Can caffeine be used as a natural alternative to ADHD medication?
The active part of caffeine is methylxanthine is a mild stimulant that activates noradrenaline neurons and seems to affect the local release of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter. Dopamine plays a part in motor control and a low dopamine level is believed to be the cause of Parkinson’s disease which effect patients ability to control their movement. Another notable effect of caffeine is that it reduces the blood flow in the brain. This is similar to the effect of ADHD medications, such as Ritalin, that are stimulants, effect dopamine levels and cerebral blood flow. The cognitive effects of caffeine are also similar to ADD / ADHD medication. It makes users better a rapidly processing information and paying attention.
Studies on non-ADHD school children and caffeine are mixed. A 1987 study on Kindergarden children found no noticeable effect where as a 1994 on prepubertal children found that it did improve attention and manual dexterity. On children with ADD / ADHD the results are bit more promising. A 1973 pilot study used two cups of coffee a day as an alternative for medications and the results were promising. In 1981 caffeine was used as an alternative and as a supplement to medication. It found that caffeine in low dosage had the same effect as 10 mg of methylphenidate.
The health risks for long-term caffeine used are better understood that those of Ritalin. Mild levels of caffeine consumption, up to 400 mg for an adult male, 300 mg for a adult female and 2.5 mg per kilo for a child, is considered safe. There is evidence of a dependence on caffeine for heavy users with symptoms such as headaches when withdrawing from it. Very large amounts of caffeine can induce heart attacks and is associated with hand tremors.
For guidance, in a cup of coffee (5 US fluid ounces) there is 85 mg of caffeine for ground coffee, 60 mg for instant and 3 mg for decaffeinated. In the same sized cup of tea there is 30 mg. Cola’s have 18 mg per 6 US fluid ounce serving. A can of Red Bull contains 80 mg. As a comparison, many of the studies reference in this article used 250 mg of caffeine, the equivalent to 3 cups of fresh coffee.
It is likely that trying to replace large doses of ADHD medication with similar large doses of caffeine is likely to produce undesirable side effects. As a replacement for moderate doses of ADD / ADHD medication, caffeine may have some value. Caffeine’s effect does seem to be dependent on the user (a feature of ADHD medication as well) so your mileage may vary. Be aware that there is also large amounts of hidden caffeine in soft drinks, sweets and cold medicines so it is worth monitoring your current caffeine intake.
Effects of methylphenidate on regional brain glucose metabolism in humans: relationship to dopamine D2 receptors
The acute effect of methylphenidate on cerebral blood flow in boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
Caffeine and human cerebral blood flow: a positron emission tomography study.
The effects of caffeine on two computerized tests of attention and vigilance
Effects of caffeine on classroom behavior, sustained attention, and a memory task in preschool children.
Caffeine effects on learning, performance, and anxiety in normal school-age children.
Caffeine as a Substitute for Schedule II Stimulants in Hyperkinetic Children
query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=7028238&dopt=Abstract”>Responses to methylphenidate and varied doses of caffeine in children with attention deficit disorder.
Effects of caffeine on human health