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 (CDC), 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, such as anorexia and bulimia, 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.”
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
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 diet. 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 diet, 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 CDC 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.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 Diabetes. Last reviewed May 30, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2020. https://www.cdc.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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-019-1174-x
Updated on April 22, 2020