Around 5 million people misuse Adderall and stimulant medications in the United States. While these drugs can be beneficial for people with certain medical conditions, they do pose risks, especially for those who use them in ways other than prescribed by a medical professional. Understanding the long-term effects of Adderall and other stimulants can allow anyone who takes the drug to make an informed decision about continuing use.
What Is Adderall?
Adderall is a prescription medication from a class of drugs known as stimulants. These drugs work by increasing levels of two brain chemical messengers: dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward center, producing feelings of pleasure in response to certain stimuli. It also plays a role in learning, memory, mood, sleep and the functioning of the kidneys and cardiovascular and nervous systems. Norepinephrine produced by the adrenal glands aids in metabolism and increases heart rate and blood pressure for the fight-or-flight response.
The generic version of Adderall is called dextroamphetamine/amphetamine. Its name refers to the fact that it is a combination of two stimulant drugs: dextroamphetamine and amphetamine. Other stimulants that doctors may prescribe as alternatives to Adderall include:
- Amphetamine (Adzenys XR-ODT, Dyanavel XR)
- Amphetamine sulfate (Evekeo)
- Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin)
- Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, ProCentra, Zenzedi)
- Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta)
- Serdexmethylphenidate/dexmethylphenidate (Azstarys)
What Is the Purpose of Stimulants?
The purpose of stimulants is to excite the nervous system and stimulate the brain. Doctors commonly prescribe them for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Worldwide, ADHD affects 7.2% of children aged 18 and under and around 3.4% of adults. People with ADHD often have difficulty focusing and may frequently lose things, fidget and act on negative impulses. However, scientists have yet to determine exactly why stimulant medications like Adderall help to control the symptoms of ADHD.
Adderall and other stimulants are also sometimes taken by individuals with narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that affects 135,000 to 200,000 adults in the U.S. Narcolepsy causes excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden loss of muscle control. By exciting the nervous system, stimulants can reduce these symptoms for some people.
What Is Considered Long-Term Use of Adderall?
Generally, doctors define long-term use of a drug as taking it consistently for at least 3–4 months to address symptoms or manage a condition. In most cases, doctors’ prescriptions are for long-term use of Adderall. While some people grow out of symptoms of ADHD, many people continue to take stimulants throughout adulthood.
What Are the Dangers of Long-Term Use of Adderall and Stimulants?
There have been few studies about the long-term use of Adderall and other stimulants, but scientists do know that Adderall can potentially have significant negative effects.
Changes in the Brain
Adderall causes levels of dopamine to rise in the brain. Over time, elevated levels of dopamine can cause the body to stop producing the chemical and instead rely on the medication for the supply it needs. Once this occurs, people who stop taking Adderall may experience depression and insomnia due to a lack of dopamine.
Effects on the Heart
A rise in the brain chemical norepinephrine due to Adderall use causes the heart to beat faster and blood pressure levels to rise. Long-term use could increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. This is why doctors generally agree that Adderall is bad for people with a history of heart problems or who are at an increased risk of developing them.
Risk of Addiction and Overdose
The changes that Adderall causes in the brain can lead to physical dependence on the drug. After taking Adderall, some people may experience a feeling of euphoria that they continue to seek out, leading to emotional dependence as well. Those addicted to Adderall may develop severe physical and mental withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking it. Some withdrawal symptoms of Adderall include:
- Increased appetite and weight gain
People who take Adderall because of the pleasurable feelings it causes tend to gradually develop a tolerance to the drug. As a result, they need to take more to get the same rush. This increases the risk of stimulant overdose, which can cause:
- Abnormally sensitive reflexes
- Circulation failure
- High fevers
- Muscle pain
- Panic attacks
- Rapid breathing rate
A severe overdose can result in a coma or death.
Do the Health Effects of Adderall Resolve if You Stop Taking It?
Whether the health effects of Adderall resolve after discontinuation of the drug varies from person to person. In some cases, the stimulant may damage dopaminergic nerve endings, making it impossible for the brain to produce dopamine on its own. When this occurs, it may take several months or even years for the body to heal the damage. If the injury to the nerves is severe enough, the brain may never fully recover.
If you stop taking Adderall, your blood pressure and heart rate will usually return to normal within a few days. Any damage caused to the cardiovascular system will take time to heal, and some effects may be permanent.
What if I Need Adderall?
If you need a stimulant to manage a condition like narcolepsy or ADHD, you and your medical provider will need to manage the benefits of Adderall with the possible long-term health risks associated with the drug. You may be able to lower the likelihood of health problems by making lifestyle changes, such as exercising, following a healthy diet and not smoking. In addition, your medical provider can monitor your blood pressure and make changes to your medication if it begins to rise.
People who self-medicate with stimulants may be more vulnerable to the risks of long-term use of Adderall. This is especially true if you do not have a medical condition and are instead taking the drug to help you stay awake, study or focus at work or school. If you believe you need a stimulant due to a mental or physical health problem, talk to your medical provider.
Getting Help for Adderall Addiction
If you’ve struggled to stop long-term Adderall use and have been unable to because of withdrawal symptoms, professional help is available to help you succeed. Sunlight Recovery offers Adderall addiction detox and rehab to lessen the side effects of stopping Adderall and gives you the tools you need to move forward without the drug.