Stimulants, like Adderall, affect dopamine levels in the brain. Cannabis does too. Will we see cannabis replace Adderall though?
It may sound ridiculous to some — cannabis, a relaxant known for inspiring languid, hazy thoughts could be a viable replacement for a medicine designed for people with attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD)? Despite its reputation, there’s strong scientific backing that suggests cannabis may improve focus — at least for some people. That would mean there’s a potential for cannabis to replace Adderall – and it turns out some people are already doing so.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a condition prevalent among pre-teen boys, marked by a lack of focus or an inability to stay on task. Scientifically, however, it’s known as a chemical imbalance, characterized by an insufficient amount of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine’s main function is as a feel-good chemical. It’s produced in the brain’s reward center. ADHD medications work by preventing the brain from sucking up all the dopamine floating about. “Reuptake inhibitors” are the name these go by. When dopamine sticks around, people with ADHD are able to increase their attention spans.
Overlap Between Cannabis and ADHD Meds
Here’s where the overlap occurs: Cannabis can also affect the brain’s dopamine system according to research. In fact, small amounts of THC show a marked increase in dopamine release and neuronal activity. So in a way, hitting a joint is a lot like popping an Adderall.
But, it might be more potent. The dopamine system is under the influence of the body’s endocannabinoid system, which directly interacts with cannabis.
This could also explain why ADHD is a “risk factor” for increased cannabis consumption (meaning that people with ADHD — whether or not it’s diagnosed — are more likely to consume cannabis than those without). One possible explanation is the self-medication theory, which contends that people often turn to illicit substances to deal with physical or psychological pain. Cannabis consumption might be a form of self-help for people with ADHD, something that helps them better deal with the world.
Not Just a Child’s Condition
People primarily associate ADHD with children or adolescents, but many adults suffer from the diagnosis as well. And, thanks to their increased agency, they often turn to cannabis for relief. A study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology (2017) found that many adults with ADHD self-medicate. With some even getting a cannabis prescription from their psychiatrists. After studying these adults in a controlled trial, researchers concluded that the adults with ADHD “may represent a subgroup of individuals who experience a reduction in symptoms and no cognitive impairments following cannabinoid use.”
ADHD patients also reported feeling less restless and calmer when they consumed cannabis, and claimed to sleep better and remain focused for longer periods of time. In 2004, a group of medical professionals went before the U.S. House of Representatives to advocate that cannabis gain approval as a treatment for ADHD.
The European study found that there was a reduction in hyperactivity and impulsivity in ADHD patients who consumed cannabis. Those patients also reported healthier moods. The results weren’t consistent, however, but that may be a good thing.
No One-size-fits-all Diagnosis for ADHD
Unlike a lot of illnesses, ADHD isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. The condition has subtypes that include hyperactive-impulsive symptoms and inattentive symptoms, among others. The type of ADHD may affect whether patients will find cannabis to be a good treatment option. And, just like the current pharmaceutical medications, cannabis may not be the right fit for everyone. It’s possible that certain clusters of symptoms respond better to cannabis treatment while a drug like Ritalin better takes care of other symptoms.
Beyond treating the disease itself, cannabis may be helpful in alleviating some of the side effects that come from ADHD medication. For example, many ADHD patients report that their medication gives them anxiety — which is something that the active ingredient cannabidiol (CBD) treats extremely well. Cannabis can also help counteract the sleep problems and restlessness associated with stimulants such as Adderall.
Another way cannabis may be helpful for ADHD sufferers is by countering bad habits that often accompany the diagnosis. One of the most common problems associated with ADHD is substance abuse. This manifests most commonly in young people in the form of consuming cigarettes, alcohol, and/or illicit substances. Cannabis already has a reputation as a potent method to wean addicts away from opioids and other pain killers. It may also be helpful for ADHD sufferers who can fixate on a substance.
Will we see Cannabis Replace Adderall and who Would Benefit?
If cannabis could be a viable replacement for ADHD medication or supplemental aid for even a fraction of sufferers, the effects would be massive. About five percent of American children and three percent of U.S. adults receive a diagnosis of ADHD in their lives, meaning that millions of people could benefit if they find cannabis can replace their Adderall.
That’s a lot of relief.