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CBD Oil for ADHD: Research, Considerations, and Side Effects

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

CBD as ADHD treatment

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a compound found in cannabis that is purported to have a number of mental health effects. This has led many people to speculate that it might also have potential uses in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Before you decide to try it, it is important to learn more about what CBD oil is, what the research says about what it can do, and what benefits and side effects it might have for alleviating symptoms of ADHD.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is most often diagnosed during childhood. It can cause symptoms including inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

What Is CBD Oil?

CBD oil is derived from the marijuana plant. CBD is extracted from the cannabis plant and mixed with a carrier oil such as hemp seed oil, grapeseed oil, olive oil, or sunflower oil. Studies suggest that it appears to be relatively safe and well-tolerated, although further research is needed to look at the possible long-term effects.

The cannabis plant contains hundreds of different compounds. The best known of these is tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) and it is the most abundant. It is also the substance responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects. In other words, THC is what causes people to experience the euphoric high associated with marijuana use.

CBD, on the other hand, is the second most abundant cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. Although it will not cause the high that TCH will, it does have an effect on the brain and is associated with some mental health benefits, including potential benefits for people who have ADHD.

Reasons to Consider Using CBD

Some people who advocate for the use of CBD oil for ADHD suggest that:

  • It might be more effective than some other treatments
  • It might have fewer side effects than traditional medications
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests it may help with ADHD symptoms
  • It may have other mental health benefits

Part of the appeal of using CBD oil may be to avoid some of the side effects that are associated with traditional ADHD treatments.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that between 70 and 80% of kids who have ADHD experience a reduction in symptoms after taking stimulant ADHD medication, they can cause side effects including sleep issues, decreased appetite, and mood changes.  

Before you decide to try CBD oil to treat ADHD, it is important to consider the available research. Most importantly, you should always talk to your doctor before you try any alternative remedies.

Research

So what do the experts have to say? Is CBD oil really effective for treating ADHD? Interest in the use of CBD has largely outpaced the research into its uses, safety, and effectiveness.

While some proponents have made a number of claims, the truth is that research on the use of CBD as a treatment for ADHD is extremely limited. Most of what researchers already know stems from research on the use of smoked or ingested marijuana and not directly on the effects of CBD oil or other CBD products.

Even the available studies on the use of marijuana in the treatment of ADHD is very limited. Many of these studies also rely on self-reported data, which does not provide as much support as a randomized clinical trial.

CBD May Reduce Hyperactivity

A 2013 study looked at cannabis use and ADHD subtypes. The data collected from more than 2,800 participants found that people were more likely to self-report hyperactive-impulsive symptoms when they were not self-medicating with cannabis.   This suggests that people who use marijuana to self-treat may find relief for symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity.

CBD May Reduce ADHD Symptoms

One small 2017 randomized controlled trial found that adults with ADHD treated with the cannabinoid medication Sativex (which contains THC and CBD) showed a minor reduction in ADHD symptoms with no cognitive impairments.   However, it is important to note that these improvements were small and were not enough to demonstrate that cannabinoids were significantly more effective than treatment with a placebo.

A 2020 study found that higher doses of medical cannabis were associated with a decreased use of ADHD medication in adults.   The products containing a higher dosage of CBD were associated with lower ADHD scores.

Further Research Is Needed

While such results suggest that cannabis and cannabinoid compounds have promise as treatments for ADHD, they don’t indicate that CBD oil on its own might have an impact on the symptoms of the condition. Further research is also needed to determine the role that the endocannabinoid system plays in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

CBD for ADHD Symptoms

While the evidence that CBD oil might be useful as a treatment for ADHD remains scant, it may be useful for managing some of the symptoms that are sometimes associated with the condition. ADHD is often associated with a variety of co-occurring conditions including anxiety and depression.

CBD has shown promise as a potential treatment for a number of mental health conditions, so it might be helpful for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in people who also have ADHD.

While further research is needed to explore CBD’s effects, some studies have shown that it can be effective in reducing symptoms of a number of anxiety conditions including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.   CBD has also been found to have an antidepressant-like effect, which may make it useful in the treatment of depression.  

