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  • Beth Paul

Dopa what??? Dopamine and the paradox of ADHD and healthy living

Mental health concerns can provide an exhausting struggle for those with ADHD but lets make life even more interesting. ADHD can also contribute to poor physical health.

What can we do, as individuals with ADHD or as parents or spouses to those with ADHD to overcome the odds and live a long healthy life?

Understanding the problem will help us craft a solution. So what are we up against?

One study showed that women diagnosed as children with ADHD have twice the rate of obesity as those not diagnosed with the disorder. A systematic review and meta-analysis (a careful review of other research studies) by Cortese and colleagues, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, found a clear link between ADHD and an increased risk of obesity. Not surprisingly, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, both diseases linked to life style choices also occur at higher rates among those with ADHD then the population as a whole.

And yet, anecdotally, we know not all those with ADHD lead unhealthy lives. One the opposite end of the health spectrum, many elite athletes also have ADHD. Some of the best known of these include Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. In fact, research suggests, ADHD is also more common among elite athletes than the population as a whole. Some elite athletes even call ADHD their super power.

Confused yet? Welcome to the wonderful and awful paradoxical ADHD brain. We love it, we hate it, it’s our worst enemy and our greatest strength.

The answer lies in understanding the relationship between our brain and dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical that is found in the brain. The technical term for this chemical is a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters (dopamine is only one of forty neurotransmitters found in the human nervous system) are used by your brain to send messages to our nerve cells. Dopamine, among other roles, plays a role in our experiencing pleasure and also contributes to our ability to think, plan, focus and find things interesting. Dopamine in the ADHD brain is a precious commodity. Why, exactly, we are low on dopamine is still being researched. Regardless of the reason, we crave dopamine.

The craving for dopamine and the challenges in planning and executing plans play out in some dysfunctional ways when it comes to our health. Consider some common tips for combating obesity as an example:

  1. Eat less simple carbohydrates. Seems simple enough, but carbohydrates also provide a quick dopamine hit. Making intense sugar cravings a common symptoms for many ADHDers.

  2. Meal plan and track your intake. Those with ADHD struggle to manage boring tasks. Meal planning and tracking intake is often boring. So being consistent with tracking is difficult.

  3. Drink less alcohol or none at all. Alcohol also causes a release of dopamine. As a result, many with ADHD find it difficult to avoid alcohol.

  4. Exercise regularly. Exercise, if you are not an individual who already enjoys it, is hard! If you are not physically fit it can be hard to get started and doing so often requires motivation and discipline. The ADHD brain is wired to be more focused on instant gratification - making sticking to an exercise plan because of long term benefits nearly impossible.

Discouraged yet? That ok, this is hard stuff. And to be clear, I feel your pain. I am not one of those elite athletes with ADHD. But, I promise, there is hope! So stay with me. First, I'll share a little background on my own health journey.

I am a forty year old woman who has spent twenty eight years of my life trying or wishing or wanting to lose weight. I have a family history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, diabetes and morbid obesity. My BMI (body mass index, a common calculation used to determine whether you are a healthy weight or not) has always landed me in either the overweight or the obese category. I have completed fifteen mile hikes and obstacle races followed by months of being ridiculously sedentary. I have followed a model diet and taught courses in nutrition only to go off track and indulge in carb driven binge eating.

My role as a nurse and a proponent of healthy living only complicated my journey for health. Shame and frustration over not living up to my exquisitely high standards often led to periods of deciding my own health was probably not worth fighting for. Clearly, I just was not capable of making good choices when it came to my health. I should probably just try harder.

What, in the moment, I failed to remember is health, at it's best, is a journey. Their is no end point. So let's try explaining my health journey in a different way. I am a forty year old women who has a family history of diabetes, morbid obesity and high blood pressure. I am a forty year old woman who despite this family history and the additional struggles of ADHD is not diabetic, does not have high blood pressure and takes no prescription medications for any physical ailment. I have the ability to hike and to do hard physical work all day and to join my husband and son in a variety of exciting and terrifying adventures. I may not be the dress size I would like to be or have a perfect track record in many areas of health journey, I am healthy. When I focus on my health from that perspective suddenly I feel just a bit more motivated to set another health goal. Maybe, it's time for another obstacle race or to work toward that century (a hundred mile bike ride that my husband has been wanting us to try for the past ten years) or maybe not, maybe my goal is to go on more walks and play with the dogs

That, is what this blog is about. Being truly healthy, physically, emotionally and mentally. Not, perfect, but healthy.

So how about you? Where are you at in your journey to health?

Do want to feel good in your own skin but don't know how to start?

Or are you actually pretty healthy but struggling in a specific area of health goals?

Wherever you are in your journey to health and fitness, I hope you will stick around.

Future blog posts will provide some practical tips to address managing stress, increasing our physical activity and managing carb cravings. They will not include hard and fast rules because our ADHD brains HATE rules.

Jump in the comments or email me. Let me know where you are at in your journey and how I can support you.


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