by Cheryl Maguire
At first I was skeptical. Could prescribed medication really help children diagnosed with ADHD? I became convinced after several years of working as a counselor. I witnessed children dramatically improve their ability to function well both in school and social situations after taking medication.
The case of John* is an excellent illustrative example. He wanted to discontinue using Adderall at the start of 5th grade. He had been taking Adderall for three years and thought it was no longer necessary. Often when kids are doing well they think they don’t need medication anymore. In these instances, it can be helpful to take a medication holiday – stop the medication for an agreed upon time frame to see if it's still necessary.
The first month without Adderall John thought he was doing fine, but his mid-term progress report said otherwise. He was earning a D in math and Cs in the other subjects. His parents wanted him to go back on the medication to see if there was an improvement.
After taking Adderall for a week, John’s mother checked in with his teachers who reported a dramatic improvement in both the quality of his schoolwork and his ability to focus/pay attention during class. They said he was a totally different kid. He stopped fidgeting and was able to focus for extended periods of time. And his responses to questions were thoughtful and correct.
John continued to take the medication for the reminder of the school year and received an A in math class. He got As and Bs in his other classes, which resulted in making the honor roll. He proudly displayed his certificate in his room.
I worked with many children who experienced similar positive effects from taking medication to help their ADHD.
Most schools require sitting still and paying attention for about six hours, which is particularly challenging for kids with ADHD. The National Resource Center on ADHD states that prescribed medication can help attention span, impulsivity, and focus, especially in structured environments. All of these improved behaviors can lead to better grades in school.
A study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health found students who took medication for ADHD did better in math and reading compared to students with ADHD who did not take medication.
Children with ADHD often have difficulty making friends because they may not pay attention to social cues. Their impulsive behaviors can also be annoying or hurtful to their peers. Sometimes their impulsivity can lead to aggression.
A NIMH sponsored study – the Multimodal Treatment of ADHD (MTA) found children who took medication showed more improved social skills and peer relations than children in the in the non-medicated comparison group after 14 months.
Research studies have also examined how ADHD medication can be beneficial in sports settings. A study done at the University of Kentucky found children who took medication for ADHD performed better during baseball games.
One child I worked with thought other kids were making fun of him. When I investigated this situation I found the children actually wanted to be friends with him. He was misreading the other children’s social cues which caused him to feel both angry and left out. After helping this child develop social skills he was able to form friendships.
When children take medication it can help them to both focus on social cues and decrease the impulsivity which could result in better social interaction and an easier time developing friendships.
Children with ADHD frequently have poor self-esteem due to the difficulties they experience in school and social situations. By taking medication a child can improve both their social skills and school performance, which could, in turn, improve their self-esteem.
Medication isn’t a magic pill. I like the analogy that medication is similar to using a shovel. A person can dig a hole with their hands, but if they use a shovel it will be easier. The shovel is not going to magically dig the hole, the person still needs to physically use the shovel to dig it. Medication can be a tool that helps make it easier for children with ADHD to focus and be less impulsive, but the student still has to complete their schoolwork.
Medication can have side effects and is not helpful for everyone. There are other ways to treat ADHD such as counseling, behavioral management, and alternative treatments such as acupuncture. Often a combination of counseling and medication can be most effective. Ultimately the child and parents have to make an informed decision about which method will work best for them.
*name has been changed for privacy
by Kristen Polito
It's recently been reported that diet quality and mood are positively correlated. Moreover, one’s emotional compass, mental health, and cognition are actively conducted by what we choose to eat and drink.
Caffeine is one such consumable with a direct connection to the brain – specifically to mental clarity, alertness, and (usually) energy. Caffeine molecules bind to the adenosine receptors in brain cells and block adenosine from making us feel sleepy. Adrenaline is released instead, pumping us up. When this happens, the dopamine in our brain works more efficiently, helping us to feel good.
According to a 2005 study of rats with hyperactivity, impulsivity, poor attention, and deficits in learning and memory, a significant improvement was reported in test results when caffeine was administered to the rats beforehand.
