Updated on August 26, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurological condition that can have a marked impact on mental health. It can affect memory, ability to focus on a specific task, and overall emotional well-being. Common symptoms, which are often first observed in childhood, include ongoing patterns of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. Children with ADHD often can’t seem to sit still in school, for example, or don’t seem to be paying attention.
In the United States, ADHD affects about 11% of all children between the ages of 4-17 years and nearly 5% of all adults. But contrary to some perceptions, ADHD is not a behavior problem, but a complex disorder that impairs the brain’s self-management system and executive functions.
Unfortunately, ADHD isn’t always something that you outgrow, and for at least one-third of children, it follows them into adulthood. The symptoms are similar, and manifest as problems managing time, being organized, maintaining structure in your life, or even holding down a job. In addition, ADHD can affect relationships, family life, and academic and career success. As many as 10 million adults living in the US have ADHD, which can also be associated with mental health issues such as depression, mood or conduct disorders and substance abuse.
The causes of ADHD remain unclear, although it does appear to run in families, suggesting a genetic origin. A head injury could trigger symptoms. Smoking, drinking alcohol or poor nutrition during pregnancy may also be linked to ADHD in the child. Some research suggests children exposed to tobacco smoke in the womb are 2.4 times as likely to have ADHD.
There isn’t a “one size fits all” when it comes to ADHD treatment, which, depending on a person’s age, can include medication, psychotherapy, education or training, or a combination of treatments. Many people rely on medications for ADHD, and there are dozens of drugs on the market, some of which have been in use for decades. But while these medications are effective, they can have side effects including weight loss, sleep problems, irritability, and appetite los. Not surprisingly, there is interest in alternative therapies for ADHD.
Interest in marijuana has grown as a potential treatment for ADHD, but research is really still in its formative stages. Anecdotally, individuals say marijuana does help them deal with their ADHD, minus the side effects of prescription drugs, but the scientific evidence is not there yet. A 2016 study conducted by researchers from Duke University of 268 ADHD-related internet threads, for example, found that a quarter included postings from a person stating that cannabis was effective for ADHD. Other views were mixed, including 8% of threads with a post saying it was harmful, 5% reporting mixed results, and 2% saying it had no effect.
The interest in cannabis as a remedy appears to be three-fold. Individuals with ADHD tend to have problems processing the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. Cannabinoids are believed to help correct dopamine deficiency if dosed correctly, and THC increases dopamine concentrations and activates dopamine neurons. A 2017 study conducted in the UK found that adults who used a cannabinoid medication experienced some relief in their hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms as compared to patients who used a placebo. The group using the cannabinoid medication also showed more appropriate inhibition of activity and better attention depth.
In its raw form, cannabis may be able to slow down the mental processes in people with ADHD, which in turn may allow for improved focus and concentration. It may also help relieve the side effects of stimulant drugs by reducing stress and nausea and improving appetite and sleep. Medical marijuana and stimulant medication may work synergistically, with the drugs helping with ADHD symptoms and cannabis easing drug side effects.
Even though there isn’t much research yet, anecdotally, users have pinpointed several strains said to help with common ADHD symptoms. These include:
Sour Diesel: One of the most popular cannabis strains, it is also known as known as Sour D, or Sour Deez, and contains 26% THC and 2% CBD. It is known for giving users an uplifting creative high and has been used for a broad range of medical conditions including anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue.
Green Crack: Another strain recommended for ADHD by users. With a THC content as high as 24%, this strain is also used to treat PTSD, migraines, and other health conditions.
Blue Dream: Users say this strain delivers a strong jolt of energy, leaving them focused and motivated. This strain is useful for easing ADHD medication side effects and can also help with chronic pain.
True OG: This lesser-known strain has a calming effect, allowing users to focus on simple tasks, and is also known for helping to relieve stress and reduce distraction.
About the author
Roxanne Nelson is a registered nurse who has written for a wide range of publications for healthcare professionals and consumers, including Medscape, The Lancet, Prevention, Scientific American, WebMD, American Journal of Nursing, Frontline, National Geographic, Hematology Adviser, American Journal of Medical Genetics and the Washington Post, among others.