“The study drug,” “speed,” “uppers”—these are all slang terms for Adderall, which is a brand name for the combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine. Although the misuse of Adderall has gained attention in the media in recent years, the substances it’s made of are nowhere near new.
College campuses play a particularly important role in understanding Adderall use, which is probably not a surprise since most people do in fact think of it as/call it the “study drug.” There are a lot of reasons for these nicknames, though, reasons going back to the turn of the century.
Before we get too far into what Adderall is and the side effects it can produce, it’s important to remember it can be used safely. There are a lot of people who get great benefits from an Adderall prescription. When someone follows their doctor’s directions they can utilize Adderall to overcome certain struggles in their life.
Adderall should never be prescribed for weight loss or for someone who just wants to study for a test more effectively. We will cover the reasons Adderall is appropriately prescribed, as well as reasons it is diverted or misused, and then discuss how the side effects of Adderall can appear.
From Over The Counter To Overdose
Amphetamine was discovered over 100 years ago as scientists were attempting to find a cheaper alternative to utilizing ephedrine. If ephedrine sounds familiar it may be because pseudoephedrine is utilized in creating some versions of meth.
After amphetamine was found and synthesized an official version hit the streets via prescriptions including, as we’ll see with Adderall, what is called diversion. That means someone is written a prescription for a specific medication and then either sell it, gives it away, or it is stolen in order to be used inappropriately.
The brand name for prescription amphetamine in the early 20th century was Benzedrine® which is why another slang term for amphetamines is “bennies.” Early use of Benzedrine was shown to attempt to help some of the same disorders Adderall is prescribed to treat, including narcolepsy.
As scientists continued to experiment with the chemical makeup of amphetamine they eventually synthesized another version. This one was called dextroamphetamine. Dextroamphetamine is nearly identical to an amphetamine molecule but is different enough to be more powerful.
After this, Dexedrine® was introduced in 1937 and produced heightened effects due to being more powerful than the previous version of amphetamine. It’s shocking to know now, but both Benzedrine and Dexedrine were available for unrestricted sale until 1939. That’s only the beginning of the shocking history of amphetamines in the U.S., however.
Lifting The Mental Fog With Amphetamines
Right around the time amphetamine was being used openly and sold freely, scientists noticed the effects it was having on what they called “cognitive enhancements.” It was helping people focus and seemingly do better than they could have done previously on intelligence tests.
These effects were seen as magnificent and nothing to worry about. In fact, amphetamine was seen as so beneficial it was distributed to American and British military members during World War II. One study estimated around 150 million Benzedrine pills were handed out to soldiers.
Even more noteworthy is that seemingly no one was reporting on the potentially addictive effects of amphetamine use. Soldiers were using it to stay awake, alert, and as mentally sharp as possible. When the scope of WWII is considered, along with its years of active combat, this means doctors were writing prescriptions and essentially diverting the medication themselves.
Another first for amphetamine occurred in the late 1930s, this one related to children.
The Contradiction Of Using Amphetamine To Calm Down
Amphetamine is a stimulant. That’s one of the reasons the term “upper” is given to the substance: because it makes someone feel more energetic and alert. The opposite of stimulants are depressants, which are sometimes called “downers.”
In 1937 a scientist conducted a study with children who were deemed to have “behavioral problems.” He prescribed 30 children Benzedrine (amphetamine) and monitored their behavior over the course of a week. Half of the group had significant changes to behavior and cognition, including a calmer demeanor and ability to focus.
Where the contradiction comes into play with amphetamine is when a prescription is written for a person—usually a child—with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As the names of those disorders show, they’re present in kids who have trouble focusing and/or trouble with higher levels of physical and mental activity.
Essentially, what that means is the people struggling with ADD or ADHD have a problem with stimulation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define them both as “neurodevelopmental” disorders that can come with the following symptoms:
- Excessive daydreaming
- Regularly losing and/or forgetting things
- Constant motion, like squirming and/or fidgeting
- Excessive talking
- Taking unnecessary risks and making avoidable mistakes
- Struggling with resisting temptation
- Struggle to take turns
- Having a hard time getting along with other children
How Adderall Can Help With ADHD
Scientists have been studying ADHD for quite a while now and, although they do know Adderall can help, they are not exactly sure why. There are theories, however. One of them has to do with how ADHD affects the brain and how Adderall fits into that scenario.
A person with ADHD (adults can be diagnosed as well) is responding to signals from their brain to their central nervous system (CNS). They’re being told by these things that they aren’t stimulated, that they should seek out stimulation. Think of it as the brain shouting “Hey! Go do something, get up, go look at that, no wait, go look at that now!”
Some scientists and experts think Adderall satisfies that urge by affecting certain naturally occurring chemicals in the brain. The first chemical is dopamine, which you will most likely see referenced as the “reward” chemical in the brain.
We experience dopamine when we have done something pleasing. The “reward” of dopamine makes it more likely we’ll do that specific thing again to produce the pleasure. Adderall increases dopamine which scientists think also allows someone to focus.
