ADD/ADHD and the Heightened Risk for Addiction

ADD/ADHD and the Heightened Risk for Addiction

Did you know that people who experience a mental health disorder at any time of life are at twice the risk of alcohol abuse and four times the risk of drug abuse? Addiction problems are particularly common in people with untreated ADD/ADHD. And the problems can start early. Kids and adolescents with the condition are 2.5 times more likely to develop substance use disorders (SUD) than their peers, according to research in the journal Pediatrics. And Harvard researchers have found that over half of all adults with untreated ADD/ADHD will abuse drugs or alcohol during their lifetime.

Cindy, 42, had fallen into that trap. She was abusing methamphetamines, had failed numerous treatment programs, and had lost her third job in a year due to tardiness and poor performance. As a child, she was described as hyperactive, restless, impulsive, disorganized, and a thrill-seeker. She had taken Ritalin for a short while, but her parents weren’t comfortable giving her mediation and told her she should just try harder in school. It didn’t work. By the time she entered high school, she was using drugs to help her pay attention in school. “When I speed, I feel clear and have energy and focus. I hate coming down, and I hate that I have to break the law.”

What’s Driving the ADHD/Addiction Duo?

People with ADD/ADHD tend to have trouble with impulse control even though they may start each day with good intentions to abstain from drinking alcohol or using drugs. Brain SPECT imaging studies show that children, adolescents, and adults with the most common type of ADD/ADHD (brain imaging shows there are actually 7 different types of ADD/ADHD) tend to have low activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), likely due to low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

The PFC is part of the brain’s self-control circuit and is involved in judgment, impulse control, planning, and follow-through. When it is underactive, people can be impulsive, have trouble following through on plans, and have poor judgment. It makes it harder to stay away from substances even when you know they are detrimental to your well-being.

Dopamine is a feel-good chemical. Whenever we do something enjoyable, it’s like pressing a button in the brain to release a little bit of dopamine to make us feel pleasure. In some people, low levels of dopamine mean they need more and more of a substance to feel that joy. Alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine all cause dopamine surges that make these substances highly desirable.

Common Substances Abused by Type of ADD/ADHD

Many people with ADD/ADHD self-medicate with drugs or alcohol (or both) as a way to feel better, more focused, more together, less anxious, less depressed, and less overwhelmed. They aren’t necessarily trying to get high, they just want to feel more normal. The symptoms people experience and the substances they tend to abuse depend on which of the 7 types of ADD/ADHD they have.

Substance Abuse and Brain Function

Brain imaging studies clearly show that alcohol and drug use are harmful to brain function and exacerbate ADD/ADHD symptoms over time. Alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana all decrease brain activity over time, sometimes significantly. For example, when a teen with ADD/ADHD uses alcohol to settle the internal restlessness, it is calming in the short-term, but it damages cellular activity, worsening symptoms in the long-term.

5 Natural Ways to Power Up the PFC and Boost Dopamine

There are several natural strategies that strengthen the PFC and boost dopamine to help people who have problems with impulse control and substance abuse. Here are 5 ways to do it:

  • Exercise: Getting your heart pumping increases blood flow and dopamine in the brain.
  • Have a clear focus: Write out your goals on a sheet of paper and look at them every day to set your intentions.
  • Enlist outside supervision: Have someone you trust check in with you on a regular basis to help you stay focused on your goals.
  • Practice saying no: To minimize the likelihood that you will impulsively say yes to offers of alcohol or drugs, make it a habit to say no.
  • Feed your brain: What you eat can pump up your focus and energy or cause them to plummet. Starting the day with simple carbohydrates—think muffins, cereal, and doughnuts—will increase inattentiveness and impulsivity during the day. Be sure to include small amounts of protein with each meal to enhance brain function.

If you or your child are struggling with poor impulse control, lack of focus, disorganization, or a short attention span, don’t wait to seek help. About 40% of kids and 80% of adults with symptoms of ADD/ADHD don’t get the treatment they need, which increases the risk of substance abuse. If you are using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate your symptoms, we can help you find healthier ways to feel better fast.

