Should people with ADHD drink alcohol? Here's what the science says

Alcohol Use Disorder is a very real condition that commonly co-occurs with ADHD.

a colorful background with an adhd brain in the center and alcohol is pouring onto it.

Drinking alcohol is normalized in our society, but it’s not all date-night romance and fun in the sun. Alcohol is an addictive substance that can negatively interact with medications and exacerbate pre-existing conditions — including Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.

Some people with ADHD may self-medicate with alcohol without even knowing it. It’s easy to understand why – alcohol can make you feel good; it offers relief, and sometimes helps us relax. That sounds like a dream to someone with ADHD! So what’s the big deal? Can it really be that bad? Let’s dig in…

Too long; didn’t read

The same part of the brain is affected by ADHD and alcohol. Your ADHD symptoms (like impulsivity, controlling inhibitions, memory, and other cognitive abilities) can all be amplified when you drink.

Alcohol is a depressant. It seems to help your ADHD symptoms and help you relax – but it’s probably hurting you and may cause you to develop a dependence over time.

ADHD is 5-10 times more common in adults who have an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). If you think you need to assess your drinking, consult with your doctor. And most importantly, take care of yourself!

The link between ADHD and alcohol

A woman is lying on a kitchen counter in the dark; holding a wine glass
Photo by Pixabay

According to American Addiction Centers, ADHD is 5-10 times more common in adults who have an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). This is because ADHDers have certain behavioral symptoms associated with using drugs and alcohol, like addictive tendencies and a lack of impulse control — and often at an earlier age than neurotypicals.

Dopamine and alcohol

Dopamine plays an important role in the connection. Those with ADHD may have reduced levels of dopamine[1] compared to someone who doesn’t have ADHD.

Dopamine is a mood booster, and some of the things that can increase dopamine levels include: exercise, Vitamin D (sunshine), healthy eating…and alcohol.[2] The short-term relief we get from alcohol makes our ADHD brains ‘feel good’ – in turn, we may drink more and more often. This cycle can increase our chances of developing a problem with alcohol.

Does alcohol make ADHD worse?

The short answer: yes.

Alcohol can make your ADHD worse. Those with ADHD are more likely to develop a problem with alcohol than someone who doesn’t have ADHD. 

The bottom line: they’re not a good combination. But why?

The neuroscience of ADHD and alcohol use

Alcohol and ADHD affect the same part of the brain: the frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain in charge of things like inhibition control, concentration, and impulse control (the same things that many people with ADHD struggle with). If you’re already dealing with these ADHD challenges, adding alcohol is going to make them worse.

It’s also important to remember that alcohol is a depressant. This means that it slows down the brain’s functions. It gives us that good, relaxed feeling — something to calm down those hyperactive brains we know and love! But, it’s not that simple. 

Because those with ADHD are more likely to binge drink in order to get more of that “relaxed” feeling, they also have an increased chance of developing an alcohol dependency.

What’s the risk of alcohol?

A worn down sign with a beach in the background. The sign reads "use at own risk"
Photo by Erik Mclean

A 2015 study investigated the link between ADHD and binge drinking, and found that participants who had ADHD symptoms as adolescents were more likely to become binge drinkers as they entered their adult years.[3]

Other ways alcohol can interfere with your ADHD:

  • Amplify any tendencies towards risky behaviors
  • Exacerbate physical and mental health problems
  • Negative interactions with ADHD medications

The effects of alcohol on cognition

You're taking a risk when you mix your ADHD with alcohol. Drinking can affect things like judgment, balance, memory, cognitive abilities, and speech.

Since alcohol is an addictive substance, your risk for addiction increases as well.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD): an ADHD comorbidity

People who have ADHD are 43% more likely to develop an AUD due to their maladaptive reward system and increased likelihood to make decisions impulsively.[4] In addition, 20% of adults who have an AUD also have ADHD.

AUD is a spectrum

According the the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, some of the symptoms of substance use disorders (including AUD) are:

  • Feeling like you need the substance to function properly
  • Developing a high tolerance 
  • Behavioral changes, including increased risk-taking behavior
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Change in relationships with family and friends

If you are experiencing these symptoms or feel like you need to assess your relationship with alcohol, consult your doctor or mental health professional. It can be very dangerous, and even deadly, to quit drinking without medical assistance. 

The dangers of self-medicating with alcohol

Some ADHDers use alcohol as a form of self-medication, but this almost always leads to worse problems. Not only are are the ADHD symptoms going untreated, but the effects of long-term alcohol use can compound any health complications — both physically and cognitively.

ADHD medication and alcohol: is it safe to combine them?

Bright yellow background; a cocktail glass is full of pills like adderall, ritalin, wellbutrin, etc.

When determining which medication works best to help your ADHD symptoms, it’s important to understand how they interact with alcohol. (And any other substance you may use.) 

Drug interactions

There are many ADHD medications to consider when trying to figure out what works best for you, but many come with harmful side effects — adding alcohol into the mix can cause them to not work properly.

Coping and Treatment

Visit your physician’s office

If you’re concerned about your alcohol consumption, talk to your doctor. While you’re there, it might be a good idea to ask them how your specific prescription may interact with alcohol.

The goal here is to find a solution that caters to both ADHD and the risk of alcohol abuse.

Moderation

If you’re struggling with drinking, try moderating your alcohol consumption and see if you notice a change. Moderate drinking is defined as 2 or less drinks for men, and 1 or less for women per day. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking less is better for your overall health, anyway!

Therapy

Therapy is a great tool to prioritize your mental health. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has shown to be effective for both kids and adults with ADHD. If you’re not able to or aren’t comfortable speaking directly to a therapist, try the Inflow app to find support from others like you.

Lifestyle changes

In addition to therapy, making small lifestyle changes can greatly benefit your overall health. Eating well, staying hydrated, exercising, and practicing good sleep hygiene are some ways that you can give your well-being a boost.

Surround yourself with a supportive community

Having supportive people around you is extremely important. Use the internet and social media to meet new people. Join groups or attend events in your area to meet people. Prioritize time with family and friends.

Looking for support?

Inflow can help you thrive with ADHD and reach your full potential. Start your journey now by taking our quiz.

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