It is important to be aware that much of this research is still in the early stages. More work needs to be done to explore the effects of CBD, what conditions it may treat, and what doses may be the most effective.

If you are thinking of taking CBD, you should also be aware that while it is usually well-tolerated, it may lead to some side effects.

Potential Side Effects

CBD oil may cause a number of side effects. Although many of these symptoms are mild, it’s important to note some of the common complaints:

  • Appetite changes
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes
  • Nausea
  • Stomach upset

Side effects may be more common at higher doses, although research suggests that CBD appears to be safe and well-tolerated at doses up to 1,500 mg per day.   It is also important to note that CBD can impact the metabolism of certain medications.

In addition to the most common side effects, there are also concerns about the potential worsening of some ADHD symptoms. Some of the effects associated with marijuana use are also common symptoms of ADHD.

While CBD oil does not have psychoactive properties, it may also contain small amounts of THC, which could potentially exacerbate some ADHD symptoms.

The memory and attention impairments that are associated with the use of cannabis are one potential concern.

In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), points out many of the potential negative side effects of marijuana use.   Among these are impaired attention and memory, problems that can be long-term and become worse with chronic cannabis use.

Another concern is that ADHD can be a risk factor for drug and alcohol misuse. Having impulsive symptoms may cause people to be more likely to misuse cannabis or develop a cannabis use disorder. This presents concerns when it comes to using cannabis or cannabis-related products in the treatment of ADHD symptoms.  

Whether the use of CBD oil might contribute to later marijuana use remains unknown. However, marijuana can potentially have negative effects on things like attention and motivation. Young people who smoke marijuana can also experience lasting detriments to cognitive ability and IQ.

Some research suggests that very high doses may pose a risk of liver damage. In a study where mice were given very high doses of CBD, researchers observed that there was an increased risk for liver toxicity. Of course, more research is needed to determine if these same risks apply to humans.  

Considerations

So should you try CBD oil for ADHD? Some important things to remember:

  • It shouldn’t be a substitute for other treatments. While there is evidence that CBD may have mental health uses, this does not mean that it is the best option for the treatment of ADHD. There are a number of effective treatments currently available to manage the symptoms of this condition. Until further evidence demonstrates the usefulness of CBD for this purpose, it is better to stick to known treatments that have a solid track record of effectiveness.
  • Just because something is perceived as being more “natural” does not mean it is the best choice. CBD oil appeals to some people because it is seen as a natural product. But it is important to remember that “natural” does not necessarily mean that it will be safe. While CBD oil appears to have few or minor side effects in the short-term, researchers still are not sure about any long-term impacts it may have.
  • We don’t know if it actually works. The jury is still out on whether CBD might be effective for treating ADHD and answers won’t become clear until further research is done.
  • CBD oil and other CBD products are not regulated. When you purchase these products, you have no way of knowing if you are getting what you think you are getting. There are no regulations or manufacturing oversight that allows consumers to feel secure about the purity of the products that they are purchasing.

There are different types of CBD oil to choose from and it is unclear which CBD products might be helpful in the treatment of ADHD. These types vary depending on what they contain. CBD oil isolate contains only CBD. Broad-spectrum products contain CBD as well as other cannabinoids, but not THC. Full-spectrum products, on the other hand, contain CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids.

Some research has found that CBD may play a role in counteracting some of the negative side effects associated with THC.  

When it comes to ADHD, people who are thinking of trying CBD oil need to understand that there is a major lack of research on the topic. There are no randomized controlled trials that indicate whether it is effective or ineffective. There is also no research comparing CBD oil to other treatments for ADHD.

How to Use CBD Oil

If you decide to try CBD oil for ADHD or other reasons, it is important to purchase it from reputable sources. Products containing CBD are frequently mislabeled, and since there is no federal regulation over these products, it is difficult to know exactly what you are getting.

There is also no research comparing the effects of different forms of CBD. In addition to being available as an oil, CBD can also be purchased as capsules, gummies, sprays, tinctures, candies, beverages, and vaping oils.

Is It Legal?

While CBD is growing in popularity, its legal status varies depending on where you live. All states permit CBD, but many have restrictions based on the THC levels found in the product. It is important to note that while many states have passed laws legalizing CBD and other cannabis products, any product containing more than 0.3% THC is illegal according to federal law.

