ADHD in Women

Women, Hormones, and ADHD

ADHD manifests differently during the course of a woman’s life. Here, we outline four stages — from puberty to menopause — and describe what’s happening hormonally to impact symptoms of attention deficit disorder.

Woman with ADHD laying on couch, holding stomach and suffering from mentrual cramps
Woman with ADHD laying on couch, holding stomach and suffering from mentrual cramps

How Does ADHD Impact Women Differently?

Do your ADHD symptoms worsen at certain times of the month? Is your thinking a little fuzzier the week before your period? Are you organized and efficient at mid-cycle?

Doctors have noted correlations between symptoms of ADHD and hormones, not only monthly but over the lifetime of a woman.

“The average age of diagnosis for women with ADHD, who weren’t diagnosed as children, is 36 to 38 years old,” says Patricia Quinn, M.D., director of the National Center for Girls and Women with ADHD, and author of Understanding Women with ADHD. “Before that time, girls and women are often misdiagnosed as having a mood disorder or an anxiety disorder. Even if these are secondary conditions, treating them does not get to the root of the problem, which is ADHD.”

When doctors diagnose girls and women with ADHD, they rarely consider hormonal fluctuations when developing a treatment plan. But professionals are learning more about the connections between hormones and ADHD. Here, we outline four stages in a woman’s life — from puberty to menopause — describe what’s happening hormonally, and offer ways to manage symptoms.

ADHD and Adolescence

Megan, of Iowa, was diagnosed with the inattentive form of ADHD when she was 10 years old. She was put on a low dose of Adderall and did well in school. Things changed when Megan turned 12, and entered seventh grade. Surging hormones produced by the onset of puberty, along with the demands of middle school, were too much to handle.

[Self-Test: What Does ADHD Look Like in Women?]

“She was late to class, forgot to bring her textbooks home, and worked three hours on homework assignments, only to forget to turn them in,” recalls her mom, Susan. “We didn’t know if her problems were due to worsening ADHD, hormonal changes, having to switch classes and deal with six different teachers, or a combination of all these things.”

Megan’s doctor told her mom that, when girls hit puberty, they metabolize their ADHD medication more quickly. So he increased Megan’s dosage. “During the next three years, we tried 10 different drugs at varying dosages,” says Susan. “The higher concentrations of medication caused Megan to lose weight — and didn’t even seem to help her — so we stopped the meds.”

While increasing medication dosages sometimes helps teen boys when their ADHD symptoms worsen, “clinical experience suggests that this approach often fails with adolescent girls,” says Quinn.

Through trial and error, Megan, now 15, found a way to manage symptoms: a small daily dose of Metadate and fish oil supplements. “She hasn’t missed a school assignment in a year,” says Susan. “She has enrolled in more challenging courses in high school, and she’s much happier. And now that she’s a little older, she’s not embarrassed to talk about what’s happening to her body. When she gets irritable, moody, or forgetful during those one or two days of the month, I can ask her, ‘Are you getting your period?’ If she says yes, I know I need to cut her a little slack.”

Hormonal Effects on ADHD

The “raging hormones” that sometimes lead to rebellion and risky behavior in teenagers have profound effects on girls with ADHD, who typically start puberty between ages nine and 11 and get their periods between 11 and 14.

“We found that girls with ADHD in their early teens have more academic problems, more aggressive behavior, earlier signs of substance-related problems, and higher rates of depression than girls who don’t have the condition,” says Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of California/Berkeley, who has been studying girls with ADHD for more than 10 years. “Unlike teenage boys with ADHD, who tend to act out, girls with ADHD often internalize their problems. This makes their struggles easier to overlook.”

[Free Webinar Replay: Girls and Women with ADHD: Unique Risks, Crippling Stigma]

Hormonal changes at puberty — especially the higher levels of estrogen and progesterone — can cause ADHD medications to be less effective. “Studies have shown that estrogen may enhance a woman’s response to amphetamine medications, but this effect may be diminished in the presence of progesterone,” says Quinn.

Solutions: Discuss different medications — or different dosages of current medications — with your daughter’s doctor. It may take time to figure out what works best, so be patient. Behavioral strategies for time management and improving organizational skills can help.

“Identify your daughter’s strengths and emphasize them during the worst times of her cycle,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland. “Too often, teachers and other adults in a girl’s life focus only on her weaknesses.”

If your daughter notices that her ADHD symptoms worsen at certain times of the month, encourage her to complete schoolwork before they hit. Have her prepare for a big test or finish writing a paper a week before it’s due.

