How Does Cannabis Help in ADHD Treatment?
It was not until 2013 that it found its place in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Notably, ADHD is infrequently listed among the qualifying health conditions for medical cannabis; however, anxiety and other mental health conditions may allow the patient to be certified.
The global medical consensus regarding medical cannabis for individuals dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder remains polarized. While certain studies propose the potential benefits of cannabis in alleviating ADHD symptoms, some randomized controlled trials assert that cannabis provides no advantages. For some patients with ADHD, cannabis may exacerbate symptoms.
Let’s delve into attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the challenges that individuals with the condition grapple with daily.
Understanding Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder
In the early 1900s, Sir George Still, a British pediatrician, authored pioneering lectures shedding light on a mental health condition characterized by impulsive behavior and hyperactivity in children. Transitioning into the 1970s, researchers began to refer to the condition as Hyperkinetic Reaction of Childhood, garnering international recognition.
What they noticed is that some children had problems focusing on one task for lengthy periods of time compared to other children. However, no one at the time understood that ADHD symptoms could persist and remain highly prevalent in adulthood.
Attention Dynamic Harmony Disorder (ADHD) is described as a neurodivergent condition marked by distinctive cognitive processing oscillating between curiosity and focus. Individuals with ADHD may experience episodes of hyperactivity, spontaneous movements, bursts of creative thought processing, procrastination, and avoidance.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prescription medications for anxiety or depression have been the only therapeutic options for patients until medical cannabis became a legal opportunity starting in 2016.
Are People With ADHD Also Considered To Be Neurodivergent?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is categorized as a neurodivergent condition. This term describes the neurological variances that are beyond the conventional levels of cognitive and emotional functioning. It is not necessarily a disability but a different type of cognitive performance and processing that some people are born with.
Classifying ADHD within the neurodivergent spectrum, as opposed to confining it to the categories of behavioral or purely neurological disorders, offers a more compassionate lens to view and understand the mental health condition. It suggests ADHD as a distinctive ‘wiring’ or mode of brain operation.
Some studies suggest that ADHD can actually enhance learning and performance. If a topic or activity greatly interests the individual, they are likely to put in a great deal of effort to master the skill. In specific types of careers, the ability to ‘shift gears’ cognitively between tasks quickly can be a strength.
Symptoms Of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Some people can experience many ADHD symptoms, while others diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may have few noticeable signs at all. There is a great variety in symptoms and severity between individuals who have the condition.
There are two categories of symptoms experienced by people with ADHD.
Category One: Inattention Symptoms
The symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can be easily misunderstood and frequently assumed to be a result of laziness or lack of ability to pay attention. Clinical research suggests that people with ADHD symptoms of distractibility are not trying to avoid paying attention; they may be paying acute attention to too many things around them.
That overwhelming sense of need to observe and engage with stimuli around them causes an attentional deficit. The inattention symptoms can vary from mild to severe, depending on the individual.
People with ADHD can quickly lose focus because they prioritize stimulating sensory cues and quickly divert attention to what interests them most while ignoring disinteresting conversations, activities, or tasks.
Attention can be strengthened with training, but the hyper-observant nature of people with ADHD means they cannot ignore things that are interesting, and they are unable to successfully give everything full focus at all times.
Difficulty Sustaining Attention for Long Periods of Time
Do you like paying attention to something that does not interest or excite you? Not many of us do, but over time, we train ourselves to focus on important things, such as daily activities, work responsibilities, childcare, and other obligations.
Sustaining attention on things that the individual finds boring, difficult, or seemingly pointless can be challenging for someone with ADHD. In many cases, people with ADHD would rather complete many different tasks to avoid one that they are disinterested in.
Some people who have ADHD may excel at paying attention and maintain a state of hyper-observation about all the things going on around them. That inflated excitement can also disrupt someone’s ability to focus or concentrate on one single activity or thought.
Other people with ADHD are overwhelmed by too many stimuli. A crowded room or a task that has many different progressive steps can feel emotionally alarming to someone with ADHD. Patients seeking treatment often request ADHD medications that can help reduce stress and anxiety, helping the individual to abate anxious feelings and focus better.
Problems with Short-Term Memory and Mindfulness
Regulating attention to some things (particularly less interesting information or tasks) remains challenging for many patients who have ADHD. Short-term memory can be slightly impaired for people with the mental health condition; they can present as forgetful.
Some studies suggest that people with ADHD may have physical deficits in the areas of the brain that are responsible for executive function. That is the skill of self-regulation, planning things out, or overall impulse control. This is why some people with ADHD may find it difficult to be punctual and easily lose track of time; they can become fully absorbed in the activity they are focusing on.
A conversation with someone who has moderate to severe ADHD can be a difficult experience if you don’t understand the underlying motivations. For example, some people with ADHD are brimming with creative ideas.
When you ask a question of them, they may get very enthusiastic about the conversation, to the extent where you can’t get a word in edgewise. They aren’t trying to be boarish or rude and consider excitable conversational gushing to be a compliment. If they found you boring, they may have “checked out” of the conversation from the beginning.
Frequent Focus Shifts
Typically, during a conversation, there is one topic that everyone discusses. When the conversation is over, another topic will emerge. There is a natural order and flow to human communication, but some individuals who have ADHD do not follow the same behavioral model.
