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ADHD & Sleep Problems

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

ADHD is a brain disorder that causes a person to struggle with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulse control. In this lesson we'll explore the strong link between ADHD and sleep disorders.

What is ADHD?

Both children and adults can suffer from a brain disorder called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These people struggle with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulse control due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Basically, they have a hard time focusing on one task at a time, tend to fidget or move around more than normal, and act impulsively. Some people only experience one of these symptoms, while other people experience multiple symptoms.

I know you're probably thinking that most people struggle with these same symptoms from time to time, which is true. However, someone with ADHD experiences these symptoms to such a degree that they have trouble functioning at school or work.

Luckily, as we've learned more about ADHD, we've found more effective ways to treat it. Medications and psychotherapy are the two most common treatment types, and these can help patients manage their ADHD symptoms so that they aren't quite as debilitating. Still, diagnosing (and treating) ADHD isn't always so straightforward, since other conditions can cause similar symptoms. Sleep disorders and ADHD have much in common, so we'll examine how they may be related.

ADHD and Sleep

Scientists are still researching the underlying causes of ADHD and the condition's connections to other contributing factors, but research suggests there is a correlation between difficulty sleeping and ADHD in both kids and adults. A sleep disorder means a person either has trouble falling asleep or trouble staying asleep (or both).

It's unclear whether sleep disorders are just more prevalent in people with ADHD or if sleep disorders cause symptoms that are confused with those of ADHD. Poor sleep affects kids and adults differently; for example, kids tend to get more hyper and adults tend to get sluggish and slow down. An over-tired child's hyperactivity may be mistaken for ADHD. To further complicate matters, research on children diagnosed with ADHD found higher rates of daytime sleepiness than in kids without ADHD.

Symptoms of sleep deprivation and ADHD are similar and make it difficult for kids to excel in school.
ADHD and school

Types of Sleep Disorders

Other research efforts found that ADHD patients are more likely to have the following sleep disorders:

  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS): RLS is a disorder that causes a person to feel uncomfortable at rest, leading them to continuously move their legs. Daytime RLS symptoms may mimic those of ADHD.
  • Sleep disordered breathing (SDB): SDB refers to an array of sleep disorders due to irregular breathing, including sleep apnea or snoring. Suffering from a long-term sleep disorder may cause ADHD-like symptoms.
  • Circadian-rhythm sleep disorder: the circadian rhythm is the pattern of changes that take place in the human body within a 24-hour period. When a person's circadian rhythm doesn't match up with the typical day-night pattern, they may be sleepy during the day and wide awake at night. This is also known as delayed sleep-phase disorder.

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