What causes ADHD?

by CJ McDaniel // August 7  

In the past, researchers and doctors used to think that ADHD was simply genetic. It was seen as a neurological disorder that is passed down through family members. It is believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain chemistry that is linked to low frontal lobe activity and a high theta to beta ratio. What causes this physiology has for a long time been thought to be only a genetic defect. However, what we know now is that there are many other factors involved that can lead to symptoms of ADHD and an ADHD diagnosis, and we should look at those cause in a holistic way to truly understand how to help someone struggling with ADHD.  


One of the more obvious factors in what causes ADHD is a person’s diet and nutrition. A lot of the chemicals, food colorings, additives, and preservatives in today’s foods can cause people to have certain allergic reactions that show up as ADHD-like symptoms. Studies aside, common sense tells us that drinking red bull, high caffeine soda, eating sugar loaded candies, and corn fructose juices is likely a cause of hyperactivity and the inability to pay attention.   

Another factor is our stress levels. High stress levels not only lower our immune system, but they also led to more impulsivity, emotional instability, and difficulty in concentration. Many of us would argue with that, saying that the pressure of stress helps us get work done. Indeed, this is true, as I can relate to that type thinking back to my college days.   

However, when under constant stress all the time our concentration breaks down and ADHD symptoms begin to appear. In fact, most illnesses are linked to high stress levels. It should come as no surprise that one of the factors that plays a role into what causes ADHD also causes many other problems.


Lack of sleep is also critical. It is shown in studies that individuals who are consistently sleep deprived display a lack of focus, hyperactivity, and a high rate of depression. It is during sleep that our body repairs itself, and when we miss it that greatly affects our physical and mental health. If you have ever gone a week with barely getting any sleep due to one reason or another you will be able to testify to this.  

Also, ones learning or work environment can play a lot into what causes ADHD as well. In an educational or work setting, if an individual is not stimulated, challenged, engaged or generally interested in what they are doing or learning, then it is likely that they will be distracted, unable to focus, disruptive, and lacking the ability to  follow through with tasks.  

In addition, we know that all humans learn differently. So, a great deal of what causes ADHD symptoms is how someone is being taught. If someone is a kinesthetic (body-movement) learner, but is being taught through a power point slide presentation (a visual learning method), then it should be no surprise that this individual will have difficulty paying attention in that environment.  

In a sense, the material is not really in a language that they can understand. Once that material is translated in a way that incorporates body movement, then that person is way more likely to become engaged, highly attentive, and to do very well.    

Parenting issues are believed to be another big factor into what causes ADHD-like symptoms for children. The consistency of rules, cause and effect, self-discipline, and the parent’s own emotional stability can all play a role.  

If a parent is extremely emotionally unstable, not consistent with rules, and impulsive, then it will be difficult for the child to find stability. In time, the child may model those behaviors, become unstable, and display hyperactivity, defiance, and many other ADHD-like symptoms. The effects of intergenerational trauma and/or childhood trauma can also lead to ADHD-like symptoms. It is for this reason that parental coaching focused on parental personal development is so critical for helping ADHD kids.  


Societal issues are also believed to be another big factor for both adult and child ADHD. We live in a culture of constant stimulation: computers, the internet, text messaging, smart phones, tweeting, TVs, movies, video games, Yahoo news, and the list goes on and on.  

It’s fast paced. There almost no excuse to not know something with all the information of the world at your finger tips. There is so much to know, so much to do, and so little time.  

All this stimulation can be very overwhelming, and it is very easy to become hyperactive by it. So many people become work slaves, always having to go do something or get somewhere. Sit in on any meeting anywhere and you will most likely have people’s attention spread across many conversations being had by text, tweeter, instant message, and whatever else.  

We are a multi-task society that is easily distracted and impulsive. Market psychologists are hired to exploit this through impulse buying tactics and the late night sales campaigns. Indeed, when asking what causes ADHD, this factor should certainly be looked at very closely.

Modern culture is so fast paced that we rarely get a chance to slow down and enjoy nature. Lack of exercise can also be a contributing factor as it has shown in studies to lead to poor concentration, impulsivity, and emotional imbalance.  

Finally, the last factor that I will mention in our society is environmental pollution. Air quality, water quality, and radiation from all our technological devices could affect brain functioning in ways we do not even understand yet.  


For decades scientists have concluded that ADHD was a genetic defect that was passed down from parent to child; however that view has changed in recent years. There is no specific ADHD gene, but a rather a certain set of genetic variants that are responsible for specific behavioral traits that people with ADHD tend to have.  