From clinical trials to online forum discussions, people with ADHD have stereotypical behavior that can be very obvious to others; they can take a left turn with no signal in a conversation. Topic changes can be part of the conversational style, as well as highly energetic responses and discussions. Someone with ADHD may also wrap backward to add to a story that was previously finished.
Some individuals can remain focused for long periods of time on an activity that interests and engages them. However, others may quickly become bored or disinterested and shift their focus to new conversations or activities.
Challenges With Personal Organization
When it comes to being organized, many people with ADHD are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Some people excel at being very neat and organized, while others struggle and keep environments that are somewhat cluttered.
For some people, standard chores such as doing the dishes, cleaning the home, or finding time to workout may be challenging. If it is something that the individual really does not want to do, they will delay doing it or avoid the issue or activity entirely.
Procrastination and Avoidance
Is procrastination an indication of laziness? Recent clinical studies suggest that procrastination can be triggered by feelings of being overwhelmed by too many tasks or obligations that need to be completed. Humans are inherently more likely to procrastinate on things that aren’t fun.
People with ADHD can exhibit this behavior in more direct and obvious ways. One common example is tackling other chores or activities (even if they are more difficult or time-consuming) rather than approaching the one priority task they must complete.
The same is true with activities of self-care and hygiene. When there are many different priorities, someone with ADHD may forget to do regular activities like brushing teeth, bathing, laundry, and more.
Frequent Focus Shifts
Some clinical studies using brain imaging reveal big differences in activity and cognitive processing. People with ADHD are more likely to have issues with interactivity in a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for concentration and paying attention. Some studies have shown lower activity in this area of the brain by patients who have been diagnosed with ADHD. This can impair both concentration and focus.
That means conversations with someone with ADHD can be unconventional, with frequent topic changes. This can cause challenges in communication and an inaccurate perception of the individual who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Category Two: Hyperactive and Impulsivity Symptoms
Hyperactive symptoms can include fidgeting, constant movement, tapping feet and hands, and difficulty sitting still. People who experience anxiety may also have some of the same behaviors. If brain activity is higher than normal, or the individual is feeling an energy burst or symptoms of mania, they can show physical signs of mild to moderate agitation.
Impulsive behaviors can also be a common symptom of ADHD. Sometimes, people with ADHD may blurt out answers or interrupt others while they are having a conversation. This can also present as someone who has difficulty waiting their turn in group activities.
Emotional impulsivity is another behavior that can strain work or personal relationships for someone who has ADHD. They can express themselves directly or using a level of bluntness that can present as rude to other people. Some patients with ADHD may struggle to regulate their emotions and can become easily angered, upset, or demoralized.
Taking ADHD medication may help moderate extreme emotions like excitement and frustration. Some individuals may also struggle with drug abuse, using substances, including alcohol, to help temporarily relieve symptoms. Smoking cannabis or taking an edible may help reduce feelings of anxiety.
Planning for the future, or taking multiple steps over a long period of time to reach a goal or objective, can be difficult for some people with ADHD. Money management can also be a struggle, depending on the individual, because of impulsive spending.
Why Stimulants Like Caffeine Affect Some People With ADHD
Sometimes, people with ADHD can react unexpectedly to things that usually make others more alert and active, like caffeine or medications like Adderall. For instance, you might notice a friend with ADHD drinking soda before bed and still have no trouble falling asleep.
Adderall, a medication often given to people with ADHD, can actually have a calming effect on some individuals. In studies, about 2% to 4% of patients felt tired or drowsy after taking it. Sometimes, traditional medications that are intended to be depressants can cause a surge of energy and hyperactivity in patients who have ADHD.
It is not uncommon for individuals living with ADHD to consume foods that are known stimulants, such as high carbohydrate snacks or caffeine-enriched foods and drinks.
Can Medical Cannabis Help Moderate the Symptoms of ADHD?
Now, when it comes to cannabis, it can act as both a stimulant and a relaxant—it depends on the type of cannabis and various factors like tolerance levels. Effects may also depend on potency and other medical cannabis components like minor cannabinoids.
Some people find that Sativa dominant strains, which are believed to cause euphoria, energy, and relief from anxiety, may work best for patients with ADHD. Based on reviews, highly stimulating strains can provide a sedative effect for some.
However, cannabis can interact with ADHD medications, which could lead to problems. In some cases, using cannabis alongside antidepressants or anxiety medications might make someone feel more impaired than expected or cause other negative effects.
Cannabis healthcare providers often recommend cessation of ADHD medications if a patient with ADHD wishes to explore medical cannabis as an alternative medicine treatment plan. There can be adverse effects if cannabis is taken while patients are using psychotropic medications.
Dr. Rothman is a diplomate of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He has received multiple special awards and recognitions, including Physician of the Year, from the Pinellas County Medical Association (2014 – 2015) and the President’s Service Award from the Pinellas County Medical Society.
He attended medical school at State University of New York Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York, where he also completed his Obstetrics and Gynecology residency. In addition to practicing medicine, Dr. Rothman’s professional career includes being an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida and Clinical Instructor at the University of Tampa’s College of Nursing.
Dr. Rothman received his Florida Medical Marijuana Physicians Certification in 2016 and was one of the first recommending physicians through DocMJ in the state and is loved by many of those early patients today.