What are the Side Effects of Adderall?Anna Ciulla
It is undeniable that high school and college students today have more on their plate than ever before; they have to juggle tests, homework, studying, socializing, sports, clubs, and work alongside the pressures of SATs, college applications, job interviews, and planning for the future. Understandably, many of these young people feel completely overwhelmed, as if there is simply not enough time in the day to effectively deal with all of these responsibilities.
To combat these societal pressures and make up for poor time management, an ever-increasing minority of young adults throughout the country are regularly using drugs, but for reasons other than what you might initially assume. While these young people may very well be engaging in extracurricular drug use for partying, they are now also supplementing their daytime and late-night study sessions with a mental boost infinitely more potent than coffee. As you probably guessed, the drug we speak of is Adderall.
The American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a study that showed nearly one in five students at an Ivy League college had used a prescription stimulant while studying to gain an edge or mental boost. Unfortunately, this trend does not show any signs of slowing down, despite the fact that stimulants such as Adderall can have extremely nasty side effects in both the short-term and long-term, even for those who are medically prescribed. Because of this, if you are a student or a parent, we urge you to read up on the potential ramifications of frequent Adderall use and abuse that can lead to a need for Adderall drug detox.
How the Problem Began – A.D.H.D and Stimulants
In the late 80’s the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This neurological disorder was marked by the following conditions:
- Inattention – Person who is disorganized, has trouble focusing on tasks, lacks perseverance.
- Hyperactivity – Person with extreme restlessness, unable to sit still, fidgets, talks or taps, especially in inappropriate settings.
- Impulsivity – Person who makes rash decisions without weighing the possible ramifications or who needs immediate gratification.
In order to treat this condition, doctors began prescribing children Ritalin, a stimulant that had to be taken multiple times throughout the day. According to the New York Times, “In the 1990s, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of school-age American children were believed to have A.D.H.D., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; by 2013, that figure was 11 percent. It continues to rise. And the increase in diagnoses has been followed by an increase in prescriptions. In 1990, 600,000 children were on stimulants. By 2013, 3.5 million children were on stimulants.”
In 1996, Adderall was introduced to the market as a better, more effective, and longer lasting version of Ritalin. Within a decade, Ritalin had been largely phased out in lieu of Adderall, whose prescription rates rose every single year for nearly the next two decades. While it was effective for those who actually had ADHD and took it in moderation, a shocking amount of young people were using it for nonmedical reasons.
A 2016 John Hopkins study titled, “Adderall Misuse Rising Among Young Adults,” found that 60% of all non-medical Adderall use occurred with people aged 18-25. Of these 18-25 year-olds, a 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health study titled, “Nonmedical Use of Adderall Among Full-time College Students,” found that full-time college students in this age group were twice as likely to use Adderall as those 18 to 25 years old who were not in college.
Adderall’s Chemical Effect on Neurobiology in the Short-Term
The chemical makeup of Adderall is not all that dissimilar from MDMA (ecstasy) or any methamphetamine. For people with ADHD, it alters the regions of the brain that handles impulse control and hyperactivity. While it may seem counterintuitive, for such people, it decreases overstimulation and returns the brain to natural levels of stimulation.
For those who do not medically require Adderall, the drug over-stimulates the brain. Once in the brain, it copies and magnifies the impulses of the neurotransmitters epinephrine, dopamine, and norepinephrine. They alter the brain in the following ways:
- Dopamine – The neurotransmitter that helps to regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. With Adderall, a user experiences massive dopamine rush directly to the Nucleus Accumbens.
- Epinephrine – Also known as adrenaline, this hormone that is naturally produced by the adrenal glands and certain neurons is vital for increasing blood flow, blood sugar levels, and fight or flight responses. With Adderall, a user gets a rush of epinephrine directly to their sympathetic nervous system, which controls alertness, clarity, focus and fight-or-flight responses.
- Norepinephrine – The neurotransmitter released from the ends of sympathetic nerve fibers, which aids signals between neurons. With Adderall, this communication happens at a faster rate and the messages last longer than they typically would.
For non-medicinal users, Adderall encourages the constant release and surge of these chemicals to the brain, thus granting a user extraordinary levels of focus, concentration, and energy, while depressing desires for food or sleep.
Adderall’s Chemical Effect on Neurobiology in the Long-Term
The brain is highly adaptive and reactionary; neural pathways can be rerouted or altered both consciously and subconsciously with repeated actions. In the case of regular Adderall use, a person’s brain can be permanently altered, and not for the better. This is especially true for young people whose brains will still be developing into their mid-20’s.
When a person continues to use Adderall for non-medicinal reasons, the brain is rewired, altering natural dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine production, and the efficacy of such neurotransmitters. As time goes on, the brain becomes less and less capable of producing these neurotransmitters without the aid of Adderall. Naturally, this decreases the brain’s ability to regulate chemicals and communicate with the rest of the body.
The more frequently Adderall is taken, and the larger the dose, the more ineffective the brain becomes on its own. In conjunction, because of this adaptive nature of the brain, tolerance forms, which means larger and more frequent doses are required to achieve the desired effects. This becomes habit forming, which turns into physical dependence and comes with all of the possible negative ramifications of substance abuse disorder.
