Does Cannabis Help With ADHD?

Attention deficit disorders such as ADHD can present a myriad of problems that can affect an individual's day-to-day life and performance. Many sufferers have found solace in cannabis and its ability to alleviate their symptoms. But can it actually help? Find out in this article.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

The cannabis plant continues to be a Swiss-army knife of medical applications. Due to a wide-ranging effects profile that consists of analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antidepressant properties, amongst others, there's seemingly an endless list of conditions that cannabis can be beneficial. Some of the most well-known conditions that cannabis can help are chronic pain, inflammation, stress and epilepsy.

Still, consumers and scientists alike continue to find promising novel uses for the therapeutic benefits of the cannabis plant. One such case that continues to pop up, especially online, is the use of cannabis to treat attention deficit disorders, such as ADHD.

ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, that currently affects between 6-9% of the world's child and adolescent population. It also affects 5% of the adult population worldwide. Many people affected by this condition have praised the ability of cannabis to alleviate their symptoms. But does cannabis really help treat attention deficit disorders? 

What are attention deficit disorders?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common condition that first manifests in childhood. Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is almost identical, with the only difference being the absence of a hyperactivity condition. 

ADD was commonly diagnosed amongst adults suffering from this condition, rather than children before the term became outdated in 2013. This is when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) changed the criteria of this condition to only diagnose ADHD.

There are currently three main types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive and combined. Inattentive ADHD (commonly referred to as ADD) refers to when an individual shows enough symptoms of inattention but isn't hyperactive or impulsive. Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD refers to an individual that shows symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity but not inattention. Combined ADHD refers to a combination of all of these symptoms.

An individual who suffers from ADHD might have trouble focusing on tasks, fidget frequently, shown signs of restlessness, be distracted easily and talk excessively or at inappropriate times. This can lead to relationship problems, academic difficulties and issues with workplace performance, even for individuals with normal or superior intellectual abilities.

The main physiological irregularity of ADHD is an insufficient supply of dopamine in the brain. This chemical neurotransmitter is involved in cognitive processes such as memory and attention. In Australia, the current frontline medications for treating ADHD are methylphenidate (e.g. Ritalin and Concerta) and lisdexamfetamine (e.g. Vyvanse), which stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain.

While these medications are able to correct the balance of this important neurotransmitter, they can also come with unpleasant side effects and withdrawal symptoms. This is the reason why some ADHD sufferers have turned to cannabis, as it is thought that cannabis can impact dopamine levels in the same way as these prescription medicines.

Although this may be the case, the research on this topic is mixed at best. There are still questions and concerns over the effectiveness of cannabis in treating ADHD symptoms, and the safety of medical cannabis consumption, especially for children and young adults.

Cannabis for the treatment of ADHD

Cannabis is a popular choice of medication amongst a certain population of self-treating ADHD sufferers. Those who advocate for its use in such a manner believe that the consumption of cannabis can help to manage some of the more severe symptoms associated with the condition. These symptoms can include agitation, irritability and lack of restraint.

While cannabis is able to manage the symptoms associated with hyperactivity and impulsivity, it appears to be less helpful for treating inattentiveness. Another reason why cannabis has become a popular alternative for ADHD sufferers is due to fewer reported side-effects when compared with current ADHD medications.

Due to the large online presence of these cannabis advocates for ADHD, a study from 2016 analysed the content from various online forums and threads on the topic. The researchers reviewed 286 separate threads and found that 25% of the posts were from individuals who reported therapeutic effects from cannabis for their ADHD symptoms. 

While enlightening, the data from these forums and posts is not considered to be evidence-based research and is therefore not clinically significant. In fact, research supporting a link between the effects of cannabis and the relief of ADHD symptoms is limited.

A study from 2017 explored the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on the dopamine system. The researchers found that THC boosted dopamine levels in the short-term but may also desensitise this dopamine-releasing pathway in the long-term. 

While this study suggests that cannabis can provide short-term ADHD symptom relief, better focus and sedation, long-term cannabis use can prove harmful. In some cases, this can even lead to the development of dependence.

Another trial from 2017 tested an experimental cannabinoid medication on individuals with ADHD. While the sample size of participants in the trial was fairly small and the findings were not statistically significant, the results displayed minor improvements in ADHD symptoms. The trial also found that adults using this medication experienced fewer side-effects than children.

While there are some promising findings in these studies, namely the ability of cannabis to alleviate certain ADHD symptoms, there are also some pitfalls. The major ones that stick out are the risk of cannabis dependency and the potential for ADHD symptoms to get worse over time.

Risks of using cannabis for ADHD

Although some of these were touched on in the previous section, it's important to review some of the risks associated with using cannabis to treat ADHD. For example, individuals with ADHD that use cannabis are more likely to experience cognitive, verbal, memory and decision-making deficits compared to those who don't use cannabis. 

Additionally, those who suffer from ADHD are also more likely to develop cannabis use disorder (CUD). This condition is defined as cannabis use that leads to significant impairment during a 12-month period. A study from 2016 estimated that close to 45% of people who seek treatment for CUD also have ADHD.

There are also significant complications associated with long-term cannabis use. These include altered brain development, increased risk of depression, decreased life satisfaction and an increased risk of chronic bronchitis.

Due to these concerns and the risk of potential harm, ADHD sufferers should be cautious when using cannabis to relieve their symptoms. Ultimately, further research in this area is required to determine whether cannabis actually is a safe and effective treatment for ADHD. Although the anecdotal evidence is promising, strong clinical evidence is also a necessity.

Suitability for children with ADHD

ADHD proportionally affects young children and adolescents more than adults. Children who suffer from ADHD may encounter troublesome experiences at school, as an inability to stay focused or excessive impulsiveness can impact their ability to learn. Even with this being the case, any THC-containing medical cannabis or product is not recommended for alleviating their symptoms.

Now, this might seem fairly obvious, but there are currently many children utilising CBD-based medications to provide relief from conditions such as epilepsy and dystonia. THC however, presents a range of different risks, especially for children.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that the potential side effects from THC-containing cannabis are worse in children and they can outweigh the potential benefits. The most impactful of these side-effects is affecting structural changes in the brain. As a child's brain is developing until the age of 21, altering any neurological developments can seriously impair cognitive functions, such as learning processes and memory.

Another major risk is that individuals who start using cannabis before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop substance use problems, compared to those who don't. There is also an increased likelihood to develop an addiction to cannabis.

Any individual suffering from a behavioural disorder such as ADHD should ensure that they understand the short-term and long-term effects associated with their medication. While cannabis has shown promise in the treatment of ADHD symptoms and shapes as an alternative medicine for some consumers, there is still a lack of clinical evidence to support its effectiveness.

Although prohibition has hindered research on cannabis in the past, there are now numerous studies and trials being conducted around the world for a range of conditions. While the evidence on ADHD is not yet there, further research could determine whether future cannabinoid formulations have any merit for use as an ADHD medication.

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin

Josh is a Perth-based writer with a background in psychology and pharmacology. Through his studies he has gained an interest in abnormal psychology, mental health and psychopharmacology and has reported on these topics. Currently, his main focus is on cannabinoids and their medical potential.

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