CBD Oil for ADHD? Despite Scarce Research, Patients Are Trying It
Early research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) may help patients with epilepsy. It is also believed to relieve pain, anxiety, mood disorders, and even acne. But what about ADHD or ADD? So far, research linking CBD oil to ADHD symptom relief does not exist. That isn’t stopping patients from trying it.
Verified Medically reviewed by Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. Updated on January 5, 2022
UPDATE: On November 25, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a revised consumer update regarding safety concerns about cannabidiol (CBD) products. Due to limited research data, the FDA is unable to declare CBD products safe, according to the updated statement. The FDA warns that CBD can cause liver damage, increased drowsiness, and a number of other side effects. The impact of daily CBD use over a sustained period of time is unknown. Likewise, the FDA says there is insufficient research on the effect of CBD on the developing brain, on fetuses, and on the male reproductive system. The FDA has approved only one CBD product, which treats two rare forms of epilepsy. In late November, it issued warning letters to 15 companies for illegally selling products containing CBD.
These days, it’s tough to find an online community or social media group not singing the praises of cannabidiol (CBD) oil. This helps to explain why so many people are exploring its benefits for diseases and disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons to PTSD and, yes, attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Though research suggests that CBD oil may benefit patients with epilepsy and other disorders, any such claims around ADHD are only that: claims.
What Is CBD? Does It Help ADHD?
CBD is a product of the marijuana (cannabis) plant with the high-inducing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compound removed, which means it is not psychoactive. CBD — often in the form of an oil, a tincture, or an edible — has been rumored to reduce anxiety, a common symptom among those diagnosed with ADHD symptoms. No one, though — not even the drug’s most hardcore advocates — claims CBD is a treatment for ADHD.
According to Mitch Earleywine, professor of psychology at SUNY-Albany and an advisory-board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), there is “no published data, let alone randomized clinical trials, [that] support the use of CBD for ADHD.”
Even so, word of CBD’s potential benefits — proven or otherwise — are often enough to compel some patients with ADHD to experiment. Dr. John Mitchell of the Duke University ADHD Program says that one of his patients, an adult woman with ADHD, tried CBD. Twice. On her own. Without his approval or supervision.
“I bought one vial for $50 that contained 30 gel tablets, and I took all of them over a few weeks,” says Mitchell’s patient, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I’d never tried CBD or any type of cannabis before, and I felt no changes. But I didn’t have any adverse effects, either.”
Anecdotally, this outcome appears common for half of those trying CBD on their own — regardless of the quantity, quality, or type used. The other half claim some positives with regard to CBD and ADHD: “I was able to relax” or “I felt less manic” are common refrains. The problem, as Dr. Mitchell and the broader community of ADHD and CBD researchers point out, is a dearth of studies around CBD. No single research team has yet studied the possible effects — good or bad — of CBD oil for ADHD symptoms specifically.
“There are anecdotes that CBD may help with ADHD,” says Dr. Robert Carson, an assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University who co-authored a 2018 study on the efficacy of CBD on epilepsy, “but this is true for many other symptoms or diseases. Thus, there may be patients whose ADHD symptoms improve after adding CBD, but we cannot generalize that anecdote more broadly. Secondly, the cases we’re most likely to hear about are the one where somebody had a great response — not the 10 who did not.”
“I am not aware of any scientific or clinical data that would speak to the safety or efficacy of using CBD in the treatment of ADHD,” says Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., a member of John Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit. “There is no scientific basis from which CBD should be recommended for use as a treatment for ADHD, nor is there any data that could speak to which product or dose would be appropriate.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends treating ADHD in children and adolescents aged 6 to 18 with FDA-approved medications, plus parent training in behavior modification and behavioral classroom interventions. Likewise, research confirms that “stimulant medications are most effective, and combined medication and psychosocial treatment is the most beneficial treatment option for most adult patients with ADHD.” All ADHD treatment decisions should be made in consultation and coordination with a licensed medical provider.
Is CBD Legal? Is It Safe?
To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form; 10 other states and Washington, D.C., have adopted laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Even so, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers CBD, like all cannabinoids, a schedule 1 drug — making it as illegal as heroin and ecstasy. Despite this, one cannabis industry expert predicts that CBD products alone will comprise a nearly $3 billion market by 2021.
With all that profit on the horizon, why so few studies? At least partially to blame is the legality of CBD; it’s difficult to attain a federal grant to study a federally illegal drug. Politics also come into play, as do lingering public perceptions of cannabis as a gateway drug that may lead to serious mental disorders, lethargy, or both.
Nevertheless, Dr. Mitchell feels that “The perception that [CBD] can have a negative effect has gone down because it’s becoming more available.”