Rather than seeking out stimulation, someone with ADHD who is prescribed Adderall will feel stimulated enough to relax. Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline and controls alertness by affecting the body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS). That’s where humans feel the “fight or flight” sensation.
“Fight or flight” is what happens in our bodies/brains when an overstimulating situation shows up. Maybe it’s a car wreck, or maybe it’s coming face-to-face with a dangerous wild animal—the body uses epinephrine to prepare you for needing to run or to fight for your life.
Norepinephrine does similar things but can last in the body much longer than epinephrine. All of these things combined create focus and calm in someone with ADHD. It seems impossible since the person is already struggling with stimulation, but the concept is Adderall supplies that stimulation.
Of course, there is much more to how the body reacts to Adderall. Not only are there side effects to consider, but what happens to someone who is not struggling with ADHD or narcolepsy when they take Adderall?
How Adderall Addiction Develops
When someone’s brain interacts with Adderall and their dopamine levels are increased, they could potentially become addicted to this. However, when the drug is taken as prescribed and not diverted or misused, addiction isn’t necessarily too worrisome for most doctors.
Some doctors point out that low doses of Adderall can have less of a euphoric effect than higher doses. Because of this, if someone is getting Adderall from a licensed physician they will have the benefit of being medically monitored, and at less risk of addiction.
The sensations associated with dopamine (which, remember, is called the “reward” chemical) can play into possible addiction. For someone who isn’t diagnosed with ADHD and so isn’t in need of any more stimulation, they are basically adding more stimulation than their body can handle.
“I would experience this [focus and euphoria] again and again over the next two years, whenever I could get my hands on Adderall on campus,” Casey Schwartz said in her New York Times (NYT) article and followed up with, “which was frequently, but not, I began to feel, frequently enough.”
Schwartz goes on to explain how she suffered an anxiety attack brought on by taking more and more Adderall to achieve the same effects, which is called dependence. That eventually turned into an addiction, her desire for the medication occurring as a “need” in her brain.
When a person is taking Adderall they can feel focused or even “smarter,” and that sense of control can be very powerful. In her NYT article, Casey Schwartz described this by saying, “I had long been telling myself that by taking Adderall, I was exerting total control over my fallible self, but in truth, it was the opposite: the Adderall made my life unpredictable.”
She talked about her brain’s need for the dopamine that was flooding into her brain due to the Adderall, and how her brain (like all other human brains) began to compensate by supplying less of it naturally. It begins a cycle that can feel impossible to control.
That, along with some of the other effects of Adderall, leads to how it can become addictive. But Adderall comes with a long list of potential side effects, some mildly severe and others incredibly dangerous and even life-threatening.
Some people actually seek out some of Adderall’s side effects, however.
There Are A Lot Of Possible Side Effects From Adderall
Although Adderall has a long list of side effects, keep this in mind: if you are taking a prescription for Adderall your doctor will be monitoring your health. It’s important to remember it can be completely safe to take Adderall and it helps a lot of people.
Side effects can play a role in someone’s life who is taking the medication exactly as prescribed, just like they can play a role in the life of someone who is taking them without a prescription. Some of these side effects are mild and some are severe. Some are even life-threatening.
Mild Adderall Side Effects
Most of these mild side effects are going to be familiar to someone who is taking some sort of prescription medication. For starters, headaches and constipation or diarrhea appear on the label for quite a few other medications.
Side effects like increased levels of anxiety and nervousness are connected to how Adderall is affecting someone’s nervous system. A change in sexual stamina and even the desire for sexual interaction is possible, which is a side effect you will often see listed alongside antidepressants.
Nausea is also common, as are excessively painful menstrual cramps, dry mouth, and weight loss. Weight loss in particular is one of the side effects people who are taking Adderall without a prescription might be seeking. Taking Adderall for weight loss alone is dangerous, though, and for reasons, you are about to see.
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Severe Adderall Side Effects
The list of severe side effects is long. Doctors and experts recommend anyone experiencing one or more of these symptoms while on Adderall should call a doctor immediately. If you are taking Adderall without a prescription you could be significantly endangering yourself.
Severe Adderall side effects include
- Slurred speech and/or having trouble speaking
- A feeling of numbness or weakness in a leg or arm
- Depression—Adderall has been shown to potentially affect clinical depression and bipolar disorder, worsening the symptoms of both
- Grinding your teeth
- A heightened sense of paranoia and potentially feeling a change, in reality, thinking and/or believing things that are not actually real
- Visual or auditory hallucinations
- Developing tics of speech or fine motor skills, such as in the hands or in the face
- Fever (sweating, shaking, etc.)
- Heightened heart rate
- Stiff muscles
- Decreased coordination
- Manic episodes
- Blurry vision or general changes in sight
- A blue color of the toes or fingers
- Random and inexplicable wounds appearing on the hands and/or feet
- Blisters and skin cracking or peeling
- Itching and hives
- Random swelling, especially of the face, and particularly in the eyes, tongue, and/or throat
- Struggling to breathe or swallow
The most severe side effect is potential death, which is in fact scary, but there are some very specific situations in which that is possible. For people with heart defects, the likelihood of heart attack or sudden death is higher, in children, teens, and adults.
