The Link Between Tylenol and ADHD

As a parent, you try to do everything in your power to keep your child healthy. Keeping harmful chemicals away from them is essential to accomplish this goal.

You might buy organic food to avoid pesticides. Perhaps a scent-free laundry detergent would be an easy way to eliminate a few unneeded artificial fragrances from seeping into your child through their skin. There are many measures that can be taken to keep your child safe.

healthy babies over the counter medicationWhat about when they are still developing in the womb? Almost everything the mother eats and does to herself will end up affecting the baby in some way. This is a daunting idea, but luckily, most of what we eat and subject ourselves to is benign.

However, there are many things that are known to be dangerous and should be avoided. This list includes drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and many others. I thought it was mostly limited to substances that are already known to be bad for you, but this might not be the case.

Can Tylenol Really Cause ADHD?

The Evidence

In recent years, acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, has been associated with increased levels of ADHD in children with mothers who took the drug [1].

A Norwegian study done in 2014 looked through data on 112973 children and found that long-term acetaminophen use among mothers was associated with ADHD in the children [7].

“Long-term maternal use of acetaminophen during pregnancy was substantially associated with ADHD even after adjusting for indications of use, familial risk of ADHD, and other potential confounders”

Furthermore, another study came out soon after to see if they could replicate those results. Indeed, the New Zealand researchers came to the same conclusion that acetaminophen use in mothers was correlated to ADHD [8].

keep children's brain healthyWhile these results are frightening, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. By that, what I mean is just because acetaminophen use was correlated with ADHD doesn’t mean that it was the sole cause.

However, another study showed that mothers who had acetaminophen in their system after birth also had children with significantly higher levels of ADHD [1].

This study was a bit more objective with their data since they were searching for actual blood biomarkers that showed acetaminophen use. They also found that as the amount of acetaminophen in the blood increased, so did the prevalence of ADHD. In mothers with medium and high amounts of acetaminophen in their system, ADHD was increased by 55% and 88% respectively.

How Acetaminophen Makes It to The Babies

This research is particularly disturbing because it has been found that in the US, 65% of mothers take acetaminophen throughout their pregnancy. The use in Europe is slightly less, but still high at 50% [2,3].

All of this begs the question, how does acetaminophen make it to the babies in the first place? Well, mostly like any other nutrients the baby absorbs. Once the drug is digested by the mother, it is rapidly transferred to the baby through the umbilical cord [6]. It has also been shown that mothers can pass the drug to their children even after birth through breast milk [1].

However, acetaminophen can end up staying in the baby’s body for much longer than adults because of an underdeveloped liver. In adults, acetaminophen hangs around for about 5.5 hours, but in baby’s, it can stick around for as long as 26 hours [6].

This is dangerous because even in adults, the changes Tylenol makes occur quite rapidly in the brain.

What Does Acetaminophen (Tylenol) Do?

Don’t get me wrong, acetaminophen is an amazing drug that helps many people overcome pain and decrease the severity of fevers. It does this by inhibiting prostaglandin synthesis [4]. Prostaglandins are molecular messengers in the body that transmit pain signals and induce fever.

how acetaminophen affects the brainProstaglandins also play other important roles in brain function such as strengthening synapses to help with brain communication, increasing learning, and facilitating brain development [1]. So, it works well in adults and in low doses in children, but babies that are unable to metabolize the drug run into problems.

Aside from what acetaminophen does in its ‘normal’ form, the inability to break it down inside the baby could also lead to other harmful byproducts [1].

Takeaways for ADHD and What To Do

With those potential causes listed, more research is needed to find the exact harm that acetaminophen does to developing brains. Researchers have found other ADHD risk factors such as maternal obesity, low birth weight, premature birth, and exposure to harmful chemicals.

Acetaminophen use will likely be added to that list along with many others as researchers continue their grueling search to help us all be safer. This research isn’t meant to be frightening, but rather empowering. When it comes to your child, you want to know as much as possible so that you can give them the healthiest and best shot at life possible.

So, if you are running a fever or are in pain, by all means, take Tylenol. However, be mindful of the potential damage it can do long-term and possibly mix in some other drugs so that nothing builds up in the baby over time. As always, consult your primary care physician before making any changes to your current regime.

What are your thoughts?

Do you have any experience with this?

Comment below!

[1] Ji, Y., Riley, A., & Lee, L. et al. (2018). Maternal Biomarkers of Acetaminophen Use and Offspring Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Brain Sciences, 8(127).
[2] Lupattelli, A.; Spigset, O.; Twigg, M.J.; Zagorodnikova, K.; Mardby, A.C.; Moretti, M.E.; Drozd, M.; Panchaud, A.; Hameen-Anttila, K.; Rieutord, A.; et al. Medication use in pregnancy: A cross-sectional, multinational web-based study. BMJ Open 2014, 4, e004365.
[3] Werler, M.M.; Mitchell, A.A.; Hernandez-Diaz, S.; Honein, M.A. Use of over-the-counter medications during pregnancy. Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. 2005, 193, 771–777.
[4] Dean, S.L.; Knutson, J.F.; Krebs-Kraft, D.L.; McCarthy, M.M. Prostaglandin e2 is an endogenous modulator of cerebellar development and complex behavior during a sensitive postnatal period. Eur. J. Neurosci. 2012, 35, 1218–1229
[5] Randles, D.; Kam, J.W.; Heine, S.J.; Inzlicht, M.; Handy, T.C. Acetaminophen attenuates error evaluation in cortex. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 2016, 11, 899–906
[6] Levy, G.; Garrettson, L.K.; Soda, D.M. Letter: Evidence of placental transfer of acetaminophen. Pediatrics 1975, 55, 895.
[7] Ystrom, E.; Gustavson, K.; Brandlistuen, R.E.; Knudsen, G.P.; Magnus, P.; Susser, E.; Davey Smith, G.; Stoltenberg, C.; Suren, P.; Haberg, S.E.; et al. Prenatal exposure to acetaminophen and risk of adhd. Pediatrics 2017, 140
[8] Thompson, J.M.; Waldie, K.E.; Wall, C.R.; Murphy, R.; Mitchell, E.A. ABC Study Group. Associations between acetaminophen use during pregnancy and adhd symptoms measured at ages 7 and 11 years. PLoS ONE 2014, 9, e108210

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