The Truth About ADD/ADHD And Substance Abuse

Blog-the truth about add_adhd and substance abuse

Having can negatively impact your life in many ways. Most people are familiar with the neurodevelopmental disorder’s trademark short attention span, distractibility, impulsivity, disorganization, and procrastination.

What many people don’t realize is that having ADD/ADHD also puts you at increased risk for substance use disorders, such as alcoholism or drug abuse. In fact, as many as half of all adolescents and adults with substance use disorders have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD at some point during their lives, according to research.

As many as half of all adolescents and adults with substance use disorders have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD at some point during their lives. Click To Tweet

What’s the link between ADD/ADHD and addictions? And what can you do to reduce your risk of alcohol abuse, nicotine use, or drug dependence?


Decades of research show that individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also called attention-deficit disorder (ADD), are more likely to develop substance use disorders than those without the mental health disorder.

For example, adults with ADD/ADHD are about three times more likely to struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD) than their peers. Similarly, compared to kids who don’t have ADD/ADHD, children with the condition are two to three times more likely to abuse substances, according to a study in Clinical Psychology Review.

In particular, research shows that children with ADD/ADHD are:

  • More than twice as likely to use nicotine
  • Almost twice as likely to develop a dependence on alcohol
  • Almost three times as likely to use marijuana and 1.5 times more likely to develop a cannabis dependence
  • Twice as likely to develop cocaine dependence

The fact that nearly 10% of school-age children have received a medical diagnosis of ADD/ADHD raises a red flag on the issue.


ADD/ADHD is a brain-based disorder. The brain-imaging work using SPECT at Amen Clinics shows that the brain functions differently in people with this condition. Specifically, SPECT scans show abnormal activity in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

This brain region is responsible for executive functions, such as planning, judgment, forethought, impulse control, and follow-through.

In the healthy brain, concentration stimulates activity in the PFC. Not so in the ADD/ADHD brain. In people with this disorder, there’s a reduction in activity in the PFC when they try to concentrate. Effectively, this makes it harder for them to pay attention. The decreased activity in the PFC also helps explain the symptoms associated with the disorder.

Brain imaging shows that having ADD/ADHD symptoms is not due to a lack of willpower or failing to try hard enough. Rather it’s related to the way the brain functions.


ADD/ADHD is also associated with other brain functions, such as the self-control circuit. This circuit involves the brain systems that drive you to seek out things that bring you pleasure and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which puts on the brakes when you are about to engage in risky behavior.

In a healthy self-control circuit, an effective PFC provides impulse control and good judgment while the deep limbic system offers an adequate dose of motivation so you can plan and follow through on your goals. You can say no to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, cigarettes, and other substances.

When activity in the PFC is decreased, the drive circuits take control and cause you to lose control over your behavior. When this is the case, you’re more likely to fall victim to your cravings.

Having low activity often results in a tendency for impulse-control problems and poor internal supervision. These contribute to the increased risk of addiction.


Many people with ADD/ADHD self-medicate with substances in order to feel better—more focused, less anxious, less depressed, or less overwhelmed.

Because the PFC is underactive in the ADD/ADHD brain, it can lead people to use substances as a way to stimulate brain activity. And those with hyperactivity may turn to other substances to calm down.

Although these individuals abuse substances as a way to treat their underlying problems, it is bad medicine. Over time, substance abuse often exacerbates ADD/ADHD symptoms.

The brain-imaging work at Amen Clinics clearly shows that substance abuse is harmful to brain function. Alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, cocaine, methamphetamines, and even caffeine reduce brain activity over time. In some cases, the reduction in brain activity can be significant.

This means that when a teen with ADD/ADHD drinks alcohol to calm internal feelings of restlessness, it soothes them but only temporarily. At the same time, it damages cellular activity, which can lead to a worsening of symptoms in the long run.

One study out of UCLA found that cocaine addicts had 23% less overall brain activity compared to individuals who had never taken drugs. In this study, the people addicted to cocaine who also smoked cigarettes had 45% less activity in their brain.

Based on the clinical experience at Amen Clinics, people tend to use different substances based on which type of ADD/ADHD they have. The SPECT scans at Amen Clinics have helped identify 7 types of ADD/ADHD.

People with Classic or Inattentive ADD/ADHD tend to use stimulants, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. Individuals with Overfocused ADD/ADHD are more likely to abuse alcohol.

Having Temporal Lobe or Limbic ADD/ADHD makes people more inclined to use marijuana or stimulants. People with Anxious or Ring of Fire ADD/ADHD tend to abuse alcohol and marijuana.


