The ADHD Brain

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is much more complicated than not being able to sit still. ADHD is often misunderstood by our peers, our families, and even our doctors and therapists. It’s a real neurological condition that affects every aspect of a person’s life.

Psychiatrist Daniel Amen has extensively studied the brain activity of inattentive and classic ADHD subjects. In his research, he discovered several differences in the activation of the frontal lobe region of the brain and in the arousal states of the basal ganglia.

Although there are similarities in both main subtypes, inattentive and classic ADHD are notably different. People may have classic, inattentive, or a combination of the two. Comorbid conditions may also accompany the neurological disorder.

The frontal lobe of the brain plays a key role in higher mental functions such as motivation, planning, social behavior, and speech. Frontal lobe dysfunction can lead to learning challenges, memory issues, behavioral problems, and more.

The basal ganglia are heavily involved in regulating the nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. Over or under-arousal of the basal ganglia can have a huge effect on a person’s emotional response and behavior.

In those with “daydreamy” inattentive ADHD, there is insufficient stimulation of the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe, leading to decreased attention span, distractibility, impaired short-term memory, decreased mental speed, apathy, and decreased verbal expression.

An over-aroused basal ganglia is often seen in inattentive ADHD brains, which leads to high anxiety levels. That said, the treatment plan for a person with inattentive ADHD will be different than a person who show signs of classic, hyperactive ADHD.

Treating inattentive ADHD is a challenge. Stimulants will often cause “super-arousal” of the basal ganglia, stressing out the nervous system even more, increasing anxiety levels.

In those with classic “hyperactive” ADHD, there are additional problems with the inferior orbital cortex of the frontal lobe, which leads to poor impulse control, decreased social skills, and behavioral issues.

Also common in the classic ADHD brain is an under-aroused basal ganglia, which can lead to fearlessness and dare-devil behavior.

Insufficient levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine is a common problem seen in both types of ADHD. Dopamine regulates mood, motivation and concentration. Without enough of this neurotransmitter, our emotional, mental, and physical health is compromised.

However, excessive use of dopamine enhancers like stimulant medications, caffeine, and sugar excite the nervous system and should be used in moderation or not at all. If you feel agitated or overly excitable, your nervous system may be producing too many stress hormones, and you may want to cut back on stimulants.

There are several natural ways to increase dopamine and serotonin. Please visit the Quick Tips Page for more information.

Health Concerns when Treating ADHD:

Although stimulants effectively activate the frontal lobe, improving concentration temporarily, they can deplete serotonin levels over time, leading to depression. Stimulants also cause the extra release of stress hormones and can fatigue the adrenal system.

People with ADHD will often self-medicate in an effort to “wake up” their brains and increase focus. Processed carbohydrates, sugars and starchy foods cause blood sugar levels to spike, then crash. The body then forces the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, to raise the blood sugar.

The vicious cycle of spiking and crashing has the potential to deplete the adrenal glands over time, causing long-term problems in some cases. Chronic fatigue, stress headaches, and a weakened immune system are just some of the symptoms of an adrenal gland problem.

Getting an ADHD Diagnosis – Hyperactive or Inattentive (or combined-type):

Classic ADHD has been the focus of attention in the media and throughout our school systems. People with this hyperactive subtype may have issues sitting still, struggle with impulsivity, comprehension issues, and behavioral problems. That said, I’m going to draw your attention to the often quiet wallflower, inattentive subtype – The Daydreamer.

Although there is some crossover with both inattentive and classic ADHD, there are big differences between the two. Since inattentives are more docile than your classic ADHD hyperactives, they are often overlooked by parents, teachers, doctors and mental health practitioners.

Difficult to diagnose, people are often treated for anxiety and depression alone. Here is a list of common inattentive ADHD traits. Please share this page as needed.