Short-Term Side Effects of Adderall
As mentioned, for medicinal users, Adderall helps return their brain to normal baseline levels of neural transmitter production. It is extremely effective at counteracting A.D.H.D. and helping them function normally. For recreational users, however, Adderall produces symptoms far more similar to cocaine, except for the fact that Adderall is infinitely stronger and longer lasting than cocaine.
Short-term side effects of being on Adderall can include:
- Heart arrhythmia
- Heart palpitations
- Decreased appetite
- Dry mouth
- The feeling of continually being on edge
- Increased blood pressure
- Mood fluctuations
- Potential for serious cardiac problems
Because it creates this marathon like high, the crash from Adderall can be quite serious since the brain has been experiencing hyperactivity for hours beyond what it is typically accustomed to. In order to take off the edge, many young people will compliment their Adderall use with cigarettes, weed, or alcohol to take off the edge during the high, and to relax afterward. As we’ll discuss later, alcohol’s interaction with Adderall can be extremely dangerous.
Physical Side Effects of Regular Adderall Use and Withdrawal Symptoms
As Adderall use becomes more recurrent, a person may notice that it is affecting their day to day life even when they are not on it. Frequent Adderall abuse can have a host of negative physical repercussions and issues. When a person is not on Adderall, they might experience a host of side effects such as:
- Concentration issues
- Decreased inhibitions
- Decreased motivation
- Disrupted heart rhythm
- Dryness of mouth
- Feelings of depression
- Increased blood pressure
- Mood swings
- Suicidal thoughts
When study drugs ultimately leave the body, withdrawal symptoms may occur within hours, demonstrating both psychological and physical dependence. These withdrawal symptoms may include but are not limited to:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Stomach Aches
- Sudden changes in mood
Cravings and withdrawal symptoms are affected by the potency and frequency of Adderall dosage. It is further affected by the method of ingestion; many turn to crushing and snorting the drug for a stronger and more immediate effect. People who snort Adderall are exponentially more likely to fall into addiction and possibly suffer from an Adderall overdose.
Long-Term Side Effects of Adderall
As Adderall use continues over time, a person could face a variety of long-term side effects, some of which are similar to those mentioned above. When used frequently, it can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system and the heart. Long-term Adderall use can also damage organs throughout the body. Ironically, regular abuse of Adderall can lead a person to develop many of the symptoms of A.D.H.D. or unlock co-occurring disorders such as latent depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other mental illness.
Possible long-term side effects of Adderall include:
- Addition and dependence both physical and/or psychological
- Erratic behavior
- Heart diseases
- Memory loss
- Increased heart attack risk
- Increased rates of suicidality
- Sudden cardiac death
- Unhealthy weight loss
Although a young person may feel as if they need Adderall to compete with fellow classmates or falsely think that using it for finals is not a big deal, studies show that the long-term repercussions can be serious, life-altering, and sometimes fatal. Regular Adderall use and abuse will inevitably and permanently alter the chemical makeup and processing of the brain. Sadly, it will worsen a person’s ability to focus, concentrate, and remain motivated on finishing tasks.
Side Effects of Recreational Adderall Use
That 2009 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health we mentioned earlier discovered some shocking trends linking young people who used Adderall for nonmedical purposes to serious increases in other forms of drug abuse. Full-time college students who used Adderall recreationally were:
- Three times more likely to have used marijuana in the past year.
- Five times more likely to have used opiates non-medically.
- Five times more likely to have used tranquilizers non-medically.
- Eight times more likely to have used cocaine in the past year.
While Adderall is not necessarily a gateway drug to these other drugs, it demonstrates that young people willing to use it for nonmedical purposes are infinitely more likely than their controlled population to abuse other drugs as well. Typically, such drug abuse involves taking multiple drugs at a time or in conjunction with one another. This reflects an all-too-common mindset in young people that there are little to no serious side effects of their drug use.
Adderall and Alcohol
That same study found that those who used Adderall non-medically were binge drinkers, with more than half of the users self-identifying as heavy drinkers. Other studies show that there is a growing percentage of high school and college students who use Adderall as a party drug to supplement their binge drinking, much like they would with cocaine. Such young people take Adderall to neutralize the depressant effects of alcohol, thinking they can drink more and party longer. Sadly, many of these young people are under the false impression that this too is entirely okay and normal behavior.
Most of us understand that regularly binge drinking by itself can be a serious problem that comes with adverse side effects and the possibility of addiction. That said, such heavy drinking is infinitely more dangerous when combined with other substances, especially stimulants such as Adderall. Trends demonstrate that a person who takes Adderall while drinking is exponentially more likely to make a whole host of bad decisions, thinking that they are “sober” or of a clear mind. Further, because the feelings of drunkenness are less amplified, they tend to drink more in a single session than they otherwise would without the aid of stimulants. Naturally, this leads to an increased likelihood a person will experience alcohol poisoning or overdose.
As you can see, the side-effects of nonmedical Adderall use are serious and potentially life-altering. Young people who predominantly make up the population of nonmedicinal Adderall users do themselves a disservice by taking drugs to, “help their grades,” especially when a 2010 study found that there was no correlation between improved grades or test scores with Adderall use; in fact, it demonstrated an inverse correlation.
If you are a parent of a college student, make sure you take the time to sit them down and discuss the possible negative side effects of Adderall use. At Beach House Center for Recovery, we specialize in helping people work through their addiction. We have staff who are specifically trained in helping users work through their Adderall addiction. Our holistic approach to drug detox and inpatient drug rehab programs help set our clients up for success.