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The Confusing Relationship Between ADD/ ADHD and Sleep Disorders

he relationship between sleep disorders and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is both intricate and significant. Numerous studies have highlighted that individuals with ADD/ADHD are disproportionately affected by various sleep disturbances, which, in turn, exacerbate the symptoms and challenges associated with these neurodevelopmental disorders.

Sleep Disorders Prevalent in ADD/ADHD

Several types of sleep disorders are commonly reported among those with ADD/ADHD. Insomnia, characterized by difficulty in falling or staying asleep, is one of the most prevalent issues. Individuals often struggle with racing thoughts and hyperactivity, which hinder their ability to wind down at night. Additionally, sleep onset latency (the time it takes to transition from full wakefulness to sleep) is often prolonged in individuals with ADD/ADHD.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) are also more common in this population. RLS involves an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, usually due to uncomfortable sensations, which can make falling asleep particularly challenging. PLMD is characterized by repetitive cramping or jerking of the legs during sleep, leading to frequent awakenings and poor sleep quality.

Sleep-disordered breathing, including conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, has been found to have a higher prevalence in children with ADHD. OSA can lead to fragmented sleep and reduced oxygen levels in the brain, impacting cognitive function and behavior.

Impact on ADD/ADHD Symptoms

The interplay between sleep disorders and ADD/ADHD symptoms is bidirectional. Poor sleep quality and insufficient sleep can exacerbate the core symptoms of ADD/ADHD, such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Daytime sleepiness, resulting from disrupted nighttime sleep, can mimic or worsen attention deficits and executive function impairments. This can lead to a vicious cycle where the worsening of ADD/ADHD symptoms further interferes with sleep.

Sleep disturbances can also affect emotional regulation, another area of difficulty for individuals with ADD/ADHD. Poor sleep can lead to increased irritability, mood swings, and a decreased ability to cope with stress, further complicating the management of ADD/ADHD symptoms.

Mechanisms and Overlapping Pathophysiology

The mechanisms underlying the relationship between sleep disorders and ADD/ADHD are complex and multifaceted. Neurobiological factors, such as dysregulation of the dopamine system, play a crucial role in both sleep regulation and the pathophysiology of ADD/ADHD. Additionally, genetic factors may contribute to the co-occurrence of these conditions, as certain genes involved in sleep regulation are also implicated in ADD/ADHD.

Environmental factors, such as screen time and inconsistent sleep schedules, often exacerbate sleep problems in children and adults with ADD/ADHD. Behavioral interventions that promote good sleep hygiene are crucial for managing both sleep disorders and ADD/ADHD symptoms.

Treatment Considerations

Effective management of sleep disorders in individuals with ADD/ADHD often requires a multifaceted approach. Behavioral interventions, such as establishing a consistent bedtime routine and minimizing screen exposure before bed, are foundational. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) has shown promise in addressing sleep difficulties in this population.

Pharmacological treatments also play a role. Stimulant medications, commonly prescribed for ADD/ADHD, can sometimes exacerbate sleep problems, necessitating careful management and possible adjunctive treatments for sleep disorders. Non-stimulant medications, such as melatonin or guanfacine, may be considered to help improve sleep quality.


The relationship between sleep disorders and ADD/ADHD is both significant and complex. Addressing sleep disturbances is crucial for effectively managing ADD/ADHD symptoms and improving overall quality of life. A comprehensive approach that includes behavioral, cognitive, and pharmacological strategies is often necessary to address the multifaceted challenges posed by the co-occurrence of these conditions.

Dr. Kathleen Carney-Sulieman Dr. Carney-Sulieman is a retired general dentist and a certified health and nutrition coach. Nutrition has been a focus and a passion since 2014, after being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. During the pandemic, Dr. Carney-Sulieman used the lockdown time to become a certified health and nutrition coach.

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