5 Reasons ADHD Medication Is Better Than Caffeine
Natural isn’t always better — and other reasons why I finally bit (or swallowed) the psychostimulant medication pill
As I shared here somewhat recently, I was diagnosed last summer with ADHD.
I’m thus about one year into the treatment process.
It’s been a journey that has seen me try out three different medications, visit three specialists (one retired, one provided a second opinion), and deal with the most unexpectedly frustrating part of having ADHD: getting medication prescriptions filled at pharmacies (oh, the bureaucracy!)
My ADHD Diagnosis Story
Cross-posted from Twitter, lightly redacted, and expanded:
Prior to getting formally diagnosed, I lived and breathed coffee. Latterly, I used to caffeine pills to get my fix — which oddly made the idea of trying another pill a lot more palatable to me.
But for more than 10 years, caffeine was the molecule that I used to start working and to keep focused throughout the day. Without it, I couldn’t work. With it, I could work until it (often) turned me into a jittery mess. It also came with a boatload of other side effects including anxiety and insomnia.
While no medication is perfect and these drawbacks are common with ADHD stimulant medication also, I’m nevertheless pretty sure that what I’m taking now — Vyvanse — is far superior to caffeine pills.
On the slim chance that you’re — like I was — stuck convincing yourself that if caffeine is “good enough” to keep the worst of your ADHD at bay, that there’s no need for anything stronger, here are some reasons that might help you change your mind.
Caffeine Isn’t Really Natural (Nor, Of Course, Are Meds)
One of the factors that kept me attempting to treat my ADHD “naturally” with coffee and tea was clinging to the false belief that anything “natural” was inherently better and more safe.
Firstly, that premise is flawed. There are compounds in natural that are incredibly deadly and pharmaceuticals that are extensively researched, far safer, and which save lives.
But I’m not talking about that.
Consider rather how unnatural it is to be consuming caffeine if you live in the West. Look at where coffee grows in the world. Then look at how coffee is harvested. Could any of this really happen without airplanes and trucks and other manifestations of human technology?
Unless you’re living in Kenya, the answer is almost certainly yes. And even if you are living in a coffee growing region of the world, coffee wouldn’t likely be naturally as widely available as it is now. Picking and roasting coffee beans takes time and effort and the plant provides virtually no nutritional value.
The ease with which we can consume large amounts of coffee in countries where there is no chance that the crop would naturally grow is actually a completely unnatural byproduct of globalization and international trade.
Caffeine pills, needless to say, also do not grow on trees.
Dosing Caffeine Accurately Is Really Hard — And Inconvenient
The only way to dose caffeine in a safe and controlled amount is to ingest pure caffeine.
Firstly, if you’re even thinking about this, please avoid caffeine powder at all costs. It’s simply way too easy to overdose on that.
But even if you’re being responsible and consuming caffeine pills, the best you’re going to be able to do is to mimic taking an instant release ADHD medication.
These days, many ADHD patients being treated with psychostimulant drugs are being treated with specially formulated long-acting versions of stimulants such as Vyvanse and Concerta. Naturally, this is far more convenient.
Ie, even if caffeine “works” to treat your ADHD and you don’t find the side effects overly bothersome … you’re missing out on some pretty cool medical evolution in the area of drug delivery for no good reason.
If you’re ingesting caffeine through coffee and tea in an attempt to self-medicate your ADHD, then you’re almost certainly on a highly variable treatment plan that would be considered unacceptable by medical doctors. The only way not to do this would be to drink coffee through a syringe and weigh out your beans. And even then, there would likely be non-trivial variations per cup.
In order to avoid side effects and maximize benefits, a careful process of finely adjusting dosages and logging the effects is required. Undertaking that is simply impossible if you’re using caffeine as your “medication.”
Working With Doctors Is Much Safer Than Going It Alone
No medical doctor that I’m aware of is going to hand you out a prescription for caffeine, or even the caffeine l-theanine stack, in order to treat your ADHD. It simply won’t happen.
If you’re going down the medication route, then you’re going to be receiving prescribed medications for the condition. This will mean that you’ll almost certainly have to work with a doctor in order to continue receiving your prescriptions.
While this might sound like an inconvenience to some — if I’m going to be honest, this was part of the reason buying into my caffeine delusion attracted me — in the long run this will be far far safer.
Medical doctors are highly trained professionals. They’ll carefully monitor you for side effects. You’ll have somebody to work with to adjust your dosage and to whom to direct questions about the medication.
You’ll Probably Experience Less Side Effects
People who don’t have ADHD would probably be surprised to hear me affirm that I actually find the effect of them somewhat similar to caffeine.
The feeling they create is intimately familiar to me. I’ve been achieving it through other means for over a decade. They get me into that space I need to be in — free from the clutches of ADHD. The one in which I can be productive and focus. They rescue me from procrastination and not being able to move forward with projects.
The main difference is that they’re a stronger drug. If the dose is too strong, I’m liable to experience a panic attack. There’s less wiggle room. But they’re also more powerful. And they have a better side effect profile.
Medicinally, caffeine is only considered a mild stimulant. It has effects beyond those which are desirous for ADHD treatment.
It May Delay Your Diagnostic Process
I spent 10 years of my adult life knowing that something wasn’t quite “right” with my daily regiment.
I needed a large and frequent helping of caffeine simply to focus. At night time, I sometimes had to dampen down the anxiety and insomnia that this regiment created with alcohol. Deep down, I knew that there had to be something off and a better way of managing.
The problem with this self-medication see-saw was that it worked well enough to delay getting professional help and doing the digging I needed to do in order to figure out what was at the root of my attention issues.
It was only after having gallbladder surgery — when I needed to cut out as many potential dietary triggers as possible — that I finally got around to seeking out professional medical help. The first conversation centered around a big question — why? — and then I discovered that so many other features of my personality fit perfectly with the typical presentation of inattentional ADHD.
If I hadn’t relied upon a “natural” treatment for so many years, I could have been diagnosed a lot sooner. Like potentially even before adulthood.
Don’t follow my example.
In some ways, going from taking a Vyvanse pill once a day to ingesting caffeine every few hours might seem like a small adjustment to a daily schedule. But the repercussions so far have been life-changing.
I’m no longer tethered to being near a source of coffee. Or of having to remember to take caffeine every few hours in order to remain focused.
I can work with a doctor to figure out the optimal dose and — after taking a pill once in the morning — get on with work for the rest of my day.
If you’ve convinced yourself that you can treat your ADHD with caffeine, I encourage you to reconsider your decision and to seek out professional help for evaluation and treatment.
(How many ADHDers self-medicate with the kind of coffee drinking regime I instituted? I’m not sure anybody knows. But I suspect a lot. Psychiatrists commonly also report that their formerly caffeine-obsessed patients don’t feel the slightest inclination to consume the drug after beginning treatment.)