ADHD Diet & Nutrition

The Truth About Caffeine and ADHD

Caffeine — in a travel mug, Hershey wrapper, or mid-day Coke — is a natural stimulant that boosts dopamine production in the brain. This helps to explain why so many adults with ADHD say they couldn’t live without it. But is caffeine a safe and effective treatment for symptoms? Here, we study the research and ask the experts.

Coffee, tea, sodas, energy drinks, chocolate — many of us consume caffeine throughout the day for a quick, temporary energy surge. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and boosts dopamine production — both of which help the body with movement, attention, and focus.

In the context of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), treatments often include stimulant medication, which has a similar effect. But is caffeine a viable option to help manage ADHD symptoms? Is it safe for adults and children? What about side effects? Here, we break down the most common effects of caffeine, its safety, and the most recent research available.

How does caffeine affect the brain and body?

Caffeine affects each individual differently. While most experts deem moderate consumption of this natural stimulant safe1, too much caffeine may result in side effects that range from nervousness, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and upset stomach to restlessness, migraines, sleeplessness, and muscle tremors.

In addition to alertness and increased focus, caffeine may help weaken headaches, boost memory, and even ward off certain diseases, including cancers, Alzheimer’s2, and Parkinson’s3.

“In a general sense, caffeine does tend to improve our performance,” noted Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., M.B.A., the author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults With ADHD (#CommissionsEarned) and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians (#CommissionsEarned) 4, in a video5 for ADDitude. He adds, however, that those taking ADHD medication may report feeling extra jittery after consuming too much caffeine. And when certain medications combine with caffeine, they may interact poorly.


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How does caffeine affect ADHD?

The effects of caffeine consumption on ADHD remain largely anecdotal. The stimulant calms some people, while increasing anxiety in others. However, many parents and adults with ADHD, (and some studies) report light to moderate caffeine use as a way to help boost focus and concentration.

Tuckman, however, notes that patients taking stimulant medication for ADHD tend to crave caffeine less. “The amount of caffeine you’d need to consume to affect ADHD would probably cause agitation,” said Larry Silver, M.D.6, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “I don’t recommend drinking caffeinated beverages [or taking caffeine-containing pills] as a way to treat ADHD.”

How much caffeine is safe?

The Mayo Clinic7 reports 400 milligrams of caffeine each day is safe for an adult; that’s about four cups of coffee. In children, the maximum caffeine intake varies by age, with the 4- to 6-year-old age range at 45 milligrams per day, and 85 milligrams (roughly one 8-ounce cup) for a 10 to 12-year-old. Pregnant women or those trying to conceive should limit caffeine to a maximum of 300 milligrams per day.

What does the research say about treating ADHD with caffeine?

Researchers studying caffeine in relation to ADHD is nothing new, but the actual body of research remains relatively small and inconclusive.

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A 2011 study8 published in the Journal of Medical Hypotheses and Ideas reports tea consumption may prove effective to help treat ADHD in adults. Another study9 that same year found a significant improvement in attention deficit disorder in rats who consumed caffeine.

A 2014 review10 in the journal Psychopharmacol called for further investigation of caffeine’s therapeutic potential as a therapy or an adjunctive agent in ADHD. And a 2013 study11 published in European Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that caffeine could be useful as a treatment, as it appears to normalize levels of dopamine and improve attention in people with ADHD.

What’s the bottom line on ADHD and caffeine?

In 2017, we received more than 4,000 responses to our ADDitude survey12 from caregivers and adults navigating ADHD treatment. When asked about dietary habits, one respondent reported: “We try to reduce sugars, caffeine (chocolate), and increase protein,” while another noted that “caffeine is good, but not excessive amounts.” And yet another responded that she uses fish oil, caffeine, vitamin D, and exercise to manage symptoms.

In other words, it appears there is no single best practice being recommended by medical professionals or followed by patients.

The bottom line on caffeine use: While one person may manage symptoms with a cup of coffee in the morning, another may not. What works best isn’t always the treatment recommended by their doctors or used by the most people.

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Melanie A. Heckman, Jorge Weil, Elvira Gonzalez De Mejia. “Caffeine (1, 3, 7‐trimethylxanthine) in Foods: A Comprehensive Review on Consumption, Functionality, Safety, and Regulatory Matters.” Journal of Food Science (2010):

2“Caffeine’s Effect on Memory, Cognition, and Alzheimer’s.” Caffeine Informer. Accessed December 20, 2018.

3Kumar, Prakash M., Swe Swe Thet Paing, HuiHua Li, R. Pavanni, Y. Yuen, Y. Zhao, and Eng King Tan. “Differential Effect of Caffeine Intake in Subjects with Genetic Susceptibility to Parkinson’s Disease.” Nature News. (November 02, 2015.) Accessed December 20, 2018.