“Daydreamy” Inattentive ADHD traits:

  • Quite, easy going as infants and children
  • Shy, quite, introverted, daydreamy as teenagers and adults
  • Low to normal activity levels with some crossover into anxiety-induced hyperactivity and restlessness
  • Dislike confrontation and will avoid stressful situations
  • Tendency to avoid taking risks
  • Agitation and irritability triggered by worries and over-thinking
  • Sleep regulation issues and insomnia due to chronic worrying
  • A need for more sleep than most people
  • Distracted more by thoughts and feelings than external environment
  • Ability to stay on task physically, but will often fidget, mentally wander or doodle in school
  • Can often hyper-focus for hours when passionate about an activity or task
  • Slow thinking or “slow cognitive tempo”
  • Foggy brain, slow to wake up and get moving
  • Impaired short-term memory
  • Inability to sustain attention consistently and will “drift off”
  • Cautious and fearful of an overly stressed lifestyle
  • Overly sensitive or emotional, cries easily
  • May limit hobbies and social activities, leading to social isolation and depression
  • May experience muscle aches, stomach aches, or chronic pain due to excessive worrying
  • Chest pains, dizziness, or panic attacks due to an over-aroused basal ganglia and dysregulated nervous system
  • Muscle twitches or tics
  • TMJ/teeth grinding
  • Hypersensitive to environment and people
  • May feel uncomfortable, agitated or overstimulated, especially in the morning or end of day
  • Uncomfortable with transitions
  • Self-limiting goal setting and habits, due to fear of failure and stress
  • Bored with tedious tasks
  • Easily confused and frustrated
  • Not hearing what people are saying and will “zone out” during conversations

A Healthy You – Start with the Basics:

Before self-diagnosing or pursuing a treatment plan, please see your health care practitioner to eliminate any health condition or infection that may mimic ADHD.

Even if symptoms change over time, ADHD starts in childhood. People don’t just “get adult ADHD” so make sure to talk with your doctor and/or mental health practitioner about your symptoms.

A thorough diagnosis should include your mental health history, including childhood. To ensure a proper diagnosis, find a licensed psychotherapist or neurologist who specializes in diagnosing ADHD in adults.

To start off, you will want to make sure your body is functioning properly.

Be sure to have your thyroid tested. A hyper-thyroid may create an agitated state of mind and body, causing panic attacks, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Symptoms of hypo-thyroid may mimic lethargic, inattentive ADHD-like traits, such as brain fog and slow cognitive processing issues.

I also suggest having a blood panel and/or urine analysis completed, if you suspect any of the following deficiencies or abnormalities: Vitamin B and D, hormones, anemia or low-iron (especially in premenopausal women), liver function, kidney function, bladder, candida/yeasts, or other type of infection.

Leaky gut and food sensitivities are also suspect, as they can cause emotional issues and often mimic depression. Chronic pain and inflammation are red flags of underlying health conditions, like adrenal fatigue or autoimmune disease, and often result from a stressful lifestyle and a poor diet.

I encourage you to start with the basics and visit your doctor. If you are diagnosed with ADHD, try some of the tips, tools and techniques I suggest in this blog.

Even if you don’t have ADHD, the tools can still work for you! You are not alone and I’m happy you’re here.

Sources:

“Attention Deficit Disorder ADD/ADHD – Amen Clinics.” Amen Clinics. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. http://www.amenclinics.com/the-science/spect-gallery/attention-deficit-disorder-addadhd

“5 Surprising Causes of ADD Symptoms – Amen Clinics.” Amen Clinics. N.p., 06 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. http://www.amenclinics.com/blog/5-surprising-causes-of-add-symptoms/

Klein, Sarah. “Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine: The Three Major Stress Hormones, Explained.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html

“Seven Things That Cause Adrenal Fatigue.” Clifton Park Nutritionist Chiropractor. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. http://capitaldistrictvitalitycenter.com/blog/2013/06/seven-things-that-cause-adrenal-fatigue

“Lifting the Fog”, ebook by Michael Carr. Find at www.amazon.com/Lifting-Fog-specific-inattentive-adults-ebook/dp/B007INO7B0