“Be patient with your daughter if she becomes argumentative or snippy,” says Nadeau. “Instead of yelling, suggest that she rest for a while. You’ll be teaching her self-management skills.”

ADHD and the Reproductive Years

“Hormonal fluctuations definitely affect my ADHD symptoms,” says 41-year-old Jamie Suzanne Saunders, an office manager in Louisville, Kentucky. “About three days before I get my period, and continuing through it, I feel hyper, inattentive, and restless. It’s like I’m driving down a superhighway, and, instead of going straight, I veer off onto an exit, only to find myself on another highway with equally interesting exits. I lose my focus and can’t get anything done.”
Newly diagnosed, Saunders hopes that her ADHD specialist will help her take control of her symptoms, especially as she heads into perimenopause.

Hormonal Effects on ADHD

The average menstrual cycle is about 28 days, counting from the first day of your period. During the first two weeks, known as the follicular phase, levels of estrogen rise steadily, while progesterone levels are low.

Estrogen promotes the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain. Not surprisingly, studies suggest that the first two weeks of the cycle go more smoothly for women with ADHD than the second two weeks, when progesterone levels rise. During the third and fourth weeks, called the luteal phase, progesterone diminishes the beneficial effects of estrogen on the brain, possibly reducing the effectiveness of stimulant medications.

Quinn believes that women with ADHD experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) more acutely than women who don’t have the condition. “Feelings of sadness and anxiety typically worsen in women with ADHD during this time,” says Quinn. The good news? Treating ADHD can improve PMS symptoms, too.

Solutions: Keep a log of your ADHD symptoms for three months — charting when they occur and worsen during the menstrual cycle — and try to identify a pattern. Some women have problems only one or two days of the month, the week before their periods begin. Other women’s ADHD symptoms worsen for 10 days or so during the luteal phase.

“I never understood how hormonal fluctuations affected my ADHD symptoms until I kept a journal,” says Lori Scarmardo, age 34, mother of two, in Austin, Texas. Lori was diagnosed with ADHD six years ago. “Every month, in the week before my period, I would make entries like, ‘I’m back in the fog’ or ‘I can’t get anything done.’ Noticing when my ADHD symptoms were severe helped me go easier on myself — I realized that my behaviors were due to hormonal changes — and caused me to develop strategies to minimize those symptoms. I cut back on caffeine and sugar in the week before my period, and I exercised regularly.”

Medication can help. Taking a low-dose antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication one or two days before your period helps many women manage emotional highs and lows. Others find that upping their ADHD medication slightly, a few days before, makes them feel they’re in control. Oral contraceptives improve ADHD symptoms in many women by minimizing hormonal fluctuations. Three weeks of pills that are formulated with estrogen alone, followed by one week of progesterone alone, seem to be especially helpful.

ADHD and Childbirth

Diagnosed with ADHD at age 29, Becca Keeton, of Lomita, California, took stimulant medication for a year before she tried to become pregnant. “I went off ADHD medication in my thirties, when I was pregnant with and nursing my three children,” says Keeton. “During the first month of each pregnancy, my ADHD symptoms worsened. During my second pregnancy, I was in three minor car accidents — all my fault — in the first month. As time went on, my ADHD symptoms improved, and I felt better while nursing my babies, too.”

Now, in her mid-forties, with her childbearing years behind her, Keeton takes Adderall daily, and says that upping her dose in the days before her period helps control her ADHD symptoms, which typically worsen at that time.

Hormonal Effects on ADHD

Virtually all hormone levels change during pregnancy, mostly because the placenta produces hormones itself and stimulates other glands — like the adrenals and the thyroid — to produce more hormones, as well. As hormone levels rise in the first months of pregnancy, moms-to-be with ADHD experience fatigue, mood swings, and anxiety. But as estrogen levels rise as pregnancy progresses, many women with ADHD say they feel better.

“Some research shows that panic disorder improves with each trimester of pregnancy, and relapses after delivery,” says Quinn. “It’s possible that a similar pattern occurs with ADHD.”

Quinn points out that, while there are no studies showing that ADHD symptoms improve during pregnancy, there is anecdotal evidence that they do. “I get letters and case summaries from women, saying how much better they felt during pregnancy,” she says.

In the weeks after childbirth, hormone levels drop. While these hormone drops can lead to mood swings, and to postpartum depression in all new moms, women with ADHD may be more prone to depression.

