What the Research Says
By Karen Sampson Hoffman, MA
John Mitchell, PhD, has heard all about ADHD and cannabis product use. He is a researcher and assistant professor at the Duke ADHD Program. He's not surprised by the current interest in CBD oil for ADHD symptoms and is not impressed by arguments in its favor. "There is some efficacy in childhood epilepsy," he points out, "but when you look at the literature for anything else, especially psychiatric disorders, there's not strong support to say yes, this should be a go-to treatment, especially for ADHD."
He says the interest stems from people's desire to have more choices in treating medical conditions and in the changing perceptions on marijuana use. He points to several states that have made medical marijuana legal and a few states that are considering legalizing recreational marijuana use. "This interest in CBD is coming out more broadly in these perceptions of lack of harmfulness and the changing perceptions of marijuana use in general," says Dr. Mitchell. "For a lot of different disorders—PTSD, ASD, some addictions—[some people] are interested because it might have therapeutic effects when you isolate the CBD. But those studies are preliminary. When you look at the published literature on CBD there's nothing—it's limited to one study." He reminds anyone interested in CBD oil or cannabis products that there have not been the studies showing effectiveness or safety for these products when it comes to ADHD management.
What about the question of CBD oil being a more natural option than a medication? It comes from a plant, after all.
"Natural doesn't necessary means it's less harmful," says Dr. Mitchell. "If I were a parent, I would want it to be pure. Which means it's actually less natural, because it has to be refined."
Other considerations, he says, include how well-refined a CBD oil might be—are the THC and other potentially harmful components fully removed—and the fact that there are no longer-term studies on CBD oil use for children or adults. He adds that there are well-researched and effective non-medication treatment options, such as parent training and lifestyle adjustments, that are shown to be effective in managing ADHD symptoms.
There is also the question of CBD oil becoming a "gateway" to marijuana use by a young person. Dr. Mitchell says a young adult who took CBD oil as a child might not see the difference between it and marijuana use for symptoms management. Marijuana use has well-researched effects on physical and mental health and can make ADHD symptoms worse, he says.
"The literature shows there are harmful effects," says Dr. Mitchell. "There are impacts on cognitive ability, motivation. Especially for those who are younger and smoking more, there is an impact on IQ.”
ADHD Medications Help Guide
Medications Used in the Treatment of ADHD
To Try or Not to Try?
Alternative or complementary treatments for ADHD
Sometimes people look for treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that they hope will work together with―or even instead of―their doctor’s treatments. Doctors and others treat ADHD using methods that have been very carefully studied, tested and proven effective. These methods include medication and behavior treatment. Yet there are many other treatments for ADHD that people hear about from friends or on the Internet.
Here are a two terms you need to know to understand the treatments for ADHD discussed here:
- Alternative treatment. An alternative treatment is used instead of prescription medication and professional help with behavior problems.
- Complementary treatment. A complementary treatment is added to usual treatment with the hope of even better control of ADHD symptoms.
How do I decide if alternative or complementary treatments will or won’t help?
If you hear or read about an alternative or complementary treatment in a magazine or book or from another non-scientific source, be careful. Serious researchers judge each other’s work in scientific journals. Alternative and complementary treatments usually aren’t carefully tested or judged by a group of experts. They are also often controversial.
What questions should I ask about alternative or complementary treatments?
Asking these questions can help you evaluate a treatment you might be considering.
- Were clinical trials done to prove this treatment works? (A clinical trial is a scientific evaluation of a new treatment.)
- Can I find information about this treatment from a trusted source?
- Is there a respected national organization of people who practice this therapy?
- Does the person giving the treatment need a state license?
- Will my health insurance cover this treatment? (Insurance generally will not cover unproven treatments.)
When should I be suspicious?
When evaluating a treatment, look for these red flags that may signal that the treatment may be ineffective, not worth the money or just bad.
- When there is a claim that the treatment will work for everyone with ADHD (No one treatment works for everyone.)
- When the “proof” is only a few people saying that it works (It should be the result of careful research and many studies.)
- When the treatment does not have directions for using it properly or the contents are not listed on medication containers
- When you do not get information about side effects
- When you are not told that the word natural is not always the same as safe
- When the medicine is “a secret formula,” “astonishing,” “miraculous,” “an amazing breakthrough” or a “cure”
- When you learn about it through infomercials or a book an author is trying to sell
- When it comes by mail order instead of through a doctor
- When you are told that doctors unfairly talk down the treatment or won’t tell the public about it.
Don’t believe everything you read or hear about medical advances. Ask yourself where the information came from. Good information usually comes from medical schools, the government, medical associations and national organizations such as CHADD. Anyone can say he or she is an “expert.”
Talk to your doctor.
Before choosing a complementary or alternative treatment, talk to your doctor. Keep in mind that vitamins, herbs, and other treatments can cause problems with your other medications. Discuss everything you do to treat ADHD with your doctor. Learn more, visit https://chadd.org/about-adhd/complementary-and-other-interventions/