reviewed by Dr. Monica Pattillo, PhD, LMFT
The prescription drug Adderall can be incredibly beneficial for people who struggle with ADHD but poses serious risks for people who misuse it as a recreational drug.
Adderall addiction can lead to devastating physical, psychological, and social harm. People addicted to Adderall may be unable to stop using on their own, and many need professional treatment to recover.
How Adderall Works
Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant and belongs to the class of drugs known as amphetamines. It contains four active ingredients:
- Dextroamphetamine saccharate
- Amphetamine aspartate
- Dextroamphetamine sulfate
- Amphetamine sulfate
The FDA approved Adderall for treating two mental health disorders: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.
Adderall helps people deal with the symptoms of these disorders by boosting neurotransmitter activity in the brain, which can help people to focus and produce a feeling of wakefulness.
Specifically, taking Adderall increases the amount of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin available within the brain. These chemical messengers are associated with various effects, primarily:
- Making certain activities feel more rewarding (dopamine)
- Increasing levels of focus (dopamine, serotonin)
- Creating a feeling of wakefulness (norepinephrine)
For people with ADHD or narcolepsy, these drug effects can provide significant relief from troubling symptoms.
Why People Misuse Adderall
There are a multitude of reasons why people misuse Adderall and develop an Adderall addiction. Some people want to feel better mentally, some want to perform better academically or professionally, and some feel pressured to keep up with colleagues.
For someone without ADHD or narcolepsy, Adderall can produce feelings of euphoria, focus, concentration, and wakefulness. The same effects that produce symptom relief for people with mental health disorders can create more desirable outcomes for a recreational user.
Like many other recreational drugs, people may start using Adderall as an escape from stress. And, like other recreational drugs, sometimes people with a valid prescription for Adderall achieve tolerance after extended use, causing them to crave a higher dose for the same effect.
Because of its powerful effects on the dopamine system (commonly referred to as the brain’s reward network), Adderall use can rapidly evolve into an Adderall addiction.
Countless studies have linked substances that increase dopamine levels with substance use disorders, and Adderall’s strong effect on dopamine makes it a drug with a high potential for abuse.
How Dopamine Release Leads to Addiction
Neurotransmitters like dopamine are the brain’s chemical messengers. They carry specific information between different brain cells and play a significant role in our moods, emotions, and behaviors. In the case of dopamine, the message that brain cells receive is “reward.”
Our brains release dopamine through various enjoyable activities; playing sports with your friends, watching a great movie, or eating delicious food all release dopamine within the brain. Dopamine signals enjoyment, encouraging you to complete the task again in the future.
Drugs like Adderall encourage the brain to produce more dopamine than it would naturally. Adderall can help someone with a dopamine deficiency function normally, helping them feel more balanced so they don’t seek out other behaviors that can create unhealthy habits.
But for someone without a dopamine deficiency, Adderall increases dopamine levels much more than everyday behaviors, leading to an intense desire to keep taking the drug over and over again.
In time, the brain becomes accustomed to large dopamine spikes, and people can begin to find normally fulfilling hobbies and activities less and less rewarding. After a certain point, they can only achieve the desired feeling of reward by relying on substances.
Short-Term Effects of Adderall Addiction
People can show significant signs of harm, even after short-term Adderall addiction. The short-term effects of Adderall addiction can appear after a person misuses Adderall even once, and they progressively worsen over time.
Just a single episode of Adderall misuse can lead to adverse impacts such as:
- Emotional outbursts
- Disrupted sleep schedules
- Changes in blood pressure
- Dangerously elevated heart rate
- Feelings of restlessness
- Increased risk of stroke
The risk of more severe harm increases with higher dosages and extended Adderall use. At high doses, a person may even experience an Adderall overdose, heart attack, or stroke.
Long-Term Effects of Adderall Addiction
The long-term effects of Adderall addiction can be devastating and lead to severe physical, psychological, and social harm that can be incredibly difficult to overcome.
While anyone can recover from Adderall addiction and potentially even reverse many of its impacts, the experience of addiction itself can lead to untold levels of trauma, shame, and remorse.