Solutions: You and your doctor should re-evaluate your ADHD treatment during your pregnancy and when you are breastfeeding. Studies show that some stimulants used to treat ADHD may lead to heart defects and other problems in developing fetuses. Breastfed babies may develop substance abuse problems later in life if their moms took stimulant medication while nursing.

Certain antidepressant medications appear to be safe to take during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but you and your doctor should discuss all of your options and determine what’s best for you. Due to the hormonal changes discussed above, many women find that going off ADHD medications allows them to function better.

“Beyond medication, it’s important to get help during pregnancy and after the child is born,” says Nadeau. “Although hormonal changes may improve ADHD symptoms, the stress of work, pregnancy, caring for other young children at home, and the anxiety of getting ready for a new infant may counterbalance any hormonal benefits.”

“The Change” and ADHD

Ten years ago, Ranjini Pillai, M.D., of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, had a hysterectomy, which sent her into menopause. “Suddenly, I felt anxious all the time,” she says. “I was tired, disorganized, and out of focus; I couldn’t think clearly.”

A month after her surgery, she started estrogen replacement therapy, and her symptoms improved slightly. But she still struggled with disorganization and anxiety.

Doctors prescribed antidepressants, which didn’t help.

Five years ago, a doctor diagnosed her as having ADHD, and prescribed Strattera. “The improvement was dramatic,” says Pillai. “My thinking was clearer, my anxiety lifted, and everything started to make sense.” Pillai needs both hormone-replacement therapy (a combination of estrogen and a small amount of testosterone) and twice-daily Strattera to control her ADHD symptoms. She learned behavioral strategies to help her stay organized and to remember things, like a basket near the front door to hold her cell phone and keys.

“I’ve also learned to delegate, and to accept the fact that I can’t do everything,” says Pillai. “My husband now handles our finances, and my two sons, ages 23 and 14, do chores to keep the house running, so I can focus on my work and things I enjoy, like cooking.”

Hormonal Effects on ADHD

By menopause (average age, 51), estrogen levels drop about 65 percent, a gradual decrease that begins 10 or more years before menopause (known as perimenopause). The loss of estrogen leads to a decrease in serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Women going through perimenopause report moodiness, sadness, irritability, fatigue, fuzzy thinking, and memory lapses. These may be more pronounced in women with ADHD.
“Given a brain that, in effect, has less cognitive energy to begin with, it can be especially hard for women with ADHD at this time in their life to concentrate and to make good decisions,” says Quinn.

Solutions: Oral contraceptives taken during perimenopause can stabilize hormone levels and improve brain function. After their patients’ periods have stopped, many doctors recommend hormone-replacement therapy, at least for the first few years after menopause. “Studies have shown that women receiving hormone-replacement therapy perform better on cognitive testing, as well as on memory and reasoning-skills tests,” says Quinn.

For many women, the best course of treatment is estrogen alone, for three to four months, followed by 10 days of progesterone. “As in Pillai’s case, combining hormone-replacement therapy with ADHD medication often improves symptoms most effectively,” says Quinn.

Quinn says it’s important, at every stage in your life, to keep ADHD symptoms under control. This may mean working with several professionals — a psychiatrist or psychologist, an internist, and a gynecologist. Educate yourself about ADHD and what’s going on with your body, keep lists of medications, chart symptoms, and, above all, demand the help you need from professionals.

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23 Comments & Reviews

  1. Thank you for this! I’m newly diagnosed and have definitely noticed my medication seems less effective in the week before my period. I’m going to see if increasing my dose slightly will help. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

  2. What can be done for women that can’t take hormone replacement therapy? I was not able to take estrogen due to risk of breast cancer and noticed my stimulant medication no longer had effect on my symptoms. I now have estrogen progesterone positive breast cancer and will be on aromatase inhibitors for 5-10 years. How am I supposed to treat my ADHD symptoms and function?

  3. It would be nice if the fifth stage was given some space. Menopause happens around the age of 50. Post-menopause can be the longest stage in anyone’s life – my mum lived to 92, was never diagnosed and had many many unhappy years and never understood why. Nor did I until I was diagnosed at 64 – after first being told there was “no point at my age”. A Swiss lady I know of has had her medication withdrawn as she has retired from employment and therefore “does not need to be able to concentrate”. Having been invisible as a female, it seems that being past menopause makes me doubly so. Why don’t we matter too?

