Medication and Treatment Reviews


A central nervous system stimulant used for attention and focus

What is it?

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, and is the most commonly used drug in the world, with as many as 90 percent of adults using caffeine every day. Caffeine occurs naturally in coffee, tea, and chocolate, and is added to some foods and soft drinks; it’s also available in tablet form. Caffeine is most commonly used to overcome sleepiness and increase productivity; in some people with ADHD, it’s thought to combat common symptoms like distractibility and inattention in the same way that stimulant medications do.

How does caffeine work?

Caffeine works by stimulating the autonomic nervous system — responsible for regulating heart rate and other involuntary bodily functions like digestion. In the brain, caffeine stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and blocks the absorption of others, like adenosine — a chemical linked to sleep and relaxation.

Who is caffeine for?

Caffeine is thought to be safe for most adults, when used appropriately. Toxic doses are possible, but are several times higher than most people typically consume — around 50 to 100 cups of average-strength coffee per day. Adults with high blood pressure or irregular heartbeat should talk to their doctor before using caffeine, as caffeine can increase heart rate. Caffeine has a possibility of dependence and withdrawal, though symptoms are generally mild and usually only last for a few days after caffeine use has ended.

Even as soda consumption falls nationwide, the use of caffeine among American children has continued to increase — mostly in the form of energy drinks or coffee. Evidence regarding caffeine’s effect on children is murky, experts say, with some studies indicating that it has a detrimental effect on heart rate and blood pressure. For children 12 years old and younger, experts recommend daily consumption less than 2.5 mg per kilogram of body weight. The average caffeine content of an 8-oz cup of coffee is 95 mg, which is within the limit for a child weighing 85 pounds or more.

How much does it cost?

Coffee, tea, and soda — the most common caffeine delivery systems — vary in price, from $.08 to more than $5 per 16-ounce serving. Caffeine pills usually cost between $10-$20 per 100-count bottle, and usually come in 200 mg doses.

What studies have been done on caffeine?

Studies on caffeine’s effect on ADHD symptoms have been small, and their results inconclusive. A 2005 study, for instance, found that caffeine improved spatial learning deficits in hyperactive rats. A 1975 study, on the other hand, found that caffeine was significantly less effective than stimulant medication in treating ADHD in children. Another study, conducted in 1978, found that caffeine was virtually ineffective when compared to both methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine. A 1985 study, however, found that a high dose of caffeine — around 600 mg a day — significantly controlled hyperactive symptoms in children.

Marjorie Ross Leon, Ph.D., conducted a meta-analysis of 19 studies on caffeine and concluded that, “compared to giving children with ADHD no treatment whatsoever, caffeine appears to have potential to improve their functioning in the areas of improved parent and teacher perceptions of their behavior, reduced levels of aggression, impulsiveness and hyperactivity, and improved levels of executive functioning and planning.”

Where can I learn more?

The American Psychological Association published a review in 2001 of the literature related to caffeine use in children, with and without ADHD, which can be found HERE. Mayo Clinic outlines how adults and children can use caffeine safely HERE.


6 reviews

  1. We started last fall and within 2 weeks our 9 year-old son’s teacher was asking us….“What are you guys doing to him?” He could stay on task and focus much longer than previously. The downfall is there is no “safe” amount recommended for children. So, I haven’t found a doctor yet that will tell me what’s a safe amount. We give him one cup of black tea every school day.

  2. Be careful with the coffee. I used to drink three or four cups a day to stay alert and although it woke me up and kept me focused, it also gave me the jitters, left me feeling dehydrated, and by two o-clock in the afternoon, I was often so agitated that I was in a semi-manic state. I actually started wondering if perhaps i was bi-polar until I cut out the coffee. I had been drinking coffee for so long that I didn’t even know the difference anymore. These days, I find that one cup of decaf coffee in the morning is enough to get my butt out the door and keep me focused until lunch time. Then, if I need continued focus, I switch to green tea which has much less caffeine in it.

    Have you hear of Teavana? They sell a great ginseng tea that I often use to keep me focused when I am up late at night. It’s called “ginseng vitality” and was actually recommended to be my a nurse practitioner. The fun thing about teavana is that you can mix and match teas to come up with different flavors and kids love it! You could take your son in there and help him come up with a tea that tastes like candy and you will secretly know that the ginseng is also helping to keep him focused. They also sell mate teas. Matine is a chemical similar to caffeine but it is not a diuretic and it comes packed with nutrients…so instead of depriving the body of hydration and in the long term making it harder for the body to absorb nutrients, it actually does the opposite in both cases. So, you give your son a boost with extra nutrients, a strong stimulant, and hydration, and you tackle several ADHD concerns all in one cup. It has a funny taste on its own, though, so I definitely recommend blending it with sugar or a chocolatey tasting tea. Check it out! Way better than resorting to caffeine pills or coffee.

  3. Before diagnosed with ADHD caffeine in the afternoon helped me to calm down and focus so I could teach my high school students. Without it I couldn’t function. It saved me until I got on Adderall.

  4. Over the years I have found coffee as a ‘temporary’ alternative treatment. Okay, I drink a cup of coffee and the effects maybe last somewhere between 30min-2hrs. Short-term effect..but it helps. I just use to think something was wrong with me. Everyone else would be itching for a cup of coffee to wake them up and speed them up. Ha, funny child psych loves coffee. I told her about the effects it has on me. Of course, she already knew the effects it would have on me. But the thing was ‘I’ was clueless. I said, “well why do you drink coffee?” She goes, “not the same reasons you do! Coffee gives me energy..whereas it calms you down.” I’m a little curious on why that is. Another weird effect is when I drink Red Bull…I fall asleep!! It knocks me out. One minute I could be bouncy off the walls, talking, talking, talking..the next I’m drowsy and ready for bed?! Everyone else drinks Red Bull to make them hyper (which I don’t understand why they would want to feel such a thing) but they do. So, I’m like an addict now. Every morning I make a trip through Starbucks before heading to school. The purpose is to keep my symptoms mild as my meds kick I don’t get myself into any trouble in my morning classes. It seems to work out great. I even sometimes make a pot of coffee while doing my homework (as my meds ware down in the evening) it again, helps. Also, gets me to lay down at night and drift off to sleep

  5. Some ADHD meds are stimulants, so caffeine is a (milder) alternative. My friend gave her daughter either strong tea or a caffeine pill every morning before grade 2, and it eased her symptoms so much her teacher started telling other parents about it. I guess the theory is that with ADHD, the neurotransmitters are not working up to snuff, and the brain tries to “wake itself up” with the hyperactivity, so caffeine wakes up the brain instead, calming down the behavior.

  6. All I can say is coffee has been a life changer for me.
    I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and I’m now an adult. I took Ritalin for a few years as a child but haven’t taken anything for 14 years or so. I just started drinking coffee a year ago because my husband liked it and its effects on me were great, it calms me down in so many ways and helps me concentrate. I cannot live without my coffee.

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