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
- Type 1 Classic: Tend to abuse stimulants, such as cocaine or methamphetamine
- Type 2 Inattentive: Tend to abuse stimulants, such as cocaine or methamphetamine
- Type 3 Overfocused: Tend to abuse alcohol
- Type 4 Temporal Lobe: Tend to abuse marijuana and stimulants
- Type 5 Limbic: Tend to abuse marijuana and stimulants
- Type 6 Ring of Fire: Tend to abuse alcohol and marijuana
- Type 7 Anxious: Tend to abuse alcohol and marijuana
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
- 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.