For people diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) are two medications that offer symptom relief. But too many people take these habit-forming and addictive prescription drugs without an official diagnosis, setting themselves up for potential health risks.
In this article, the discussion centers around Adderall, but applies to any and all non-prescribed stimulants and amphetamines. Read on to learn about the potential for Adderall addiction and overdose, the signs and symptoms of use and withdrawal, and other side effects of Adderall abuse.
Adderall is one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the country, and also one of the most abused.
But for people diagnosed with ADHD, stimulants like Adderall bring the brain down from a state of overstimulation to a state of baseline stimulation (where most people are to begin with). Essentially, the drug taps into the part of the brain responsible for controlling hyperactivity and impulses while lifting the fog of inattention and indecision. It helps those with an ADHD diagnosis slow down and be "still" in their own minds and bodies. This adjustment of dopamine levels in the brain brings greater clarity and focus, like seeing through prescription eyeglasses for the first time.
Obviously, people without ADHD will be affected differently by Adderall and other stimulants, often experiencing euphoria and increased energy levels, alongside potentially dangerous emotional and physical side effects.
In addition to treating ADHD, the only other FDA-approved use for Adderall is to treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder with no known cure. Marked by excessive daytime sleepiness, the mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine can help people diagnosed with narcolepsy feel alert and awake during the day, rather than out of it, sluggish and sleepy.
Using prescription drugs for any nonmedical purpose is playing with fire and potentially opening the door to addiction or other dangerous side effects.
Many people wrongly assume the drug is safe because it is so widely prescribed by doctors. Yes, it's safe—if it's your prescription, and you're using it as intended. When taking the medication outside of prescribed guidelines, the risk of developing a substance abuse problem is considerable. Adderall is an amphetamine, categorized by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning that the risk of addiction or potential for abuse is high.
Yes. If you take any addictive substance often enough, your brain becomes accustomed to it over time. In fact, repeated doses of addictive substances can actually change the chemistry of your brain. A tolerance to the drug can form, and over time, individuals using the substance for nonmedicinal purposes need to take higher and/or more frequent doses to experience the desired effects. This is how the vicious cycle of substance abuse takes hold.
"Misuse of prescription stimulants can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD), which takes the form of addiction in severe cases," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "An SUD develops when continued use of the drug causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school or home."
Overdose is unlikely but possible. Whether the orange or blue pills are swallowed, crushed and inhaled as powder, or "parachuted" (crushed, wrapped in toilet paper and eaten to avoid the taste), it's rare to overdose on Adderall—but it can and does happen. According to Healthline, the typical prescribed dosage range is from five to 60 milligrams per day. A lethal dose is 20 to 25 mg. per kilogram of weight. (To put that in perspective: a lethal dose for someone who weighs 154 pounds is about 1,400 mg., or 25 times higher than what would be recommended.)
However, if you're using a prescription amphetamine recreationally while also taking other drugs or medications, it's possible to overdose on less than the average lethal dosage. These drugs can interact with blood pressure medications, antidepressants, cold or allergy medications, antacids and a host of other medications. Some people also experiment by mixing "addys" with alcohol, which can lead to alcohol poisoning, coma or a life-threatening overdose.
Every year, thousands of young adults and college students are sent to the ER for Adderall abuse and its dangerous side effects.
The tablets and capsules are widely known by high school and college students as "study buddies" or "smart drugs." They are commonly used to help students stay awake and pull all-nighters, cramming for tests or writing lengthy exam papers. Adderall can stay active in the bloodstream for four to six hours, and an extended-release capsule can last up to 12 hours. It's no surprise that, according to the National Center for Health Research, nearly 75 percent of prescription stimulant abuse happens on high school and college campuses. What is a surprise to some students, though, is that these so-called study drugs can actually undermine academic performance.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that people taking the drug didn't perform better on cognitive function tests—they just thought they did. While it's true that the task of studying might be more enjoyable when using Adderall (students feel more alert due to a spike in dopamine), nonmedical use of prescription stimulants does not improve academic performance. This evidence—along with the health risks—prompted the American Medical Association to warn that prescription stimulants shouldn't be used by healthy people seeking to improve studying as "they do not make people smarter."
Instead of relying on a risky, potentially addictive "study drug" to help with concentration and mental focus, consider setting aside time each day—no distractions—to rest and reflect. Getting solid, uninterrupted sleep; eating a well-balanced diet; drinking enough water and exercising regularly all go a long way in helping to develop and regain focus. Other stress-reduction techniques include yoga, acupuncture, meditation (like the Headspace app), adopting a time-management method, cognitive-behavioral therapy and taking frequent breaks to reenergize. Plus these techniques don't share Adderall's side effects or risk of dependence.
While it can suppress appetite and speed up metabolism, taking Adderall for weight loss is ineffective and unsafe. You might experience initial reductions in appetite and weight using the drug, but these reductions aren't sustained over time. In fact, any weight you might lose in this way will quickly return once you stop taking the pills. And the temporary weight loss isn't worth the risk and danger of Adderall's side effects.
Trying to lose weight on a so-called "speed diet" can also place a dangerous amount of stress on your heart. According to the health site Tonic, "The same molecules that rev up the sleepy parts of the brain also jumpstart the cardiovascular system—sometimes too much."
In rare cases, individuals who take the drug at high doses without proper medical supervision can put themselves at increased risk of blood clots, stroke, seizures, heart attack and heart failure.
The longer a person misuses the drug, the higher the likelihood of experiencing Adderall's side effects, some of which are permanent and irreversible. The following list includes the most significant side effects from extended misuse:
Adderall's side effects ultimately endanger both the mind and body. Prolonged misuse of the drug will increase the risk and severity of Adderall's side effects. If you experience any of these side effects, please seek help or consult a doctor.
Long-term use of this central nervous stimulant can not only affect physical and mental health, but also personality. In comments posted on Chris Guillebeau's Writing with Adderall blog, here's how one former Adderall abuser described his drug-induced personality changes:
"On Adderall, I didn't like the changes in my personality. I was really focused, yes. But I also lost my empathetic side. I lost my quirk. I was less tolerant. I found myself in more fights, extremely neurotic about having my own way—I think maybe I became more egocentric. I also didn't like the withdrawal. Pretty hard crashes. I noticed everything, I ascribed meaning to things that were trivial."
Taking a dose that is too high can cause a "zombie effect," resulting in a flat affect or lack of expression. "I don't laugh or react to humor the same way," commented another long-term user. "I can zone things out, but I basically feel numb."
Adderall withdrawal can cause an intense crash—especially for individuals who attempt to quit "cold turkey." There's a reason physicians begin with a low dosage when prescribing this central nervous system stimulant. A lower dosage is less likely to cause withdrawal symptoms when medication usage stops.
In order to successfully manage Adderall withdrawal symptoms, medical detox is recommended. Withdrawal symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to months. The risk of relapse spikes during this time as the body attempts to rebalance. Even with a tapered withdrawal approach, serious symptoms and side effects can develop that should be monitored by a professional.
In addition to Adderall's side effects, there are also debilitating symptoms that arise from the discontinuation of its use and a resulting withdrawal period:
It's not easy to admit you might have a substance abuse problem and ask for help. If you or a loved one is struggling with Adderall addiction and you're ready to get the help you need and deserve, Hazelden Betty Ford addiction treatment centers are here for you.
Learn more with our What You Need to Know series. This program is ideal for educating patients and their families, school faculty and staff, behavioral and mental health professionals, and more.