Medications are often an important part of treatment for ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), often colloquially called "ADD." Today, there are many different types of medications prescribed to treat ADHD, including stimulant drugs, non-stimulant drugs and even antidepressants—all of which may come with undesirable side effects.
Keep reading to understand how ADHD and ADHD medications come into play with hair health. Plus, learn what you should be doing to combat thinning hair.
What Is ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a medical condition that impacts attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. ADHD is fairly common, particularly among children, though a significant number of cases emerge in or continue into adulthood. Estimates vary, but according to CDC data, about 9% of children in the U.S. have the condition, while it’s estimated to impact about 7% of adults globally.
There are three types of ADHD:
- Inattentive Type: Includes symptoms such as forgetfulness, an inability to focus or trouble staying organized. This type was formerly known as "attention deficit disorder."
- Hyperactive Type: Includes symptoms such as difficulty staying still, squirming or fidgeting, excessive talking and a habit of interrupting others.
- Combined Type: Includes symptoms from both inattentive and hyperactive types.
A mental healthcare professional can assess and diagnose ADHD and help develop a treatment plan, which can include a combination of medication, education, skills training and psychological counseling.
There are several different prescription medications available to treat ADHD depending on the patient's needs and specific profile of symptoms. Generally speaking, ADHD medications fall into three main categories:
Stimulants for ADHD
Stimulants, the most commonly prescribed group of ADHD medications, work by affecting central nervous system function, changing the levels of naturally occurring chemicals in the brain. Medications include Adderall® (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine), Ritalin® (methylphenidate), Vyvanse® (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate) and Focalin® (dexmethylphenidate).
Stimulants have been used in the treatment of ADHD for decades and are estimated to help manage symptoms in 70 to 80% of patients with moderate to severe ADHD. However, they may increase anxiety or other side effects in some patients, requiring alternative options to be explored.
Non-stimulants for ADHD
For some people, stimulants aren't effective at treating symptoms or produce undesirable side effects. If this is the case, alternative treatments are often explored, including prescription of non-stimulant medications to help with concentration and impulse control.
Non-stimulant medication options for ADHD include Strattera® (atomoxetine), Kapvay® (clonidine ER) and Intuniv® (guanfacine ER). Unlike stimulant options, which have immediate effects, non-stimulant drugs can take several weeks to reach full effectiveness, but they have a longer-lasting presence in the body and generally have less noticeable side effects than most stimulants.
Antidepressants for ADHD
Antidepressants can be effective in treating ADHD in patients in conjunction with other medications. Some research has found that antidepressants can also function as a medication option for ADHD patients who are unable to (or do not wish to) take prescription stimulant drugs. (People with ADHD are also frequently diagnosed with an additional condition, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders and other conditions.)
Antidepressants used in treating ADHD include Wellbutrin® (bupropion), Norpramin® (desipramine) and Effexor (venlafaxine)®. Antidepressants on their own aren't typically as effective as stimulants in treating ADHD, but they offer a different side effect profile along with a lower risk of dependence.
Stimulants and Hair Loss
In particular, one type of ADHD medication—the stimulant class—may have a relationship to hair loss and shedding.
“Stimulant medications such as methylphenidate and amphetamine are the most likely to cause hair loss,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Cheryl Rosen said. And while there isn’t much research looking at how stimulant drugs might affect the hair growth cycle, some of the most common side effects of these drugs may indirectly lead to increased hair shedding or hair loss.
Although stimulant drugs can treat many of the major symptoms of ADHD, one of their better-known side effects is sleep issues. Due to the brain activity they cause, stimulants can impact a person’s ability to fall and stay asleep. In turn, sleep problems can negatively impact hair follicles, cause hair loss or interrupt hair growth through sleep deprivation, stress or even chronic insomnia.
Loss of Appetite and Weight Loss
One of the most common side effects of stimulants is a decrease in appetite that can lead to weight loss or a nutritional deficiency. Poor nutrition can prevent you from maintaining a healthy diet that includes the variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that you—and your hair—need for healthy function. Nutritional deficiencies can cause hair thinning and lead to hair loss.
Uncontrolled weight loss or other weight fluctuations can also be harsh on the hair follicle, leading to hair loss or thinning. Whenever starting or changing medications, be aware of your nutritional intake and any shifts you notice in energy and eating. You can always consider incorporating a supplement for a boost of vitamins, and make sure you find healthy
You Are What You Eat: 10 Nutritional Deficiencies That Can Cause Hair Loss
Stimulants (like amphetamines) work in part by creating a stress response in the body to improve focus. But because of how they work, they can also increase levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body.
“These neurotransmitters [those that respond to stimulants] are involved in the 'fight-or-flight' response," Dr. Rosen explained. "And when they are elevated for long periods of time, it can lead to excessive stress on the body, which can cause hair loss.”
Long story short: There's a known connection between stress and hair loss, so if you're taking stimulants, be aware of your stress.
The Stress Factor: How Cortisol Affects Your Hair
Anxiety and Stress Levels
Like stress, anxiety can cause complications with ADHD and hair health alike. Stimulants may increase anxiety, including those used in ADHD treatment—and anxiety side effects can worsen if stimulants are taken without proper supervision or in improper dosages.
