Will The Future of ADHD/ADD Treatment See Cannabis Replace Adderall?
Stimulants, like Adderall, affect dopamine levels in the brain. Well, cannabis has the same effect, except even better. Science says it’s possible that we could see cannabis replace Adderall.
It may sound ridiculous to some – cannabis, a relaxant known for inspiring languid, hazy thoughts could be a viable replacement for a medicine designed for people with attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD)? Despite its reputation, there’s strong scientific backing that suggests cannabis definitely can improve focus — at least for some people.
ADHD is known colloquially as a condition prevalent among pre-teen boys, marked by a lack of focus or an inability to stay on task. Scientifically, however, it’s known as a chemical imbalance, characterized by an insufficient amount of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine’s main function is as a feel-good chemical. It’s produced in the brain’s reward center. ADHD medications work by preventing the brain from sucking up all the dopamine floating about. These are called “reuptake inhibitors.” When dopamine sticks around, people with ADHD are able to increase their attention spans.
Here’s where the overlap occurs: Cannabis has also been shown to affect the brain’s dopamine system. In fact, small amounts of THC show a marked increase in dopamine release and neuronal activity. So in a way, hitting a joint is a lot like popping an Adderall.
In fact, it might be more potent. The dopamine system is largely controlled by the body’s endocannabinoid system, which directly interacts with cannabis.
This could also explain why ADHD is a “risk factor” for increased cannabis use (meaning that people with ADHD — whether or not it’s diagnosed — are more likely to use cannabis than those without). One possible explanation is the self-medication theory, which contends that people often turn to illicit substances to deal with physical or psychological pain. Cannabis use might be a form of self-help for people with ADHD, something that helps them better deal with the world.
Although ADHD is primarily associated with children or adolescents, many adults suffer from the diagnosis as well. And, thanks to their increased agency, they often turn to cannabis for relief. A study in European Neuropsychopharmacology found that many adults with ADHD self-medicate — and some are even prescribed cannabis by their psychiatrists. After studying these adults in a controlled trial, researchers concluded that the adults with ADHD “may represent a subgroup of individuals who experience a reduction in symptoms and no cognitive impairments following cannabinoid use.”
In fact, the two are often paired together. ADHD patients reported feeling less restless and calmer when they used cannabis, and claimed to sleep better and remain focused for longer periods of time. In 2004, a group of medical professionals went before the U.S. House of Representatives to advocate that cannabis be approved as a treatment for ADHD.
The European study found that that hyperactivity and impulsivity were reduced in ADHD patients who were given cannabis. Those patients also reported healthier moods. The results weren’t consistent, however, but that may be a good thing.
Unlike a lot of illnesses, ADHD isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. The condition is marked by subtypes that include hyperactive-impulsive symptoms and inattentive symptoms, among others. The type of ADHD may affect whether patients will find cannabis to be a good treatment option. And, just like the current pharmaceutical medications for ADHD, cannabis may not be the right fit for everyone. It’s possible that certain clusters of symptoms respond better to cannabis treatment while others are better dealt with by a drug like Ritalin.
Beyond treating the disease itself, cannabis may be helpful in alleviating some of the side effects that come from ADHD medication. For example, many ADHD patients report that their medication gives them anxiety — which is something that the active ingredient cannabidiol (CBD) treats extremely well. Cannabis can also help counteract the sleep problems and restlessness that can be brought on by stimulants such as Adderall.
Another way cannabis may be helpful for ADHD sufferers is by countering bad habits that often accompany the diagnosis. One of the most common problems associated with ADHD is substance abuse, which manifests most commonly in young people and is usually expressed via cigarettes, alcohol, and illicit substances. Cannabis has already been considered a potent way to wean addicts away from opioids and other pain killers. It may also be helpful for ADHD sufferers who can become fixated on a substance.
If cannabis could be a viable replacement for ADHD medication or supplemental aid for even a fraction of sufferers, the effects would be massive. About 5 percent of American children and 3 percent of U.S. adults are diagnosed with ADHD, meaning that millions of people could benefit.
That’s a lot of relief.