The FDA has also issued warnings about companies illegally selling unapproved CBD products boasting unsupported claims about their effectiveness in the treatment of ADHD and other conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and autism.

The Federal Trade Commission Act prohibits manufacturers from claiming that a product can prevent, treat, or cure a disease unless such claims are backed by reliable scientific studies.

The FDA warns that consumers should be wary of such claims.   “This is especially concerning when companies are peddling unproven CBD products for use in vulnerable populations like infants and children,” explained FDA Acting Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D.

A Word From Verywell

While CBD oil and other CBD products may show promise for relieving some symptoms of ADHD, there simply is not enough evidence to support using it as a treatment for ADHD. If you do decide to try it, be sure to talk to your doctor first. Your doctor will be able to suggest the most effective and safest ways to help you better manage your symptoms.

CBD oil has been touted as a potential treatment for ADHD, but does it actually work? Learn more about the research, side effects, and safety.

CBD oil and ADHD

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Contents

  1. Research overview
  2. The studies
  3. Patient perspectives
  4. What the experts say
  5. Bottom line

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that is often diagnosed in children around the age of seven. The characteristic symptoms of this condition include excessive restlessness, inattention, and impulsiveness, although those with ADHD may also experience mood instability, trouble coping with stress, depression, or anxiety.

While everyone may experience one or more of these symptoms at some point during their lives, ADHD is diagnosed when the symptoms are pervasive or disruptive enough to create ongoing problems in everyday life.

ADHD medications and treatment options commonly used to manage symptoms include stimulants, non-stimulants, or anti-depressants. These may be accompanied by side effects such as sleeplessness and lack of appetite along with an increased likelihood of heart problems, psychiatric issues, and addiction.

ADHD medications and treatment options that are commonly used to manage symptoms include stimulants, non-stimulants, or anti-depressants. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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Many parents of ADHD children are concerned about the adverse effects of first-line medication and are open to trying alternative treatments. Cannabidiol (CBD) oil has garnered attention in recent years, with numerous anecdotal reports indicating it may help to ease anxiety and a variety of health conditions.

Research overview

Studies that have investigated medicinal cannabis products such as Sativex as a treatment for ADHD have found it helped to alleviate symptoms such as hyperactivity and impulsivity; however, specific research into CBD oil is scant at present.

It has been hypothesized that CBD may help increase dopamine levels. Individuals with ADHD often have lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. CBD has been shown to modulate the mesolimbic dopamine system, which may help enhance cognitive processes such as learning, mood, memory, and attention.

CBD also possesses anxiety-reducing properties and may help to relieve anxiety among those living with ADHD.

The studies

A 2018 study published in the Swiss journal “Frontiers in Pharmacology” reported on the experiences of parents who administered oral CBD oil to their children diagnosed with ADHD. Fifty-three children and young adults between the ages of four and 22 received CBD for a median of 66 days. Self-injury and rage improved in 68% of the participants but worsened in 9%. Symptoms of hyperactivity fell in 68% of participants, remained unchanged in 29%, and increased in 3%. Anxiety fell in 47% of children but increased in 24%. Adverse effects included sleeplessness and change in appetite, but they were noted as mild.

Preclinical studies and reviews indicate that CBD oil may help in the management of specific symptoms associated with ADHD, such as hyperactivity and anxiety. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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A 2019 study also published in “Frontiers in Pharmacology” studied the effects of CBD on mice. The mice selected for the study were deficient in the AMPA receptor, which is found in the central nervous system, rendering them a suitable model for hyperactivity disorders such as ADHD. The researchers found that CBD infused into the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for spatial learning and adaptation, reduced displays of hyperactivity in a new environment. This study suggests that CBD may dampen hyperactive circuitries in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain.

A 2017 review published in the peer-reviewed “Global Drugs and Therapeutics” discussed CBD as a treatment for pathologies associated with autism spectrum disorder, such as anxiety and behavioral problems. The authors of the study noted that CBD could help to normalize social deficits and cognitive impairments, protect against hippocampal cell death, and improve cognition. The authors also pointed out that CBD reduced anxiety in both animal and human models when administered at moderate doses of about 300 milligrams.

