they might even have trouble tying their shoes or writing.

In a study that was conducted on lab rats, CBD was found to reduce hyperactivity. More research must be done to prove that it works consistently, but these initial findings are promising.

Plus, anecdotal reports indicate that CBD is physically relaxing. It has been shown to offset the negative psychological effects of THC, such as paranoia and anxiety. In other words, some people who use cannabis products that contain THC get jittery or stimulated from the drug, and CBD can calm them down.

If ADHD is influenced by dysfunction in the endocannabinoid system, a theory that is supported by some scientific research, manipulating that system with CBD oil could help produce calming effects.

CBD May Help Symptoms of Co-Occurring Psychiatric Disorders

People with ADHD are more likely to have another psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Even though CBD has not been widely studied for its effects on ADHD, it has been investigated for its ability to help with these other conditions.

A 2012 review looked at human and animal studies on CBD and anxiety disorders. There evidence to suggest that CBD has anti-anxiety effects on people with generalized social anxiety disorder. Other studies have found that the substance reduces anxiety in animals and humans with panic disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

ADHD also has similar symptoms as traumatic stress disorder. People who are exposed to traumatic stress may have lower circulating levels of endocannabinoids in their bodies. Introducing CBD may help regulate their emotions and reactions to triggers.

Certain endocannabinoid receptors are involved in the way that your brain processes and stores memories. The ability to eliminate traumatic associations with memories as they’re reconsolidated allows most people to heal from trauma over time. A malfunction in this process can cause the problematic memories to stick around and affect your thoughts, emotions and behaviors. This is what happens in people with PTSD.

If CBD is administered while a distressing memory is activated, it can block the process of reactivation and help the recollections dissipate. CBD can also be used during or shortly after a disturbing event to prevent maladaptive memory processes from occurring.

CBD Can Improve This Surprising Side Effect of ADHD

Unfortunately, about 52 percent of people who continue to feel symptoms of ADHD into adulthood are at a greater risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. In addition to helping people reduce stress, get better sleep and stay calm when their thoughts are whirling around in their heads, CBD may reduce the likelihood of addiction.

The dopaminergic system plays a role in addiction as well as ADHD. Also, the endocannabinoid system has been implicated for its ability to change the way that your brain processes reward. Stimulating the system with CBD may also re-wire the brain, helping people relinquish addictive behaviors.

Although this process is not well understood, CBD has been shown to change the brain mechanisms that are associated with drug use and relapse. CBD’s effects on the serotonin receptors may induce mood enhancement and stress reduction, helping people manage intense emotions and making them less vulnerable to stress.

If you’ve been using alcohol or other drugs to self-medicate, calm yourself down and relax your mind, you might be able to achieve the same effects with CBD. Additionally, you may be able to reduce withdrawal symptoms by using CBD as you wean off of some other drugs.

Can You Really Give Cannabis to Children and Adults With ADHD?

Although CBD comes from the cannabis plant, it doesn’t have the same effects as marijuana. Marijuana products contain THC, which is the mind-altering compound that’s found in the plant.

Most CBD oils are extracted from industrial hemp, which contains less than 0.3 percent THC. Even if CBD is extracted from marijuana, the pure form does not contain THC. THC must be added to the final product.

CBD oils and extracts that contain less than 0.3 percent THC are legal in every U.S. state. In states where medical or recreational cannabis is legal, CBD products could contain THC. You might want to verify that the CBD oil that you purchase doesn’t have THC if you plan to give it to a child.

Even if they’re not using CBD for ADHD in children, many people worry that CBD will make them feel confused or foggy because THC is often associated with those effects.

However, CBD doesn’t bind to the same receptors as THC. It doesn’t make you feel high. Its effects are quite subtle. In fact, it might be helpful to keep a log while you’re using CBD for attention issues because you may not notice the difference right away.