  4. WHY WHY WHY does every article and book END at menopause?? We have decades left to live with 65% less estrogen ? WHERE are the studies of ADHD after 50 without estrogen replacement (not recommended when I was 50) and what medications WE need? I ask ADDITUDE this with every article and get no response…

    Sadly I wasn’t diagnosed til 61, 10 long years after the fog of menopause took over, and still have not met a dr that understands hormones (and lack thereof) related to ADHD. My current health insurance is Kaiser and they are on a bent that the prescribing of stimulants over a minimal dose is comparable to the opioid crisis, which is ridiculously different, and after getting off 50mg Vyvanse won’t prescribe more than 25mg Adderall X-RAY when previous drs had me on 60 mg. I am in the DC area, can anyone recommend a dr that GETS IT?

      1. I AM on Adderall XR, 25 mg, when previous drs had me on 60 mg…. As there has been little to no research on the fact that, since estrogen binds dopamine to neurotransmitters, WHAT is needed for a lack of estrogen above and beyond doses for pre-menopause?

  5. Hi, I’m so happy I found this article! I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in my early 20’s. It wasn’t until I was in my early 40’s that I was diagnosed with ADHD by a Psychiatrist. I resisted medication at that time out of being naive and not educated on the subject. It wasn’t until my late 40’s I decided to try Addrell XR and it helped tremendously. To this day I visit my Psychiatrist every
    6-8 weeks to check in. Now in my mid 50’s my depression, anxiety and ADHD symptoms have doubled with some days being worse than others. I’ve read articles educating myself on Menopause and ADHD. Finally this all makes sense to me! It’s true my levels of hormones are constantly changing due to menopause and going crazy some days. When I’ve gone to my Gynecologist and Psychiatrist they know nothing about the subject. They just keep prescribing me the same meds as they have over the years with no answers or solutions. All I get is “Well we can try upping your doses or try a different med, up to you?” . Where can I go to get proper help? Even if I find a specialist in this field, they charge hundreds of dollars because insurance doesn’t cover it. I can’t afford to seek a specialty Dr. WHEN IS THIS GOING TO BE RECOGNIZE AS A LEGIT DISABILITY? I’m so sick and tired of the stigma where no one hears and believes me! Some days I’m paralyzed and do nothing with my day but feel guilt and shame. In fact, I have no clue anymore what works and what doesn’t work for me. My Dr. offers to up my dosage and/or recommend trying different meds ,but it’s all up to me??? There’s no known facts to these Dr’s. Many have ZERO clue on the stages our hormones go through from childhood, teens and aging women. I craze a Dr that has firms answers or at least knowledge and come up with a game plan. So here I am, usually a very outgoing woman to a very isolated woman, no relationship, my 2 adult daughters and family think I’m crazy and even lazy! i haven’t been able to work in 3 years. My analogy is “I’m so sick and tired of feeling like a hamster on the wheel going round and round in a cage. I’m alone and sadly this is where my comfort zone is nowadays. When I explain all my feelings and symptoms to my Dr., all I get is someone looking at me like a deer in headlights!!! Sadly, my Insurance plan doesn’t offer many choices with dr.’s in my area.. Lost in California. Help, suggestions anyone?? I’m desperate !!!

    ANY suggestions feel free to email me at [email protected] or I’ll check back here for comments. Thank you.

    1. There are other alternative treatments to ADHD. Meditation, exercise, connecting and caffeine have been my “go to” treatment. My doctor dodge my questions on ADHD diagnosis because she says it’s the thyroid doing the symptoms and yet my thyroid levels have ALL been normal.

      Now, see a specialist even for just the diagnosis then send your PCP the referral letter and all so they can concur.

      I am an ADHD specialist, prescriber and mother , daughter of ADHD people and it is a daily struggle. But after educating myself attending webinars and finding solutions, it’s been better.

  6. So many pieces fell into place from reading this article!

    I agree, more attention should be paid to post menopausal women. My ADHD definitely got worse.

    However I have a very big grumble. Please do not assume we can get a gyno and a family doctor to even communicate with US properly, never mind with each other. Also I only have a psych nurse practitioner, I don’t have a psychiatrist! the only one in my area who’s actually taking patients won’t write ANY controlled substances, so no stimulants and I question how well versed they’d be in ADHD if they won’t/can’t prescribe stimulants.

    This isn’t just this article, it’s the whole darn website. I have no idea how many people have to knit help together any way they can. I think it’s most of us who live in rural USA and who depend on high deductible insurance. The closest ADHD expert to me is in NYC, 300 miles away. Even if I wanted to go that distance can you think for a moment about the tangle my RXs would become?

