ADHD, Dopamine & Women

Many women with ADHD are mis-diagnosed as having anxiety, depression or a mood / personality disorder rather than ADHD. One of the reasons for these mis-diagnoses is the hormonal fluctuations that complicate a woman’s ADHD presentation. 

Studies suggest that people with ADHD have an imbalance of chemicals in their brain. One of these chemicals is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, (a chemical that sends signals between nerves in the body) Research shows that the brains of individuals with ADHD do not release dopamine in adequate amounts, resulting in the typical ADHD difficulties with emotional regulation, self-control, organisation, motivation, time management, memory and attention. 

The menstrual cycle and ADHD

Levels of dopamine in the female brain are regulated by oestrogen and progesterone hormones. During the first half of the menstrual cycle, the average woman’s level of oestrogen is high, progesterone is low and dopamine is high. During the second half of the cycle, the average woman’s level of oestrogen is low, progesterone is high and dopamine levels drop. This drop in dopamine will have a bigger impact on women with ADHD because of their already low levels of the chemical.  This drop will affect each individual differently, but can exacerbate such symptoms as: –

  • Emotional regulation. The woman may become irritated by apparently minor issues, and lose her temper quickly.
  • Self-control and impulsivity. The individual may indulge in risky behaviours or find it impossible to, for example, keep to a diet plan.
  • Anxiety. Daily life becomes more problematic. The woman finds it harder to concentrate, doesn’t sleep well, and has difficulty focusing on work or motivating herself. 

Additional fluctuations in hormone levels during puberty, adolescence, pregnancy and the menopause, will mean that this will be an ongoing problem for some women from their teenage years to late middle age.

How to help yourelf.

  1. Identify your own areas of difficulty. Do your research around your own specific problems. Find out how other women cope. Knowledge is power.
  2. When speaking to medical professionals, bear in mind that you have the  comprehensive understanding of your own symptoms, both previous and current. Be proactive and prepared to question professionals about your diagnoses and any treatment they suggest.
  3. Investigate ADHD medication. Medication is used to improve the balance of neuro-transmitters such as dopamine in the brain. Stimulants like Ritalin, help to balance dopamine release and ensure a steady supply to the individual’s nervous system.
  4. Be open about difficulties with your partner, family, friends and work colleagues to enable them to be supportive and to anticipate and understand any mood swings.
  5. Time spent in activity that the individual finds relaxing and enjoyable is known to increase dopamine levels: yoga, gardening, painting, walking, meditation, listening to music, sewing, doing jig-saws, spending time outdoors or reading. 
  6. Organise yourself during those times when you are at your most efficient to prepare for those times when you find things more challenging. Use IT to create systems to help you with organisation, planning, time keeping and routine.
  7. When you are feeling irritable, use email rather than the phone or speaking face to face. Communicating by email will give you time to reply in a measured, reasonable manner, as well as acting as a backup for your memory. 
  8. Studies show that physical activity increases the release of dopamine, so take regular movement breaks. Walk round the block at lunchtime, walk up the stairs rather than use the lift, walk to the second bus stop rather than use the closest one.
  9. Exercise regularly: play badminton or tennis, swim, go for a walk or a bike ride, join a fitness, Pilates, dance or yoga class, jog around the block.
  10. Try to ensure you get adequate amounts of sleep. 
  11. Maintain a healthy diet. Protein rich foods like fish, eggs, nuts and lean meat are used by the body to make neuro-transmitters such as dopamine. 
  12. Become an advocate for women. Promote a greater appreciation of women’s issues in schools, the work place and society generally.

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