Substance abuse often complicates the treatment of ADD/ADHD. As mentioned earlier, as many as 50% of adolescents and adults with ADD/ADHD also have substance abuse issues.

Some people fear that stimulant medications may be a gateway drug to other substances. However, research has found that this is not the case. In fact, a 2016 study found that people who are taking prescription stimulants for ADD/ADHD are 7.3% less likely to develop a substance use disorder.

However, many health care providers feel uncomfortable prescribing stimulant medications such as Ritalin or Adderall to people who have a substance use disorder. Physicians have to be very careful when this is the case.

If you have an active addiction, you may need to wait until you’re enrolled in an addiction treatment program before a physician will prescribe stimulant medication for ADHD.

After showing a sustained commitment to sobriety, you may be prescribed ADD/ADHD stimulants. Be aware that you will likely need to be monitored frequently.

If you have ADD/ADHD, several lifestyle changes can also help prevent substance abuse. A healthy diet, daily exercise, and meditation are all natural ways to boost activity in the PFC to help you regain control.

ADD/ADHD, addictions, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here


    The hippocampus and the amygdala store information about environmental cues associated with the desired substance, so that it can be located again. These memories help create a conditioned response — intense craving — whenever the person encounters those environmental cues.

    Cravings contribute not only to addiction but to relapse after a hard-won sobriety.

    Comment by Tanju Surmeli — January 25, 2018 @ 10:03 AM

  2. Hi, wondering what kind of treatment you do for a young people with drug addictions and possible head trauma?
    We live in Melbourne Fl. Is there a treatment center near me?
    Karin Woodson

    Comment by karin woodson — January 30, 2018 @ 11:48 AM

  3. Any treatment centers near Chicago

    Comment by Nancy — February 8, 2018 @ 8:50 AM

  4. Hello Nancy, yes we have a location in Bannockburn, IL. Here is the information – If you have questions about this location, treatment options or services, please call our Care Coordinators at 888-288-9834.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 8, 2018 @ 9:40 AM

  5. Any centers near Santa Clarita CA?

    Comment by Elaine Newton — February 21, 2018 @ 3:35 AM

  6. Hello Elaine, our current locations in CA are in Costa Mesa, Encino (coming soon), and Walnut Creek. Our locations can be viewed here –

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 21, 2018 @ 8:43 AM

  7. How do prescribed drugs, e.g. Ritalin, factor into these statistics? Increase, decrease, or no change?

    Comment by Debra Filla — February 21, 2018 @ 9:39 AM

  8. HI , are there any offices in Dallas TX?

    Comment by Jenna Davis — February 26, 2018 @ 1:07 PM

  9. Hi Jenna, we hope to come to TX! But for now our locations are listed here –

    Comment by Amen Clinics — February 26, 2018 @ 2:28 PM

  10. I purchased yr PBS series and read all your articles. Have been battling severe depression, chronic pain and insomnia for over 10 years. I fell 14ft and landed on my head but have had ADD since 10. I am 57. I can’t come to CA for an appointment and hoping so.edgy you will open clinics in Texas. My question is what is your option of brain stimulator like the Fisher-Wallace stimulator or the MyoCalme. I just got one and it seems to help my ability to sleep. Nothing I have tried has helped me sleep before. But I don’t want to damage my brain. Can you comment on their use? After 4 surgeries I am no longer on oxycodone and this stimulator seems to reduce my pain. I don’t take any painkillers any more at all

    Comment by Karen ARMSTRONG — March 31, 2018 @ 11:27 AM

  11. Karen, check out for information on how Niacin helps with depression and the ability to sleep. With sufficient sleep, your body may heal and reduce the chronic pain. They mention 3000 mg of niacin daily in divided doses.

    Want to share with you that in 2008 I went through an emotionally stressful time and came down with shingles in my brain and my left eye.. Because of my study of nutrition and natural health, I knew that the brain REQUIRES SLEEP. I triangulated between my couch, kitchen and bathroom for 3 months as I slept for 14-16 hours a day. No TV, no reading, no lawncare, etc. My opthalmologist told me that I was lucky not to have committed suicide as people with shingles in the brain often do because of the pain. The extra sleep and super nutrition saved me.