This is not a perception shared by all of Dr. Mitchell’s peers, who note professional resentment and stigma regarding funding for cannabis research. “There’s a lot of political opposition coming from the business and scientific communities,” asserts Dr. Jacob Vigil, director of the University of New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Research Fund. “It’s still highly stigmatized, and we need more studies.”
The studies done on CBD and ADHD to date amount to… practically nothing. One 2011 study showed that, among a group of 24 people with social anxiety disorder, the half who’d taken CBD were able to speak in front of a large audience. In 2015, researchers in Germany examined the relationship between cannabis (CBD and THC) and ADD in 30 patients, all of whom said they experienced better sleep, better concentration, and reduced impulsivity while using the cannabis products. Finally, a 2017 study looking at CBD oil and ADHD in adults found that the oil improved some symptoms, but that more studies were needed to confirm its findings.
The Dangers of Experimenting with CBD for ADHD
The Netherlands’ self-professed “cannabis myth buster,” Arno Hazekamp stated in a recent paper, “While new CBD products keep entering the market virtually unchecked, effective regulatory control of these products has stayed far behind. As a result, unknown risks about long-term effects remain unaddressed, especially in vulnerable groups such as children.”
“During [a person’s] development, I worry about cannabinoids, both CBD and THC,” says UCLA’s Evans. “There are adenosine receptors (and CB2 receptors) on the microglia that are critical for brain development, and CBD inhibits adenosine uptake. This may be a beneficial factor for epilepsy and autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, but who knows for ADHD.”
And while CBD may potentially benefit some patients with ADHD, “One is doing an experiment on oneself by taking CBD for ADHD,” Evans adds. “CBD is anti-inflammatory and I’m not sure there is good evidence mechanistically that for ADHD it might be helpful.”
It’s also unknown how CBD may interact with other medications. “CBD in any form is a drug, and thus has a potential for side effects or interactions with other drugs, specifically those metabolized through the liver [CBD is metabolized by the same enzyme in the liver that metabolizes many other medicines and supplements],” Carson says. “And with other ADHD medications that have sedating qualities, such as guanfacine or clonidine, there may be additive effects that may not be beneficial.”
Also potentially harmful is the non-standard and wildly fluctuating amount of CBD in most CBD products, even those labeled as “pure CBD oil.” Some such products may also contain other ingredients — pesticides, additives, herbs, and even THC. “CBD alone has multiple actions on the cells in the brain and we don’t know which ones are clearly responsible for its known benefits,” Carson says. “It gets more complicated when we have less purified products that also include THC and CBDV [cannabidivarin].”
Dangers may also exist in the method of delivery. CBD is packaged and consumed in oils, tinctures, or edibles — each one absorbed differently by a person’s body. “The labeling in this industry,” says Vigil of UNM, “is horrific.”
‘Natural’ Doesn’t Necessarily Mean ‘Safe’
Once CBD enters the body, no one yet knows how it works. Its long-term effects are a mystery. Exactly how does CBD work — in the brain and over many years? As Dr. Carson bluntly puts it: “We don’t know and we don’t know.”
None of this will stop some people from self-medicating with CBD or trying it on their children. “Apparently there are products offering about 30mg of CBD per dose,” Earleywine says. “I rarely see published work with humans that shows much of an effect below 300mg, which… would get quite expensive… So it’s probably a waste of time and money.”
“The bottom line,” Evans says, “is that there is a dearth of research on all cannabinoid actions — because of its schedule 1 classification — and no clear scientific evidence I can find to endorse or not endorse CBD use for ADHD.”
Perhaps because researchers have documented no negative links between CBD and ADHD, some “patients go through trial and error with CBD,” Vigil says. “First they go on the Internet, where they start with an isolate CBD. Then they try the vanilla products — only to find they get more benefits when they add THC.
“They do that because cannabis is so variable that patients are forced to experiment. Also because clinical trials can’t really tell you anything about the decisions that patients actually make in the real world. And finally because there’s not going to be a uniform solution for everybody.”
“Families need to think very hard about potential risks versus benefits for treating other disorders, including ADHD,” Carson advises. “So please discuss what you are thinking about doing with your child’s physician. In the absence of good data, a dose of 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight per day is where most patients start when using CBD for epilepsy — and this seems to be well tolerated. But if the side effects from any medication are worse than the problem was to begin with, that patient might be on too much.
“I like to remind families,” Carson adds, “that just because something is natural does not mean it is safe.”
CBD Oil for ADHD: Research, Considerations, and Side Effects
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.
Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
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.
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
- Mood changes
- 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.
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.