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Can Caffeine and Sugar Calm Down Hyperactive Children?

By Linda Tarr Kent ; Updated August 14, 2017

Central nervous system stimulant drugs like methylphenidate are used to treat children who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Caffeine is also a central nervous system stimulant and thus is being studied as a potential aid for this condition. Some folk medicine treatments for ADHD even recommend combining caffeine and sugar. Talk to your doctor before giving your child a cola or another source of caffeine and sugar, however, because neither caffeine nor sugar is included in standard recommendations for treating ADHD.


Hyper behavior in children who do not have ADHD is often blamed on sugar, and, since stimulants often have a calming effect on kids with ADHD, some parents believe sweets will calm their children. However, there’s no such thing as a “sugar high,” and sugar does not have any proven stimulant effect on children, according to ABC News. In fact, sugar is often blamed for raising the risk of ADHD. But a June 2011 study published in "Nutrition Research and Practice" concludes there is not a direct correlation between sugar consumption and developing ADHD. The study examined the effect of sugar on children categorized as having a high risk for developing ADHD. One long-shot theory is that chronic sugar intake along with excessive antibiotic use influences ADHD symptoms, because this alters the bacterial flora in your child’s intestines. The altered flora, in turn, interfere with nutrient absorption. More research on this theory is needed, however, and even if proven true it would apply to only a subset of cases, according to “What Causes ADHD?” by Joel T. Nigg, psychology professor and director of clinical training at Michigan State University.


Unlike sugar, caffeine is considered a drug, but it is not generally recommended for treating ADHD despite the fact that it is a mild central nervous system stimulant. Overall, scientific research does not point to a clear benefit from using caffeine to treat ADHD, according to “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with ADD/ADHD,” by child psychologist Linda Sonna.


Caffeine is still being studied as an alternative to amphetamine derivatives like methylphenidate because such drugs have a large array of adverse side effects, according to a study published in the April, 2011 issue of “Neuroscience Letters.” This study, performed on rats in which ADHD was induced, concludes that caffeine might be useful for managing ADHD prior to puberty. Another study on rats, published in the December 2010 issue of “Behavioral Brain Research,” also concludes caffeine might provide a benefit prior to puberty. Positive results in animal studies, however, don’t always translate to benefits for humans.


Consult your doctor if you want to try caffeine as an ADHD treatment. Follow your doctor’s guidance for dosage. If your doctor OKs this approach, and if it works for your child, you should see beneficial effects in 30 to 90 minutes, which is the general time frame for stimulant medication results in children with ADHD. In general, your child’s symptoms will not be affected if a stimulant medication dosage is too low, according to the “ADHD Parents Medication Guide,” developed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and American Psychiatric Association. Do not raise the dosage of any treatment, including caffeine, without consulting a doctor.


Even if it does seem to calm your child, caffeine can cause unwanted side effects. These include an upset stomach, increased blood pressure and heart rate and difficulty sleeping. Also, gaining a correct diagnosis of ADHD is essential, because using stimulant drugs such as caffeine prior to puberty can disrupt learning in kids who do not have ADHD, cautions V. A. Pires, lead author for the “Behavioral Brain Research” study.

The combination of caffeine and sugar in soda also raises your child’s risk of being overweight. In fact, children who drink one or more 12-ounce sweetened soft drink daily have a 60 percent higher chance of becoming obese, according to the Nemours Foundation.

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