At Amen Clinics, we have treated thousands of children, adolescents, and adults with ADD/ADHD and addictions. We use brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive evaluation to diagnose and treat the 7 types of ADD/ADHD and to decrease the stigma associated with substance abuse disorders. Talk to a specialist today about how our personalized precision psychiatry approach can help you. To learn more, schedule a visit today or call 888-288-9834.


  1. I’m a 68 yr old engineer, who is likely an alcoholic, ADHD, I’m pretty sure I’ve had a SPECT scan, when I had brain surgery for NPH a year ago. My wife has deserted me and I’m unemployed and in Bankruptcy. Any advice?

    Comment by Michael Cox — September 16, 2019 @ 3:34 AM

  2. Dont give up. Try sustainable living. Tiny living. Start running. Stop negative thoughts. In the shitty situation, you must be positive. Make sure you earn the day by praising everything because it is all we have. Stay connected and be your own friend and support and strenght. Take your life and make sure you proudly treat yourself with respect.

    Comment by Natalia Bellova — September 24, 2019 @ 2:39 AM

  3. If you really care about you self abd have peace and estability you the one whuvh have to look for help. If you what to have you treatment and you dont have money ,then you the one which have to look see how you can make it. There always will be help if we honestly want to improve our life.

    Comment by Mafalda — October 4, 2019 @ 3:45 AM

  4. This information was helpful and validating. I am a 63 year old female who was diagnosed with ADHD about 15 years ago. I have been helped and treated. However 2 of my brothers were not. He died at the age of 61 and the other 63. They both were addicted mostly to any form of speed or “ feel normal “ medication. If you think you have an addiction get help like I did. Life is so good and I am blessed to enjoy this world without self medicating anymore

    Comment by Abby Hunsberger — October 5, 2019 @ 3:16 AM

  5. Would you be willing to share what treatment s helped you?

    Comment by Lynn Jensen — October 5, 2019 @ 7:10 AM

  6. I have a similar background and had similar issues as you described. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous and found help to stay sober. I also am the product of great counseling and therapy. There is help if you are willing to seek it.

    Comment by Dave Fredrickson — October 7, 2019 @ 7:54 AM

  7. Live every day with an Attitude of Gratitude. Be thankful for whatever you have and understand that the poorest person in this quadrant of the world is richer than 75% of the rest of the worlds people. And in this quadrant we have the resources to seek help and improve our lives that few others have.

    Find a way to Get Sober and Remember “The Past Does Not Equal The Future”. You can change anything you want to; beginning this second, now.

    Find any reason to get out of bed and be productive – by working or even just reading a good motivational book or better yet doing volunteer work. Formulate a plan to give back to society and help others who may be going through tough times like you.

    ADHD is a condition, not a curse. There are many jobs where it is actually beneficial to have such a condition. Find one.

    Everyone has value, everyone is important and can be a positive influence.

    There is a saying…… “Every Day I Make Myself What I Am” – So ask yourself, “What do I want to be”? “How do I want to be remembered”? “How can I leave the world a better place than it was when I arrived”? And do that.

    Develop the attitude that there is always a way, if I am committed. Promise yourself that you won’t go to your grave with your music still in you.

    Comment by Bill Armstrong — October 9, 2019 @ 2:10 PM

  8. I’m 69yo and only diagnosed with ADHD in the past year. I’m new to this site and not sure if it supports medication as well as therapy and lifestyle changes. However I would really to share my experience. I know it’s uncommon and my psychiatrist of 15 years was astonished. Since then I’ve met two other people who’ve experienced the same thing.

    After pretty much a lifetime of therapy, psych meds etc I had run out of hope of ever feeling better and was using alcohol to try and make existence bearable.

    When I started ADHD medication I lost all interest in alcohol and have not had an alcoholic drink since. It has been six months now. I can be at the table with people who are drinking; they can pour me a glass; it literally has no appeal whatsoever.
    Even when I have been extremely stressed or anxious in the normal course of life, I never have the thought of needing a drink.

    I have also never used any other substance (unless prescribed) in times of stress etc.

    Hoping this is within guidelines and wishing you every success and happiness.

    Comment by Penny — October 9, 2019 @ 8:40 PM

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