So what's the hair care connection? Well, anxiety can cause stress, and stress can lead to myriad hair loss conditions. If you're worried that your medication (or your ADHD itself) is causing increased anxiety, talk to a doctor about how to proceed.
Does Adderall Cause Hair Loss?
While it’s considered very rare, hair loss is listed as a possible side effect of Adderall, which is an amphetamine and a commonly prescribed ADHD drug. Other amphetamines have been linked to increased hair shedding as a side effect, though not those prescribed for ADHD.
Trichotillomania, a hair-pulling disorder often called "trich," is one hair loss-related condition that might have a connection to stimulant medications. Trichotillimania is classified as an impulse control disorder in which patients have a strong, irresistible urge to engage in hair-pulling behavior on the scalp or other parts of the body.
In one case study, trichotillomania was triggered as a side effect of taking stimulants for ADHD and then ended when medication was stopped. This case, the first medically documented incidence of Adderall-induced trichotillomania, was published in 2013 and described a 12-year-old whose trichotillomania symptoms resolved after stopping the medication.
“While the exact nature of the connection is not fully understood, it is speculated that the ADHD medications may increase impulsivity and/or hyperactivity, which may in turn lead to an increased likelihood of engaging in hair-pulling behaviors,” said Dr. Rosen.
Alopecia Areata Hair Loss
When it comes to a possible connection between alopecia areata (AA)—sudden hair loss with bald spots—and ADHD medications, further research is needed. However, preliminary evidence suggests a possible relationship between alopecia and ADHD. Whether stimulants can lead to hair loss, however, is not yet clear.
“While the specific effects of ADHD medications on hair loss have yet to be investigated in depth, we know that they can increase the risk of alopecia,” explained Dr. Raffaello Antonino, psychologist and Clinical Director at Therapy Central.
One study found a relationship between hair loss symptoms and ADHD stimulants in patients with alopecia universalis (a more rare and severe hair loss condition), though no similar relationship was found for patients with alopecia areata.
Another recent study found that children who were diagnosed with ADHD were at a higher risk of developing alopecia areata, suggesting the two conditions share some underlying mechanisms. However, the study actually found that stimulants might be helpful in preventing alopecia areata—the children who were prescribed stimulants to treat ADHD were less likely to develop AA (though the results were not statistically significant).
Starting, stopping or switching medications can cause a temporary form of hair loss called telogen effluvium (TE). When the body undergoes physical stressors—for instance, when it's adjusting to the physiological changes of a medication change—a shift in the normal hair growth cycle may occur.
This interruption in the hair growth cycle moves a larger-than-normal amount of hair follicles into the telogen (resting) phase, which eventually leads to a drastic and sudden bout of significant hair loss. This type of hair loss is usually only temporary and resolves once the body adjusts to the change.
Get the Full Picture: Telogen Effluvium Explained
When to Seek Professional Medical Advice
Increased hair shedding may not be immediately apparent to you, but if you start to notice more loose hairs on your pillow in the morning or clinging to your clothes during the day, this could be a sign. Look for larger clumps of hair in the shower drain or more loose hairs on the bathroom floor, too. If your ponytail feels thinner or you’re losing more than a couple of strands when you run your hands through your hair these could be signs that you’re shedding more.
If you’re currently taking medication for ADHD and you notice increased hair shedding, consult with your healthcare provider to exclude the possibility of other health-related causes of hair loss. You can also consult with a dermatologist or trichologist who will examine your scalp and follicles to determine the exact cause of the shedding or loss and recommend a hair loss treatment.
Holistic Care for Hair Health
If you’re experiencing hair loss, there are a few ADHD-friendly ways you can support your general health with your hair in mind.
- Address stress: Notice when you're stressed and take care of yourself. Seek out activities that can lower your anxiety and stress levels. Yoga, spending time outdoors and even watching a funny video have all been shown to reduce cortisol levels.
- Supplement with supplements: Vitamins can't replace a balanced diet, but they can help your body make the best of the food you put into it. Ask your doctor about incorporating a biotin supplement to support hair growth. Consider a daily biotin gummy that has the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are essential for hair. Biotin (also known as vitamin B7) helps convert food into energy, which can help with focus as well!
- Treat your hair with care: If you're dealing with hair shedding or hair loss, be extra gentle in your hair care and styling practices. Use products designed to support healthy hair, like GRO Hair Serum, which has been clinically shown to reduce the signs of shedding and increase the appearance of hair density in as little as 90 days.
While there is no direct link between ADHD medications and hair loss, side effects of ADHD and ADHD medications—like weight loss, nutritional deficiencies and anxiety—may indirectly contribute to hair loss, thinning or shedding.
If you think your medication (or your ADHD) might be playing a part in your hair loss or other hair issues, consult a trusted doctor to discuss treatment options. And stay tuned to the VEGAMOUR blog for the latest to keep your hair (and your mind) healthy.
More From VEGAMOUR
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- Can Depression Lead to Hair Loss?
- Baby Hairs or Breakage? How to to Tell the Difference
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