4“More Attention, Less Deficit.” More Attention, Less Deficit. Accessed December 20, 2018.

5ADDitude Magazine. “ADHD and Caffeine: Is It An Effective Alternative Treatment?” YouTube. (August 17, 2011.) Accessed December 20, 2018.

6Larry Silver. “Caffeine as a Treatment.” ADDitude. (July 07, 2017.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

7“Caffeine: How Much Is Too Much?” Mayo Clinic. (March 08, 2017.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

8Kezhi Liu, Xuemei Liang, Weihong Kuang. “Tea Consumption Maybe an Effective Active Treatment for Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” NeuroImage. (February 01, 2011.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

9Miguel Caballero, Fabiana Núñez, Siobhán Ahern, Maria L. Cuffí, Lourdes Carbonell, Silvia Sánchez, Víctor Fernández-Dueñas, Francisco Ciruela. “Caffeine Improves Attention Deficit in Neonatal 6-OHDA Lesioned Rats, an Animal Model of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” NeuroImage. (February 27, 2011.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

10K. Ioannidis, S. R. Chamberlain, and U. Müller. “Ostracising Caffeine from the Pharmacological Arsenal for Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder–was This a Correct Decision? A Literature Review.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. (September 2014.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

11Pablo Pandolfo, Nuno J. Machado, Attila Köfalvi, Reinaldo N. Takahashi, Rodrigo A. Cunha.”Caffeine Regulates Frontocorticostriatal Dopamine Transporter Density and Improves Attention and Cognitive Deficits in an Animal Model of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” NeuroImage. (May 04, 2012.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

12Devon Frye, and Anni Layne Rodgers. “Special Report: How You Are Treating ADHD or ADD Today.” ADDitude. (September 27, 2018.) Accessed December 21, 2018.

#CommissionsEarned As an Amazon Associate, ADDitude earns a commission from qualifying purchases made by ADDitude readers on the affiliate links we share. However, all products linked in the ADDitude Store have been independently selected by our editors and/or recommended by our readers. Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. Coffee has always made me feel very fluttery for about 30 minutes -1 hour and then I fall asleep immediately. I like coffee, but it has an opposite reaction on me so there is no point.

    1. FWIW, that you’re nevertheless experiencing clear, albeit very short-lived, stimulant effects from caffeine consumption makes me suspect it’s not a paradoxical reaction. It sounds more like you’re a rapid caffeine metabolizer. I have the opposite problem by being a very slow caffeine metabolizer, which makes the decision to consume caffeine a precarious call should there be remaining ADHD stimulants in my system at the time, or even if it’s no later than the afternoon such that any respectable timing for sleep onset is completely shot. But, yeah, significant differences in caffeine metabolism are no joke and, sadly, can take the fun, practical, and even ADHD-ameliorating benefits away that others are fortunate to enjoy. Oh well…

  2. I have a close friend who was diagnosed with ADD when she was about 50 years old.
    Before that, she self-medicated on alcohol and smoked heavily, and drank coffee.
    These days, she takes dexamphetamine, and still drinks coffee and tea, but not as much.

    I have never been addicted to anything. I never really got into alcohol as it gave me headaches and hangovers.
    Smoking tobacco was boring and messy, and I often forgot that I had a pack of cigarettes in the house.

    Does chocolate count? I have chocolate almost everyday.

  3. I had not heard of this phenomenon until today, when my daughter’s guidance counselor mentioned it. Apparently, there are other children in her school that take a “coffee” break around lunch ( in an elementary school!). My daughter was diagnosed with ADHD at 6, while I was reluctant to accept her diagnosis at first (I tried to work with her without medicine for the first year.), I eventually caved to her doctor’s recommendation for 5mg of adderall and the difference was amazing. Not only did her school work improve, but her mental state improved drastically. After her 9th birthday, she didn’t seem to be responding to the medicine anymore so her doctor increased her doseage to 10mg. Within 6 months she had lost 10 pounds (a lot when you only weigh 60!) and we were fighting to get her to eat at all, so we switched her to straterra, which led to a depression and moodiness I had never seen in my child before. So now, at 10, she is struggling to keep up without any medicine, but her grades are still failing, and she’s constantly distracted in class. Her confidence has taken such a hit just from the straterra debacle alone, we can’t seem to help her out of this funk. I had approached the school for some kind of help, I feel at a loss at this point and I’m desperate for anything that actually works without serious affect to her health.

  4. Aelynn10 – I have ADD and my now 20 yo son has it. We both tried many medications before finding one that worked well. We do well on the amphetamine based Adderall or Vyvanse. Do try Ritalin and Ritalin XR, or Concerta. See a physician with extensive experience with ADHD as an extra help and for efficiency. It may take some time but your daughter is worth it.

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