These genetic variants govern novelty seeking, sensitivities, and certain traits associated with hunter and gather skill sets. In fact, studies have been done that revealed that individuals with these genetic variants were actually better hunters and gathers than others without the genetic variants.  

This research suggests that the genetic variants for ADHD may actually have been selected for evolution, and why these genetic variants never went away. We are learning that people with ADHD may actually have traits that are very important for our society to survive the unknown challenges of ahead.  

This is not that hard to believe given the fact that so many people with ADHD tend to have a proclivity towards creative and innovative thinking, and how many successful innovators, entrepreneurs, writers, social problem solvers in our world today have ADHD.  

I grew up thinking that ADHD was a genetic defect, and used to cry myself to sleep thinking I was some kind of mutant. However, as an adult – I am very proud of who I am, and who people with ADHD are in society.   

Given the many challenging problems we all face today – if there ever was a time when humanity needed its creative problem solvers that time would now.

So What Causes ADHD?

I am sure that the list of factors could go on and on. I am hoping that you see that there is not just one thing that causes an ADHD diagnosis. The causes of the symptoms are many, and should be looked at holistically as they all play their part in leading to the negative experiences that one has.  

At first the questioning of what causes ADHD may leave us feeling overwhelmed with a lengthy list of factors to consider. However, all of those variables are ones that we can learn to control, and through our choices we can empower ourselves to reach our potential.  

Overcoming ADHD

In seeking to overcome ADHD we should look at these many factors as perhaps the true underlying issues that are to be solved. A human being isn’t just a list of symptoms, but a complex collection of experiences, memories, thoughts, beliefs, and more. We are ever changing, always growing, and capable of transcending so many of the limitations put on us.     

When looking to overcome ADHD it is important to address each one of the potential causes to determine if indeed there is a genetic disposition or an environmental factor that is demonstrating similar symptoms. While it is important to eliminate an environmental cause – often times there is actually not one single cause of ADHD, but rather a combination of factors that produce a certain experience.    

It is important to address these causes, but it is also equally important to learn to work with the experience rather than spending your whole life fighting against it. All of these potential causes exist simultaneously, and so it will be very difficult to perfect all of them at the same time. You do what you can by improving each area over time, and while there will be improvements you will still find that the traits of ADHD will not go completely away. The reason for this is because ADHD is a genetic variant that has purpose in our society, and so it is very important that you learn to understand  and work with it.  

The most important aspect of overcoming ADHD struggles is actually learning to accept ADHD.  It sounds like a paradox, but it is not quite so enigmatic.  People with ADHD are different, and put simply, they must learn how understand, embrace, master, and exploit those differences to their advantage. It is not easy, but is possible. Many people throughout history have done it, and it is something that you can do as well.

The biggest challenge that people with ADHD face is learning how to accept their differences. In my 14 years as a coach, I have worked with thousands of people, and people’s inability to accept themselves is the number one cause of the struggles. Society makes it very difficult as people with ADHD often do not fit in at school or work, and very often have to find nontraditional ways of contributing to society. We often find ourselves comparing our lives to other people rather than finding out who we are. This unfortunately leads to a lifetime of trying to fit in or trying to be like other people. A life time of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole leaves you with a ton of bruises, a broken will, and a lifetime of rejection.   

It is only when you fully accept your differences and stop trying to be like other people that you will finally come to realize the amazing potential that lives within you. ADHD is a learning difference, and carries with it some amazing traits that are highly needed in our society. Being different is not a crime, and it is actually the intelligence and beauty of evolution to make us as diverse as possible. I encourage people to let go of what society tells them they should be, and learn to embrace who they are. Everyone has strengths and weakness, and we can spent our whole lives struggling to get good at something we are not really good at and do not enjoy. Alternatively, we can find our passions and our strengths, pursue them with everything we got, and go on the greatest adventure of a lifetime to unlock the wonders of how you were wonderfully and purposefully made.

This journey is not only possible, but one that many others before you have walked. Personally, I have completely overcome ADHD, being 20 years symptom and medication free, through making the choices to change for the better each one of those factors mentioned. I eat healthy, exercise often, and surround myself with good positive people. I found the ways that I learned best, and the learning environments and teachers that were conducive to my growth. I discovered my gifts, exploited my talents, found work that was invigorating, and practiced mindfulness meditation every day. I developed the ability, through training, to keep calm even during stressful times. I go with the flow of life, and love every minute of the journey. What is possible for one is possible for all!

About the Author

CJ grew up admiring books. His family owned a small bookstore throughout his early childhood, and he would spend weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. Not much has changed since then, except now some of those interesting books he picks off the shelf were designed by his company!