    How about a series that would help us talk to our providers who don’t know much about ADHD, how about going out looking for providers for your database. Don’t wait for them to find you! And PLEASE include Canada. I could and would go to Montreal for help, but you don’t cover Canada. The UK and Australia are just as important too.

  7. I was prescribed progesterone pills to stimulate a period. I found that my ADHD symptoms *improved* with the added progesterone and get worse when it clears my system. But this is opposite to what the article is saying? Why does my body react the opposite way to progesterone? I kinda want to switch to hormonal BC which has both estrogen and progesterone but I’m worried it’ll have the opposite effect on my ADHD symptoms.

  8. I always appreciate more information on women and adhd! Thank you for the insights! I often find myself following through on some of the associated links and references, I noticed the link for Patricia Quinn’s National Center for Women with ADHD is no longer functioning. When I googled the center name the website has a message that it’s no longer being updated but refers readers back to Additude. Perhaps updating the link for a CHADD site for women and girls? Just a thought to help others who like to gather as much info as myself. I definitely appreciate the focus and education Additude has given on how women and girls differ. It was extremely instrumental in helping me advocate for a diagnosis in myself and my daughter.

  9. Psh. Decrease, my foot. My estrogen has been high since I hit peri, particularly during PMS. It’s made PMS absolutely unbearable, though it’s mostly physical symptoms. And my actual periods… Remember the elevator scene from The Shining???

    I’m having to supplement to get estrogen down! I cringe at the thought of some doctor putting me on hormone replacement out of sheer ignorance.

  10. Excellent article! This really connects a lot of dots for me!
    That said, this piece of advice, while probably very true, is something I’m pretty sure nobody with ADHD can accomplish: “Keep a log of your ADHD symptoms for three months — charting when they occur and worsen during the menstrual cycle — and try to identify a pattern.”

  11. Disappointed and shocked to see post-menopause completely ignored. Horrified to see it was done so in an article written by a woman. Do we just not exist after being reproductively useful? Society would like us to believe so. I expected better. What a stinking attitude ADDitude

  12. Haha but not!
    I can have completed a “habit” for months, years even, and can turn around and stop it and then completely forget about it in just one day. Poof, gone, like I had never done it before ever. 33 years ago I quit smoking in 2 days (after it being an 8-yr habit), never went back. For 10 years I had a green nutritional drink every morning for breakfast, then just stopped cold turkey 10 years ago and only have it now for 3 days at a time every 2 months or so.
    This whole C-19 thing has created a life of NO routines for me and I have never been so unproductive simply because I don’t have an outside-enforced schedule keeping me in line. This sucks!
    I’m 54 and have been taking Vitex daily for 3 years to keep my still-going periods (hormones) slightly regular so I’m smack in the middle of pre-menopause. The brain fog is so frustrating and my husband hates everything about me!

  13. Just came across the article. ADDitude did a great disservice to women by promoting the BC pill/HRT as the recommended solution, while ignoring other possible solutions that do far less bodily damage. Even more glaring is the omission of vitamins, minerals and/or natural supplements that can maintain health.

    Why not interview functional medicine doctors who treat women in menopause? Or discuss the real side effects of taking oral contraceptives/HRT/bioidentical hormones? Better yet, why not provide us with some real resources –, for starters – so that we don’t have to face this tough time of life uninformed?

  14. I was so hopeful as I read the article, knowing that you would get to my age group of post menopausal women. Ha! Once again I’m reminded that after menopause I cease to matter or even exist. My inattentive ADHD has not gone away. In fact it has gotten worse. But this article has nothing helpful for me.

    There have been a number of comments noting this great lack, yet no one has had the respect or consideration to reply in any way, let alone the author! How disappointing! I’d thought more highly of this resource.

  15. Hello, I would like to request a revision of this article to specify that the author is not a medical provider and that this article is not offering medical advice. I’d also like to request that citations and sources be included. There are several paragraphs where the author of this article cites a medical fact without a source and then draws there own conclusion/extrapolation about it in the same sentence, which is misleading to readers about the medical nature of this article. I had a patient read this article and make medical changes without consulting a medical provider based on a statement in this article that is an extrapolation. Overall I appreciate the subject of this article but it needs sources, and a disclaimer, and probably should have been written by a medical provider.

  16. Also, as aareavis commented, I, too, have had relief of symptoms with Progesterone treatment, which seems to contradict the article. That is because hormones are complex and interdependant. HRT is not a one-size-fits-all treatment. It depends on what is imbalanced. Also, getting one hormone can cause others to increase and regulate, etc, etc.

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