    Good luck! Deborah

    Comment by Deborah Rhodes — April 12, 2018 @ 11:52 AM

  12. Is this risky behaviour caused by the brain seeking out hits of dopamine?
    Do you have any centres in Canada?

    Comment by Cory — April 15, 2018 @ 10:04 AM

  13. My daughter has been an alcoholic for 35 years. She has been unable to maintain sobriety for more than a few months. She has been in many treatment facilities, had DUI ‘s, been homeless etc. We refuse to give up trying to find her some appropriate help. We live in the western Massachusetts area. Where is your closest treatment to the greater Springfield area.
    Betty Murphy

    Comment by Betty Murphy — April 16, 2018 @ 4:11 AM

  14. Hello Cory, thank you for reaching out. To speak to our Care Coordinators, please call 949-266-3715. We don’t have any centers outside of the US at this time. Our current locations are listed here –

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 16, 2018 @ 7:49 AM

  15. Hello Betty, thank you for reaching out to us. Our current clinic locations are listed here – Our Care Coordinators are available to provide referrals in your area if you’re unable to make it to one of our clinics. To reach our Care Coordinators, please call 888-288-9834 or submit this form online –

    Comment by Amen Clinics — April 16, 2018 @ 7:53 AM

  16. I live in Dayton Tennessee which is north of Chattanooga. I am interested in biofeedback how do I find a local office doing this. Thanks

    Comment by Alyson Fitsimmons — May 13, 2018 @ 8:04 PM

  17. Hello Alyson, thank you for reaching out. Our Care Coordinators are available to assist you with referrals in your area for services and SPECT scans. Please call us at 888-288-9834.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — May 14, 2018 @ 7:47 AM

  18. I was hoping to see a comment like this. Addiction is a learned behavior that is reinforced to varying levels of brain development, route of administration, number of uses, self-awareness, arbitrary social rules on what drugs or ligands are okay and which aren’t, dosage, duration of use, duration or time abstinent, genetics and so forth. It’s best to think of addiction as learning because the same process (LTP) occurs in both situations. Addiction being much stronger of a synoptic connection and less likely for interference via (LTD) the opposite process, which contributes to the “use it or lose it,” characteristic of human brains. The prefrontal cortex is just a single site of the reward or motivation pathway that is strengthened with drug use or any sort of dopamnergic releasing activity’s like sex, eating, and in general feelings of adequacy and accomplishment. The article here massively over simplified the topic. But best to put it like this, PTSD is resistant to almost all forms of treatment. PTSD is a strong memory that shares many properties with drug addiction. They are strong memories that often are resilient to treatment via memory extinction, and reinstate months after recovery with no context what so ever. Either as relapse in addicts or episodes in those traumatized. Hope people read this and get a cleaner understanding of what makes drugs be addictive and why it’s so hard to break that addiction.

    Comment by Rotem Pedahzur — May 14, 2018 @ 3:04 PM

  19. I read ur comment n liked ur review….So ….. a child taking a Med to help their brain is not really helping? It’s adding to their possible future addiction because the Med supplements the brain n it will need it to make it fire correctly?
    I’ve read so much about .. food being a culprit, example .. too much sugar, carbs ….
    He’s 6 and I feel guilty giving him a drug… with the possibility of adding fuel to the fire.
    Is there a new “idea” on helping kids without drugs?
    Especially with one parent diagnosised with PTSD? And one parent with ADHD?.

    Comment by Kim — June 9, 2018 @ 3:45 AM

  20. There is a new clinic in Dallas that does stem cell treatment; however, they also do a wide variety of other natural treatments. The lead doctor is both an MD and a functional medicine doctor, so he can cover all aspects, and some of it is covered by insurance since he’s a MD.

    Blessings to you!!

    Comment by Toni — June 11, 2018 @ 5:59 AM

  21. First of all, the people writing comments probably don’t appreciate their full names posted.

    I would like to know if there has been any experience of treating someone with addiction to adderall that also has skin picking disorder? There is now a side effect listed for Adderall called Dermatillomania, which is skin picking. There are psychiatrist prescribing refills of Adderall with over-the-phone check-ups that are completely missing this side effect. Doctors should NEVER be able to write or renew a prescription without the person in their office in front of them.

    Comment by CJVP — June 26, 2018 @ 8:42 PM

  22. What is the name of this place in Dallas that does stem cell ? I’m 4 hrs from there… thank you for your input & help.

    Comment by Kandy Wyrick — October 1, 2018 @ 7:40 AM

  23. 3 yrs ago, I was in a very bad car accident and suffered from a tbi. My adhd is worse, how?

    Comment by Kelly — October 9, 2018 @ 9:38 PM

  24. How much does this treatment/program/center cost? I’m sure it varies but no mention of cost anywhere…esp. if no or poor coverage insurance.

    Comment by Lin — October 18, 2018 @ 11:48 AM

  25. Very well explained. Thanks so much!

    Comment by Tim Anderson — November 21, 2018 @ 5:48 PM

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