ADHD Comorbidities & Related Conditions

ADHD & Type 2 Diabetes: A Surprising, Stark Health Link

Healthy eating suffers when ADHD impulsivity, poor executive function, and dopamine-seeking behaviors drive poor food choices, making Type 2 diabetes a real risk. Here’s how to stay healthy and reduce your chances of developing this life-threatening condition.


ADHD and Diabetes: Chronic Conditions on the Rise

Like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition with a steadily rising diagnosis rate.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes impacts 34 million Americans — 95 percent of whom have Type 2 diabetes. This is a serious health issue that, if left untreated, may lead to complications including heart and kidney disease, nerve damage, high blood pressure, blindness, and amputation.1 Type 2 diabetes is most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 45, but due in part to the rise in childhood obesity, a growing number of younger people are developing it.

The risk of developing high blood sugar and Type 2 diabetes increases with a family history of diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity. Prolonged high blood sugar affects the body’s ability to produce insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps to tap down Type 2 diabetes. (Type 1 diabetes is triggered by a problematic autoimmune response that interferes with the body’s ability to produce insulin.)

How the ADHD Brain Impacts Your Eating Habits

The link between ADHD and Type 2 diabetes isn’t well established in research, but the relationship makes sense given our neurological understandings of ADHD. The ADHD brain craves dopamine stimulation, which is delivered with simple carbs and high-sugar foods.

Eating disorders, which are four times more common among people with ADHD, can be a precursor to Type 2 diabetes. “I see a lot of patients with prediabetic conditions,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in ADHD and eating disorders. “Some see me because of weight issues or binge eating disorders. ADHD patients have a higher risk of obesity, due to a tendency to eat more—even foods they don’t like—and impulsivity.”

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ADHD patients often intend to eat healthy, but poor executive function can thwart those efforts, says Olivardia. “They have a hard time planning ahead. They forget to defrost the lean meat for dinner, and they may not stick with exercise. A sedentary lifestyle is a known risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.”

Another connection between Type 2 diabetes and ADHD is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a health problem caused by an imbalance of hormones that can cause missed or irregular menstrual periods and infertility. Women with ADHD are more likely to have PCOS, which is also associated with heightened diabetes risk.

ADHD and Type 2 Diabetes: What the Research Says

Only a few studies have been published linking ADHD to Type 2 diabetes. A positive association has been found between ADHD and Type 2 diabetes in children, adolescents, and young adults. A Swedish study reported that adults with ADHD were twice as likely to have Type 2 diabetes as their non-ADHD counterparts, and that men with ADHD were affected slightly more than women with ADHD. The over-50 ADHD population was 72 percent more likely to have Type 2 diabetes than were their neurotypical peers.2

A 2019 meta-analysis of literature on ADHD, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of symptoms that include high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, obesity, low HDL cholesterol, and insulin resistance) warned that individuals with ADHD “should be treated as a high-risk group for cardiometabolic complications.” Those complications include Type 2 diabetes. No correlation has been found between ADHD and Type 1 diabetes.3

[Download This Free Guide: What to Eat to Improve ADHD Symptoms]

The Three Types of Diabetes

Known medically as diabetes mellitus, there are three different forms of the condition:

  • Type 1 diabetes, or T1DM, is caused by the physical inability of the pancreas to produce any (or enough) insulin to manage high blood sugar levels.
  • In Type 2 diabetes, or T2DM, the body begins to resist the effects of insulin, or stops producing enough to maintain normal blood sugar (glucose) levels.
  • A third type of diabetes, gestational diabetes, occurs during pregnancy, and is considered a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Some studies show a correlation, but not a causation, between gestational diabetes and offspring with ADHD.

Treating Diabetes: Especially Tough for the ADHD Brain

Effective treatment regimens for Type 2 diabetes can be challenging for ADHD patients because they require constant vigilance. “There are so many things you have to do to treat diabetes,” says Olivardia. “You have to check your blood sugar before and after a meal and be aware of what you are eating. It has to be done on a daily basis. When you travel, you have to bring a blood glucose meter, insulin, and medication.”

“Managing diabetes can be adversely affected by ADHD symptoms,” says Olivardia. “One of my patients was rushed to the ER because his blood sugar levels were through the roof. He was steps away from a diabetic coma because he had not tested his blood sugar in days. He needed to test five or six times a day. He told me later that he hadn’t realized it had been that long.”

Another diabetes patient named Valerie, a recruiter from Seattle, developed gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with her son. She had managed her undiagnosed ADHD with caffeine. “I’d wake up, have two cans of Dr. Pepper, and crush the day!” she says. Now she and her son take the same ADHD medication, in different doses. She was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago.

For some with ADHD, a diabetes diagnosis has unlocked a healthier lifestyle. “Having diabetes has helped me a lot,” says Sally, a 58-year-old clinical nurse specialist in the United Kingdom. “I am an all-or-nothing kind of person, so when I realized that sugar was poison for me, I reduced it in my food plan. I went from a very high blood sugar level to normal levels in about eight months.”

Duane, a 57-year-old high-tech consultant from Montreal, Quebec, also has a positive story to tell. He was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes when he weighed 320 pounds. Later that same year, he was diagnosed with ADHD. The medication Duane took for his ADHD had another benefit — it reduced his desire for carbohydrates.

Within two years, Duane got into a regular exercise routine, learned to make better food choices, and lost 100 pounds! He was even able to stop taking medication for diabetes for a while. “Maintaining control of my ADHD and my diabetes is all about routine and habits. I have no willpower, so I stick to the same menu, week in and week out.”

