Caffeine, Sleep, and Attention Disorders

Posted on Dec 23, 2010 in Blog, Health, Reflections on Counseling

In a recent study published on-line in the Journal of Pediatrics (2010) caffeine consumption in children is up to nearly twice the daily amount recommended by Canadian National Guidelines (Caffeine, 2010). Not surprisingly, the data gathered found a strong negative correlation between caffeine intake and quantity of sleep.

In broad strokes, the body controls our need for sleep by increasing the neurotransmitter adenosine and by sending signals from the circadian clock. Caffeine negatively effects our ability to sleep by inhibiting adenosine receptors in the brain (Repaying your sleep debt, 2007). According to Harvard Women’s Health (2007) lack of sleep increases susceptibility to infection, results in higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and negatively impacts reaction time, memory, and cognitive ability. While obviously unethical to conduct similar experiments with humans, laboratory rats died from loss of immune function and infection after a week or two of sleep deprivation.

In my experience working with students with ADD and ADHD many of these students appear to be among the highest consumers of caffeinated soft-drinks and energy drinks. Amen (2001) noted that people affected by ADD and ADHD commonly abuse stimulants such as nicotine or take in large quantities of caffeine. This goes hand in hand with the theory that attention disorders are associated with decreased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex (Amen, 2001). Self-medicating with substances that increase brain activity would temporarily relieve concerns of concentration and inattention.

The issue is that long-term, caffeine is believed to decrease brain activity and perpetuate sleep difficulties. Viewed in this light, high levels of caffeine consumption in children and adolescents with ADD or ADHD can be seen to be as a natural coping strategy as it would temporarily increase activity in the prefrontal cortex. However, high levels of caffeine consumption would be better viewed as a risk-factor as it may be symptomatic of attention concerns and/or cognitive impairment from sleep deprivation. Long-term caffeine use should monitored carefully in children and adolescents for the potential issues that result from sleep loss and should not be accepted as a viable self-medication option for attention disorders. Excessive caffeine consumption should raise the question “why?” and encourage students, parents, and teachers to seek further assessment and support from school mental health professionals. – AC

Adam Clark is a school counselor at Yokohama International School in Yokohama, Japan. Find out more at

Amen, D. G. (2001). Healing ADD. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.

Caffeine. (2010). Retrieved December 22, 2010 from Health Canada:​hl-vs/​iyh-vsv/​food-aliment/​caffeine-eng.php.

Repaying your sleep debt. (2007). Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 14(11), 1-3. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Warzak, W. J., Evans, S., Floress, M. T., Gross, A. C., & Stoolman, S. (2010). Caffeine Consumption in Young Children. Retrieved December 22, 2010 from Journal of Pediatrics:​article/​s0022-3476%2810%2900993-5/​fulltext.


  1. Brian Farrell
    January 10, 2011

    Very interesting. Perhaps just a tad hypocritical coming from a guy with an espresso maker in his office, but hey, I guess you’re a little bit past adolescence, so you’re forgiven!


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