Patient perspectives

Brett Bartel, an adult living with ADHD, began taking a hemp-derived, full-spectrum CBD oil in April 2019 and has noticed a definite improvement in his symptoms. “I’ve been using CannaFocus,” he said. “It calms my mind in the evening and helps me sleep and I feel more awake and alert, better able to focus during the day.”

Eva Romano Olive’s son has been regularly using CBD oil after being diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder,sensory processing disorder, and social pragmatic language disorder, which is similar to Asperger syndrome “He was a nightmare for the school and daycare, got suspended twice, and almost kicked out,” she said.

Olive said that caring for her son was a constant battle, but the day that she gave him CBD, she cried when it helped. “He usually got five ‘smiley faces’ a day, because he mostly got negative reports, and the first day I used 500 milligrams of Charlotte’s Web, he got 35 smiley faces.”

After two weeks, some of the old behaviors returned, such as hitting, spitting, and meltdowns, so Olive increased the dose. She also emphasized that a change of diet significantly helped with managing ADHD symptoms.

CBD oil dropper

Anecdotal evidence and self-reports that CBD oil may help with managing symptoms associated with ADHD. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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CBD oil dropper

“Currently he takes 10 drops of Charlotte’s Web, and now I add in blueberry terpenes. He has been amazing in school,” she reflected. Olive notes that her son builds a tolerance to the CBD products after about three months, so she changes brands often.

Harriet Riley, whose name has been changed for this article, had a less favorable experience with CBD oil. “I tried it on my grandson, who is 11, for his ADHD. It didn’t work out that great,” she explained. “He became very emotional at school, and we had to take him off it. It could have been another medication that didn’t go well with it, though.”

What the experts say

James Polston, Ph.D., is the Chief Science Officer at Helius Therapeutics, an Auckland, New Zealand, biotechnology company focused on medicinal cannabis research and development. Polston observed that there is significant anecdotal evidence that CBD oil may help with managing symptoms associated with ADHD, but that there have been no rigorous clinical studies to specifically investigate CBD oil as a treatment for ADHD.

However, Polston acknowledged that scientific inquiry continues to investigate using CBD oil to manage the symptoms of ADHD. “There are many different ideas circulating about how CBD might help with the symptoms of ADHD,” Polston explained.

“Cannabidiol is now known to reduce inflammation, which has been shown to be a contributing factor in ADHD, depression, and autism spectrum disorders.”

CBD dropper

Cannabidiol is now known to reduce inflammation, which has been shown to be a contributing factor in ADHD. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

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CBD dropper

Polston also pointed to the work of Dr. David Bearman, an anesthesiologist in Goleta, California, who advocates dopaminergic regulation in the treatment of ADHD. “Traditional drugs used to treat ADHD typically work by increasing levels of dopamine in the central nervous system. Dr. Bearman has stated that cannabis appears to treat ADD and ADHD by increasing the availability of dopamine.”

The mechanism by which cannabinoids increase dopamine in the central nervous system is distinctive to how stimulants achieve this effect. “Cannabinoids may represent a novel approach toward dopaminergic regulation in the ADHD population,” he explained.

Polston also underlined that CBD oil boasts an improved safety profile over traditional pharmaceutical therapies for ADHD: “Cannabidiol has been shown to have one of the most beneficial safety profiles that one could ask for in a pharmacological intervention. The obvious benefit that CBD oil may have over first-line medications is that it could be much safer, with none of the abuse liability or concerns for addiction that accompany amphetamines and stimulants.”

On the other hand, CBD may not be as effective as traditional therapies, nor has it been studied for long-term effects. “However, considering that cannabis therapies have been around for thousands of years and adverse reactions are quite rare, the main disadvantage is most likely that it may not work for that individual person,” Polston said.

Bottom line

Animal studies and reviews indicate that CBD oil may help in the management of specific symptoms associated with ADHD, such as hyperactivity and anxiety. Anecdotal reports affirm the usefulness of CBD oil. However, until large-scale clinical studies and randomized controlled trials have been carried out, the benefits remain inconclusive.

CBD oil and ADHD Copy article link to clipboard. Link copied to clipboard. Contents Research overview The studies Patient perspectives What the experts say