For people with ADHD, cannabis has long been a source of relief and support.
Despite the prevalence of ADHD diagnosis over the past 20 years, it is still a relatively poorly understood neurological disorder, and cannabis use was not looked on favorably. But recently, scientists have begun to explore cannabis as a form of medication, rather than comorbidity.
The scientific evidence behind using medical marijuana for ADHD is still in the early stages, with most research in preclinical trials, meaning there isn’t yet human testing. However, this evidence is still useful, pointing you in the right direction to customize your cannabis experience to ensure a positive experience.
Strains mentioned in this article:
How cannabis can help with ADHD
ADHD, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often presents in inattentiveness, impulse problems, and overactivity. 1
Some 4.4% of American adults are diagnosed with ADHD, with 5.4% of men and 3.4% of women afflicted. It is most easily recognizable in men, potentially leading to underdiagnosis in women. Due to this gap, the real number of people living with ADHD is thought to be higher. 2
Typical symptoms of ADHD include:
Inability to relaxRestlessnessLack of sleepMind-wandering/ lack of focusEmotional instability
Additionally, people with ADHD also have high rates of comorbid anxiety and depression. 3
Can cannabis help with ADHD symptoms?
As recently as 2021, researchers began exploring ADHD as a form of endocannabinoid deficiency. People with ADHD often have a hard time with executive function, the cognitive processes that govern our daily tasks and activities. A lack of dopamine production associated with completing tasks can make it challenging for people with ADHD to start tasks they know they need to.
A 2021 study found that people with ADHD have lower levels of endocannabinoids that lead to dopamine and serotonin deficiencies. 4
The endocannabinoid system has a complex relationship with dopamine production and cannabis use is one way of supplementing cannabinoid levels. The authors noted that there is “ample neurochemical evidence” that “unequivocally establishes specific phytocannabinoids increase anandamide concentrations, the endocannabinoids responsible for releasing dopamine.”
Additional studies on cannabis & ADHD
A 2016 online review of cannabis and ADHD posts found that 25% of posts contained mention of therapeutic effects of cannabis on ADHD symptoms while 8% reported worse symptoms. 7There is a case report of a patient who used cannabis to treat severe ADHD and improve behavioral symptoms, reduce emotional instability, and improve sleep. 8A 2017 study found that Sativex, a THC dominant nasal spray, had “nominally significant” improvements on hyperactivity and inattention. The authors noted the study “provides preliminary evidence supporting the self-medication theory of cannabis use in ADHD.” 9
None of this means cannabis is a magic cure for ADHD. In fact studies suggest that heavy, long term THC use can lead to neurodevelopmental issues, increasing the risk or symptoms of ADHD. People with ADHD are at a higher risk for substance abuse as well as cannabis use disorder and cannabis use should be carefully considered with a medical professional., 10 11
This doesn’t mean that cannabis can’t be helpful for people with ADHD, as it clearly can be, but rather that each individual has a complex relationship with the plant. This is an evolving area of research, and as of yet, there are no large-scale studies to examine the relationship between cannabis use and ADHD. (The pharmacological interaction between cannabis and ADHD meds is another subject entirely.)
How to choose cannabis for ADHD
Not all cannabis strains are created equal. There isn’t one “good strain” for ADHD- it’s a combination of the right cannabinoids, terpenes, and your personal preference.
Forget what you know about strain names and let go of the indica/sativa debate. These are both poor markers of how a strain will affect you. Strain names aren’t regulated, so a grower can slap any label they want onto a strain, even with wildly different chemical profiles, and sativa and indica are nothing more than plant names with no indication as to the chemical profiles.
The thing that matters most is the chemovar, and there are three types of chemovars:
Type I: High THCType II: THC/ CBDType III: High CBD
The best type of cannabis for ADHD is a type II or type III strain, depending on your personal comfortability with being high and your anxiety levels.
While many people with ADHD report tolerating THC well, anxiety is a common comorbidity to ADHD, making the presence of CBD important for a positive experience. CBD can have mood-stabilizing effects 12 while THC has a biphasic effect, which means it produces different effects in different doses. A high dose of THC can be more distracting than focusing. 13
Your delivery method is also important. While smoking is best for quick absorption, an oral delivery method such as tinctures is more beneficial for day-to-day maintenance.
Best terpenes for ADHD
For focus, mood-boosting, and relaxation
Linalool acts as a depressant on the central nervous system which can have a calming effect on an overactive nervous system. 15Linalool was found to improve learning and memory in a preclinical rodent study, as well as prevent “learning and spatial memory deficits.” It also has well-tracked anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects. 16
For focus, mood-boosting, and sleep
Alpha-pinene slows the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory, attention and learning. 17Daily use of pinene led to increased attention spans, enhanced secondary memory performance and a marked improvement in cognition and mood in a 2019 review of pinene studies. The authors also noted pinene is a historical sleep aid. 18
For focus, mood-boosting, and relaxation
Limonene, the main ingredient in lemon essential oil, showed a strong ability to improve memory in a preclinical in vitro study. It also increased dopamine concentration. 19A 2021 review of studies found a “considerable number of studies” showing Limonene has mood stabilizing and anti-depressant effects. 20
Beta-caryophyllene has been shown in preclinical studies to have anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects, two common comorbidities with ADHD. 21
If you aren’t able to get the terpene profile of your weed, you can also complement your cannabis use with essential oils. Essential oils are rich with terpenes which can act synergistically with cannabis and provide targeted benefits. Just make sure your oils are food-grade and safe for consumption.
Best weed strains for ADHD
Best strains for focus
Reach for type III strains with high concentrations of linalool, pinene, and limonene when you need to get down to business. A CBD-heavy strain keeps you from getting too high to focus while the terpenes can boost memory and retention. Marijuana strains with this profile include Canna-Tsu and Ringo’s Gift.
Best strains for relaxing
Best strains for mood-boosting effects
When you need a little help to have a good day, reach for a type II strain with linalool, limonene, or beta-caryophyllene. Euphoria-inducing THC is balanced by CBD to avoid anxiety while the terpenes provide anti-depressive effects. Weed strains with this chemical profile include Gelato and Harmony Rose.