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New Theory: Chronic Sleep Disturbances May Trigger ADHD Symptoms, Not Vice Versa

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New Theory: Chronic Sleep Disturbances May Trigger ADHD Symptoms, Not Vice Versa

  • Julie Warshaw
  • September 14, 2017


September 14, 2017

A new theory hypothesizes that ADHD symptoms may be caused by a lack of regular circadian sleep, positing that attention and sleep troubles may be “two sides of the same physiological and mental coin” — not just two sometimes-overlapping conditions.

The theory was presented by Professor Sandra Kooij at the 30th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress, held in early September in Paris, France. There, Kooji outlined extensive research linking ADHD to sleep problems, and offered new evidence that distorted circadian rhythms and ADHD symptoms may be interrelated for many people with the disorder.

“There is extensive research showing that people with ADHD also tend to exhibit sleep problems,” Kooij said. “What we are doing here is taking this association to the next logical step: pulling all the work together that leads us to say that, based on existing evidence, it looks very much like ADHD and circadian problems are intertwined in the majority of patients.”

[Free Resource: Mobile Apps for Managing Sleep]

Evidence suggests that people with ADHD are 75 percent more likely to have delayed sleep patterns — including a later bedtime and delayed core body temperature changes — than are people without ADHD, Kooij said. They’re also more likely to be alert at night, or be diagnosed with sleep apnea, restless-leg syndrome, or other sleep-related disorders.

Lack of sleep — or fitful sleep — can decrease focus, worsen mood, and hamper productivity; the same symptoms are frequent hallmarks of ADHD. The connection between ADHD and sleep has never been fully understood, said Kooij, but current research is aiming to answer an important question: “Does ADHD cause sleeplessness or does sleeplessness cause ADHD?”

If it’s found to be the latter, she went on to say, it could open the door for non-pharmological treatments for ADHD. Light therapy, melatonin, and other easy-to-apply sleep interventions could make great strides in the face of challenging ADHD symptoms.

“We are working to confirm this physical-mental relationship by finding biomarkers, such as vitamin D levels, blood glucose, cortisol levels, 24-hour blood pressure, heart rate variability and so on,” she concluded. “We don’t say that all ADHD problems are associated with these circadian patterns, but it looks increasingly likely that this is an important element.”