The Hidden Dangers of Heavy Drinking with ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental health disorder characterised by difficulty concentrating, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Most people are diagnosed when they are children or young adults. ADHD increases your risk of drinking more heavily and earlier than others. This can lead to developing an alcohol abuse disorder.

We will talk about the dangers of heavy drinking if you have ADHD, and how there are increased risks if you are receiving treatment for your ADHD. It is difficult to seek treatment for drinking problems but if you are struggling to control your drinking and are at higher risk due to having ADHD, a treatment provider could help you to recover from your drinking and manage your ADHD in a healthier way.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a mental health disorder which affects 7.2% of children and 3.4% of adults. It affects the frontal lobe of the brain which is responsible for thinking, problem solving, attention, memory, and organisation. People with ADHD typically find daily life more difficult, this is particularly true of children who go to school and must sit and concentrate for hours at a time.

Symptoms present differently in adults; they are less likely to experience hyperactivity but may still have difficulty focusing and finishing tasks. Common symptoms in adults include poor time management, mood swings, impulsivity, problems multitasking, restlessness, and difficulty coping with stress.

People with ADHD also have lower concentrations of dopamine transporters. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which plays a significant role in reward pathways. Less activity can make it more difficult to feel pleasure and reward. If you have ADHD you might subconsciously seek high dopamine activities, changing hobbies frequently as you get bored easily and doing high risk activities.

Alcohol and ADHD

It is common for people with ADHD to use alcohol to self-medicate. Alcohol is typically used to relax, so for those with ADHD it could be assumed that it would calm hyperactivity. However, it can have the opposite effect.

Scans have shown that people with ADHD have smaller frontal lobes. Alcohol also acts on this part of the brain dampening your ability to think clearly. This can exacerbate impulsivity and disrupt emotional functioning leading to uncontrollable behaviours.

Alcohol and ADHD Medications

Alcohol interacts with ADHD medications. This interaction depends on which type of medication you are taking. Loosely these are classed into stimulants and nonstimulants.

Ritalin and Adderall are commonly prescribed stimulants for ADHD. They work by increasing the activity of the central nervous system. Alcohol has the opposite effect so you might expect that the two would cancel each other out but this is not the case. Alcohol actually changes the way that your body processes stimulants. Side-effects of mixing them include increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and trouble sleeping. With long term mixing there is increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition, mixing the two increases your risk of alcohol poisoning and overdose.

Nonstimulants are not commonly prescribed for ADHD but include Atomoxetine (Strattera). Studies suggest that the only side-effect of mixing Atomoxetine with alcohol is nausea. It therefore seems to be a much safer drug to take with alcohol. However, companies that produce this drug still recommend that you do not mix it with alcohol.

The effects of mixing alcohol and ADHD medications vary from person to person and depend on factors such as dose and whether the medication is short- or long-acting. Overall it is advised that you avoid drinking, particularly heavy drinking, while you are taking ADHD medications.

Alcohol, Depression, and ADHD

There is a complex relationship between alcohol, depression, and ADHD. People with ADHD are more likely to use alcohol and experience depression. In addition, alcohol use is associated with depression. With ADHD you might have a higher risk of simultaneous depression and heavy drinking.

Heavy drinking with ADHD can become a vicious cycle. You binge to relieve your symptoms of ADHD but when you wake up you feel anxious, depressed, guilty, or a mix of all three. In this state you find it hard to stay still or focus as your ADHD makes it more likely for you to feel paranoid about what you have done the night before. It is tempting to drink again to cope with these feelings. Over time you need to drink increasingly more to get relief. This can be a pathway to dependency and addiction.

Alcohol Addiction and ADHD

ADHD is a significant risk factor for developing a substance use disorder. Twenty-five percent of adults diagnosed with alcohol and substance use disorders are diagnosed with ADHD. As a teenager you are more likely to abuse alcohol if you have ADHD. This is linked to ADHD symptoms including hyperactivity, impulsivity, and disrupted emotional function. This can mean that you can enter adulthood already dependent on alcohol.

Alcohol dependency and addiction is a chronic brain disorder which causes you to compulsively seek out and drink alcohol. Your body believes that it cannot function without it and when you quit you experience unpleasant and potentially deadly withdrawal symptoms.

Also read: What Is Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome?

Getting Treatment

ADHD increases your risk of binge drinking and your sensitivity to the effects of alcohol. Drinking alcohol causes more severe ADHD symptoms such as impulsivity and difficulty focusing. Long-term use is associated with difficulties with cognition, decision-making, memory, and speech. It is therefore important to seek treatment if you have ADHD and a drinking problem as the two can cause a compounding effect leading you into addiction and worsening symptoms of ADHD.

Seeking treatment can be very difficult as there is a lot of stigma surrounding excessive alcohol use and alcohol use disorders. However, it could change your life and set you on a path towards understanding your ADHD better and managing it in new and healthy ways. If you are ready to seek support you can contact treatment providers who can give you more information, assess what you need individually, and provide you with the treatment you need.

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