Recognizing the Signs of Diabetes

Recognizing the signs of diabetes can be difficult for individuals with ADHD. For many people, the symptoms aren’t subtle. Others notice an increase in thirst, blurred vision, fatigue, or bruises and cuts that are slow to heal. Since studies show a correlation between diabetes and cognitive impairment, especially in older adults, diabetes may be a confounding factor in later-life ADHD diagnoses.

If you’re at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, start developing these healthy lifestyle habits now:

Make healthy food choices. Choose foods that are low in fat and calories and high in fiber. Limit (or avoid) highly-processed food like white bread, snacks, and sweets of all kids.

Read food labels carefully. To avoid consuming extra sugar, look for the following ingredients: high-fructose corn sweetener, dehydrated cane juice; dextrin; dextrose; maltodextrin; sucrose; molasses; and malt syrup — all code words for sugar.

Move more. Regular exercise is good for your heart and your head. The Centers for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes each week — 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week. If that isn’t doable, aim for two 15-minute periods of activity during the day. Take a brisk walk at lunch, begin your day with a 15-minute cardio workout, or begin strength-training with light weights.

Lose weight. Slimming down, especially if you are overweight, can make a difference in terms of improved blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and decrease blood pressure.

To see if you’re at risk of pre-diabetes, a common precursor to Type 2 diabetes, take this one-minute test developed by the American Diabetes Association. In the meantime, discuss a diabetes-ADHD connection with your doctor to stay on top of your health.

[Read This Next: How to Stop Binge Eating]


1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 Diabetes. Last reviewed May 30, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.(d(.gov/diabetes/basics/type2.html

21.Chen Q, Hartman CA, Haavik J, et al. Common psychiatric and metabolic comorbidity of adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A population-based cross-sectional study. PLoS One. 2018;13(9):e0204516. Published 2018 Sep 26. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0204516

3Landau Z, Pinhas-Hamiel O, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity, the Metabolic Syndrome, and Type 2 Diabetes. Curr Diab Rep 19, 46 (2019).

8 Comments & Reviews

  1. Hi,
    This is interesting, but leaves out a general fact and a more scientific perspective.
    First: the US population demonstrates a major problem with obesity and eating “feel good food” with the standard American diet, though the whole population is not diagnosed with ADHD.
    Second and more important point grossly overlooked here (and in other similar discussion about ADHD): people with ADHD will experience higher level of cortisol release due to reaction to stress and as a result this puts them/ us at higher risk for diabetes type 2. That’s science.

    The article below discusses the link between ADHD and higher cortisol release:

    Best regards!

  2. To complete my comment above:
    people with ADHD will experience higher level of cortisol release due to reaction to stress and as a result this puts them/ us at higher risk for diabetes type 2. That’s science.
    The article below discusses the link between ADHD and higher cortisol release:

    Higher cortisol results in higher insulin resistance, for example, forcing the pancreas to produce more insulin to get a response. With ongoing insulin resistance, the insulin-producing beta cells wear out, causing type 2 diabetes.
    This may be compounded by impulse control and feel good dopamine stimulating food, but the cortisol link is a much more direct link.

  3. I have only my own personal experience about sugar cravings, but since iron deficiency is a common occurrence in those with ADHD (see article in additude magazine about common nutrition deficiencies in those with ADHD) it may be part of the diabetes picture.

    I’ve noticed that when my ferritin levels are low, I crave sugar and simple starches a lot. I also find that I over eat when my iron is low because I feel so hungry even if my stomach is full of food.

    I can’t help but wonder if others with ADHD struggle with similar problems craving sugars and eating too much food. That would certainly stress the pancreas. The low iron also makes me so tired and week feeling that it’s hard to get up the “will” to exercise.

    I know that iron was to blame because once I fixed the iron problem (and my ferritin levels were back to a normal place) the sugar craving, the overeating, the weakness, and the fatigue all went away.

    Just throwing this out there in case someone else is having the same trouble. Get your ferritin levels checked and talk to your doctor about iron supplements!

  4. If this is true it would explain so much. I kind of suspect that I have ADHD. I asked my Dr about being tested but she seems to think that my lack of memory, constant forgetfulness, easily distracted, etc is due to stress. My son has ADHD and I believe my one daughter has it as well (she was diagnosed and then undiagnosed). I have type 2 diabetes and PCOS. I tend to lose weight during the warmer months when I move around much more & basically”forget” to eat. Winter is a sore reminder that I need to eat & I over eat. A viscous cycle I’m constantly battling.

  5. I was heavily bullied because of my ADHD and developed various eating disorders interchangeably that put me at risk for DT2. Kids at my school and adults liked to make me cry and then ridicule or shame me for it. I overate with immense amounts of carbs because as a girl I was not allowed to show anger or tears, so I stuffed it down as best as I could. Food became a friendship replacement. The following weight issues lead to starving myself and other EDs desperately trying to fit in with femininity, which is hard enough as I am tall, too. I swore to myself to beat the next person up who called me a “gentle giant” many times. Needless to say I also became a people-pleaser because I saw it as my only chance to show some “femininity” instead of being regarded as a loud “fat” oger. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, concepts of femininity were still very narrow-minded then. And I was just diagnosed with ADD at 40+, but now it explains everything, I am so relieved to know that now.

  6. KawiMumOf2, other symptoms of ADHD can be high sensitivity and trouble with emotional regulation, do you experience that, too? Do you “burn out” faster than others and wonder how they do it? You may also want to change to a slow-carb diet as with DT2 you also have insuline resistance. I hope you are reading that, I come from the same angle and hope I can help. 🙂

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