Accordingly, moderate caffeine intake (< six cups/day) has been associated with fewer depressive symptoms, fewer cognitive failures, and lower risk of suicide.
Benefits include increased alertness, attention, and cognitive function and elevated mood.
However, caffeine consumption is somewhat controversial because of the so-called increased risk of hypertension with regular consumption.
For many people, too much caffeine can have a negative emotional effect: it can contribute to feeling anxious, jittery or irritable. Depending of your caffeine threshold, it can even cause tremors, irritability, impulsivity, and insomnia.
However, new research says a moderate amount of caffeine can do the opposite for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Instead of making them more active and stimulated, it actually has a “calm-down” effect, and encourages sleep.
Some adults with ADHD have found that drinking coffee could help them feel more focused, calm, and stay on task. They are now using a cup of coffee as mild treatment for their negative symptoms such as hyperactivity, restlessness, and flight of ideas.
Because sensitivity to caffeine varies among people based on a number of things, dosing has to be adjusted on an as-needed basis. ADHD, like any other spectrum disorder, has varying degrees of intensity, so there is not “one size fits all” treatment plan for every patient.
Interestingly, the body processes caffeine differently based on gender, and women naturally metabolize it more quickly. Because of this, males would require doses more frequently than females. Anecdotal evidence advocates for individuals who suffer from ADHD to take it upon themselves and self-medicate even their children. While it may seem controversial for mom to hand her seven-year-old an iced java, it’s not so far fetched.
The effectiveness of coffee in calming ADHD children has become a popular discussion topic on various web sites and forums. Again, it’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, and less comprehensive medical research, but my opinion is that Big Pharma likes to keep it that way.
My stance isn’t for leaving ADHD diagnoses unmedicated or untreated. I am pro-treatment management and I support looking for alternative drugs such as medical marijuana and coffee.
For parents who say they don’t want to administer drugs or chemicals to their child for their ADHD symptoms, a cup of coffee brewed from organically grown coffee beans might be the more attractive alternative. Here’s why:
Caffeine, in the form of homemade coffee, is (relatively) cheap! I buy the bottom-shelf brand and the cost amounts to about 25 cents per cup, so 1/4 cup is a little over six cents, 30 days a month is less than $2. If the child needs it twice a day, then double the cost to $4. If the family has food stamps, coffee is covered by the food stamp card allowance.
As far as insurance goes, that's not really an option for everyone. I'm 100 percent uninsured. Everything is out-of-pocket. Many families have fallen through the cracks in our healthcare system. With a cup of joe, there are no insurance claims forms to fill out, no drug-discount cards to search for at the bottom of your bag – just what fits into the family’s monthly grocery budget.
ADHD medications are heavy stimulants, often with potential side effects such as reduced appetite, weight loss, and dependency. Caffeine is actually a milder alternative. Children with ADHD are usually given drugs like Ritalin and Strattera that increase dopamine levels in the body. Higher levels tend to calm and help overactive minds focus.
Coffee can also increase dopamine without the risks associated with prescriptions. The only side effect coffee has may be a headache from withdrawal. If you decide to go the coffee route, you should also avoid sweetening coffee with sugar because real sugar aggravates the symptoms of ADHD. A fantastic alternative is stevia as it is natural, yet not metabolized by the body, therefore it will not spike blood sugar levels.
When considering our rising healthcare costs, its ubiquity, affordability, and ease of use are what make caffeine an intriguing option for an adult or child with ADHD. All of those factors make this consideration difficult to pass up.
Always exercise caution and learn as much as you can. This, while working concurrently with your healthcare provider, and gaining both insight and knowledge into your child's ADHD, will serve your family well.
Please note that this post and the information herein is based on personal experience and anecdotal in nature. It is not intended to substitute for medical or mental health advice.
I am not a licensed therapist, psychologist, registered dietitian, nutritionist, or medical doctor. The views I express are mine alone, based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical or mental health advice. Please speak with a medical or mental health professional before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or daily routine.