Because Adderall can speed up someone’s heart rate a person who is already struggling with maintaining a healthy heart rate could be at a higher risk of a heart attack. Doctors caution to watch for shortness of breath, chest pain and fainting as signs of a serious problem.
It is possible to overdose on Adderall and it is specifically possible when considering someone misusing the medication. Almost all Adderall tablets/pills are created as time-release, meaning they are ingested and the medication then enters the body over an extended period of time.
If someone crushes the pills in order to inhale/snort or even smoke them, the likelihood of overdose rises. That’s because the amount of the medication the body would be getting in a very short period of time would be much too high.
Many of the signs of Adderall overdose are similar to the side effects of taking Adderall, which further complicates the situation of someone taking Adderall without a prescription. They can include:
- Weak muscles
- Anxiety/panic attacks
- Fever or temperature spikes
- Excessive or uncontrollable shaking
- Dark urine
- Blurred vision
Another difficult aspect is that everyone is different, meaning some people could overdose on much smaller amounts of Adderall. If someone has overdosed on Adderall call 911 immediately. The dangers associated with overdose are very real, including coma and even death.
Most importantly, if you know someone who is taking Adderall without a prescription and struggling with stopping, there is treatment available. Trying to quit “cold turkey” is not a helpful strategy for most people, and can lead to longer struggles with relapse, not to mention produce dangerous side effects from suddenly stopping the use of a drug or substance.
When it’s time to get treatment, finding the right situation and location is the best way to go about it. Taking all information and circumstances into consideration is key. You want the person struggling to be as well taken care of as possible.
Getting Treatment For Adderall Addiction
Struggling with addiction, potential side effects, and withdrawal from a drug or substance is all very scary. When someone enters an addiction treatment facility to address these things they should be well taken care of and remain safe and comfortable.
Vertava Health of Mississippi has a world-class, medically-supervised detox program that will begin the recovery process safely and efficiently. A person who is struggling with Adderall addiction will need a safe environment to navigate their body’s reaction to no longer having the medication.
Not only is a medically-supervised detox important, but a holistic approach to treatment is as well. It is not only a person’s body responding to detox, but also their mind. Vertava Health of Mississippi makes sure to treat all aspects of our clients, body, and mind.
We use evidence-based treatments like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a well-researched and reliable form of therapy, to address all the things that go into struggling with addiction. And because everyone is different, and struggles in different ways, we do individual assessments to ensure we’re not relying on a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Also, we know treatment doesn’t begin and end with detox and inpatient rehab. That’s why we have our evening intensive outpatient program (IOP). It’s a program that allows people to continue working, living at home, and continue focusing on their future.
Call Vertava Health Of Mississippi Today
Recovery is possible. Our treatment facility uses the strength of the clients we see; it focuses on their resilience and helps them realize how powerful they are. It’s our mission to help everyone we see begin their lifelong journey into recovery.
When it’s time for someone to begin recovery, or even when it’s time to ask questions about recovery, we want you to know we are here for whatever you need. Call us at 844-551-7335 any day of the week, at any time. Whether you are calling for yourself or a loved one, we’re ready to talk.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Does Adderall Do To Your Brain?
Adderall affects three specific chemicals that are naturally produced in the brain: dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. First, dopamine can lead to feeling euphoria but also help maintain focus. Epinephrine interacts with and affects the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls how alert a person may be, and can also increase the ability to focus. As a side effect, it may also make a person want to eat less. Essentially, Adderall can have the effect of focusing your brain and giving you a feeling of higher energy.
What Should I Avoid While Taking Adderall?
If you are taking Adderall because it’s been prescribed to you, your doctor will most likely have given you an information sheet detailing the medications that might interact with the drug. If not, call your doctor and ask for that information. If you are taking Adderall without a prescription you should stop doing so immediately. One of the reasons why is that Adderall can lead to sudden death in people with certain heart defects, and without a medical professional doing an exam on you, the dangers are higher than you want to risk.
What Are The Most Common Side Effects Of Adderall?
There are a lot of side effects, and they will differ from person to person, normally. Some of the most common ones are decreased appetite, dry mouth, headache, increased levels of anxiety, and sexual side effects including decreased sex drive or difficulties performing. It’s also important to remember the long list of side effects includes things that are also possible when someone has overdosed on Adderall. It is a drug that should never be taken without a prescription and regular visits to a medical professional for checkups.
What Does Adderall Do To Your Body?
Aside from the effects on the brain listed above, and including a decreased appetite, Adderall has a massive list of potential side effects on the body and mind, some of them dangerous or even life-threatening. They include: headache, decreased sex drive or sexual ability, intensely painful menstrual cramps, dry mouth, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, sudden weight loss, and anxiety/nervousness. The more serious side effects include weak/numb arm or leg sensation, seizures, verbal or motor tics, grinding of teeth, depression, heightened suspicion/paranoia, visual or auditory hallucinations, and a lot more. Adderall has also been shown to cause sudden death in children and teenagers, but particularly in those who have heart defects. This can also affect adults with heart defects.