Physical Effects of Adderall Addiction
As a stimulant drug, Adderall can cause people to push their bodies past their physical limits and create immense long-term harm. The physical effects of Adderall addiction include:
- Unhealthy weight loss
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Trouble sleeping
- Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies
- Chronic fatigue
The stimulating effects of Adderall can cause people to lose their appetite, stay awake for days on end, and experience debilitating crashes when they stop taking Adderall.
Psychological Effects of Adderall Addiction
Adderall increases neurotransmitter function in the brain, which can cause chemical imbalances and severe mental health symptoms. Some mental health conditions associated with chemical imbalances in the brain include:
- Lack of motivation
- Intense drug cravings
- Mood swings
- Panic attacks
When people struggle with an Adderall addiction, they often continue to misuse the drug to find relief from adverse effects. This pattern can quickly lead to a worsening of the symptoms over time.
The only way to truly recover from the psychological effects of Adderall addiction is to give your mind and body a chance to recover. Medical detox can provide the appropriate levels of support and help you avoid the physical and psychological dangers of detoxing at home while you adjust.
Social Effects of Adderall Addiction
Like many other misused drugs, Adderall addiction can lead to severe social and occupational impairment.
When people develop a substance use disorder, they often prioritize drug use over other essential responsibilities and obligations. As a result, many lose their jobs, damage meaningful relationships, or give up on hobbies, activities, and relationships that used to be important to them.
These effects aren’t necessarily a result of Adderall itself but the disease of addiction. Often, the social impacts of a substance use disorder are the hardest to overcome.
While the body and mind have an enormous capacity for recovery, it’s often much more difficult to regain a lost job, repair a damaged relationship, or return to a hobby after months or years of struggling to overcome addiction.
How the Adderall Shortage Impacts Adderall Addiction
The US is currently experiencing a nationwide Adderall shortage. The shortage impacts people diagnosed with ADHD and those who have used ADHD recreationally and developed an addiction. One of the critical concerns for public health officials is the risk that the Adderall shortage may increase illicit substance use.
Street Drugs Are Not a Proper Substitute for Adderall
As many people know, Adderall is an amphetamine. While amphetamine and methamphetamine are both stimulants, there are serious differences between each the two. Whether people would turn to crystal methamphetamine to treat their ADHD is unclear; the greater risk is likely that people would turn to illicit sources of Adderall.
Using methamphetamine to treat ADHD would be a terrible decision for most people. Though they are chemically similar, methamphetamine is a much more potent and damaging drug, and it is impossible to take an appropriate dosage when you are unaware of the purity or strength of an illicit street drug.
“Adderall pills” sold on the streets are often not Adderall at all. Instead, they are pressed pills, usually made or cut with illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine or fentanyl, designed to resemble prescriptions.
Pressed pills can have several marks of authenticity that may persuade people into believing they are the real thing, including the right color, shape, and stamped logos and numbers. Some even come in a bottle that looks exactly like the bottle you would pick up at the pharmacy.
Yet these drugs are not the prescription medications that they appear to be. Pressed pills trick people into thinking they are taking a “safer” drug, but in reality, they contain illicit chemicals that are cheaply produced by illegal drug manufacturers.
Recovering from Adderall Addiction
When a person struggles with a substance use disorder, it’s often difficult to stop on their own. Between uncomfortable withdrawal effects, intrusive drug cravings, and a long history of using substances as a coping method, the potential for relapse when attempting to stop substance use on your own is exceptionally high.
Getting professional addiction treatment can help to alleviate many of these symptoms and support people as they build healthier and more productive lives in sobriety. Medical detox facilities can help with withdrawal, interventional psychiatry and neurotechnology can help with cravings, and peer support groups can help you build healthier coping mechanisms.
Decades of clinical research show that the best path toward sustained recovery involves combining evidence-based methods to treat addiction with a person-first approach.
If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North helps people overcome Adderall addiction using compassionate care rooted in evidence-based methods, reach out to our team at 855.235.9792 or start a conversation using the online contact form. You don’t have to struggle with Adderall addiction alone; we can help you find your way forward.
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- “Prescription Drug Abuse.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 25 Oct. 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/symptoms-causes/syc-20376813.
- Lerner, Alicja, and Michael Klein. “Dependence, withdrawal and rebound of CNS drugs: an update and regulatory considerations for new drugs development.” Brain communications vol. 1,1 fcz025. 16 Oct. 2019, doi:10.1093/braincomms/fcz025