ADHD and Addiction

The Facts About ADHD and Addiction

A recent study conducted at the University of Toronto indicated that about half of adults with ADHD may also struggle with alcohol or drug abuse. Individuals with ADHD and either anxiety depression were even more vulnerable to substance abuse. The study included close to 6,900 Canadians aged 20 to 39, with and without ADHD.

Individuals with ADHD were much more more likely to have a substance abuse disorder than those without ADHD. Alcohol use disorders were the most common, followed by marijuana. And more than 1 in 6 young adults with ADHD had an issue with drugs such as cocaine, LSD or heroin.

The problem often begins in adolescence. Earlier studies showed that teens with ADHD are at increased risk for alcohol use disorder as they get older. In fact, they are more than twice as likely to develop nicotine dependence and marijuana or cocaine abuse or dependence. Approximately 15% of adolescents and young adults with ADHD have a substance use disorder.

Addiction can go beyond alcohol or drugs to include: food, shopping, gambling, sex and even Internet use.

How ADHD and Addiction Might Be Linked

No direct genetic link between addictive behaviors and ADHD has yet been established. Addiction can result from behavioral, emotional, and life factors. Thrill-seeking behavior, the need for immediate gratification, and a search for novel pleasure-seeking experiences are more common for individuals with ADHD. This can be related to the low dopamine levels that characterize ADHD. Individuals with ADHD often experience more job loss and financial difficulties and these stresses can contribute to addictive behavior.

At the beginning, these addictive behaviors provide a jolt of dopamine that is very satisfying for the brain’s reward circuits. Over time, the “thrill” wears off, but the addictive behavior continues due to physical or emotional cravings

Awareness and Treatment

In adults, both the ADHD and addiction should be treated together. The first step is awareness of how the ADHD brain can exacerbate addiction. Medication, behavioral therapy and lifestyle changes can also be useful to help the ADHD individual stay the course in their addiction treatment programs. This is often a problem because the ADHD can make harder to get to meetings on time, commit to getting to bed earlier, eat a healthier diet, and reach out for support in advance, not during a crisis.

The best treatment is ultimately prevention. Clinicians and parents need to work together when a child or teen is diagnosed with ADHD to figure out the best treatment plan and be on the alert for any early signs of addictive behavior.


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