Adderall is a very popular medication that is prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit hyper disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Its effectiveness comes from the way it changes the balance of chemicals in the brain. However, this also means that people can misuse Adderall: either unintentionally, because they want greater relief for their conditions, or intentionally, because they enjoy the side effects of Adderall. Adderall abuse is a real problem with real consequences, but treatment and therapy can make the difference between health and addiction.

Book with adderall and test tubes on a table.

All About Adderall

Adderall is the brand name of the combination of two stimulant drugs: amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It is related to the methamphetamine variety of illegal drug, which explains the controversy surrounding the prescription of Adderall, as well as the tight regulations about prescribing it because of its addictive potential. Adderall is a central nervous stimulant that works by making the brain produce dopamine, a chemical that is naturally released when a person does something they find enjoyable. If you do something exciting – anything from watching an action movie to having a good meal – the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction you get are from your brain releasing dopamine, making a mental connection between whatever you’re doing and the satisfaction you feel. The dopamine is gradually absorbed back into the brain, so you move on with your life, but your brain makes a mental note that it enjoyed the experience. Therefore, the next time the opportunity presents itself, you remember how you felt when you last tried it, and you feel compelled to do it again. Learn More

Patients who suffer from narcolepsy have a neurological disorder that makes them unable to regulate their sleep patterns. If you have gone without sleep for an extended period of time, what you feel is similar to what narcoleptics feel as a rule. In cases like this, Adderall stimulates a narcoleptic’s nervous system, so that the patient has fewer episodes of excessive daytime sleepiness. When it comes to ADHD, Adderall helps patients feel focused and calm by increasing the flow of key neurotransmitters (like dopamine) in the brain. The result is that a patient’s concentration and focus are heightened. The key is that Adderall must be prescribed at the correct dosage in order for this calming effect to take place. If, for example, a patient receives a prescription for a dosage level that is too low, he may feel increasingly distracted and unproductive as the effects of the Adderall wears off. If the patient chooses to take another dose of Adderall too soon, the stimulation returns, but at the cost of the patient developing an unhealthy chemical and behavioral dependence on the Adderall.

Risk Factors

It is this danger that has led the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to classify Adderall as a Schedule II substance, for its “high potential for abuse with severe psychological or physical dependence.” The way that Adderall triggers the release of dopamine in the brain is very similar to the way that harmful drugs and alcohol work. In those cases, they forcibly make the brain pump out unnatural levels of dopamine, creating unhealthily strong reactions and hooking the user on the power of the sensations. With Adderall, the addictiveness comes from the intended result of the drug: it’s supposed to make patients feel alert, productive, and energetic. Such results are attractive to narcoleptics, who have to deal with being constantly dazed and fatigued, and to ADHD patients, whose bursts of energy leave them frustrated and without focus. In both cases, the temptation and means to abuse Adderall are high. And with a prescription in hand, this becomes very problematic.

Abusing Adderall

Abusing prescription medication is a massive issue. A November 2014 survey by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids found that one in five college students has abused a prescription medication. It’s such an issue that the problem is “becoming normalized.” Adderall was one of the drugs cited in the study. Forty-four percent of respondents abused the medication because they thought its stimulating properties would help them perform better academically, and 31 percent took stimulants simply to stay awake. Part of the reason for this abuse of Adderall and other stimulants is that many people do not understand how potent these drugs are and how dangerous they can be. A survey of 175 students at a large, urban research university that was published in the Substance Use and Misuse journal, entitled “Adderall Is Definitely Not a Drug,” found that a majority of students believed that abusing ADHD-related stimulants was neither morally wrong nor medically harmful.

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    Adderall’s effectiveness in treating narcolepsy and ADHD has seen an increase in non-prescription use. This can cover people who obtain Adderall from friends and family members (who distribute the drug believing that, since it is a beneficial prescription medication, it cannot be dangerous) for boosting their academic performance, or people who use Adderall as a way to get high (again believing that since “Adderall is definitely not a drug,” it does not carry the same health risks as more notorious substances). In 2012, the Journal of American College Health published a study that showed that the vast majority of college students who use Adderall for non-medical reasons got it from friends who already had prescriptions. The sheer scope of misunderstanding of the potential for abusing Adderall masks the danger. In just five years, from 2005 to 2010, emergency room visits because of ADHD stimulant medications being used for non-medical reasons went up from 5,212 to 15,585, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Almost half of these visits occurred because patients made the mistake of mixing ADHD stimulants with alcohol. That’s because 95 percent of college students who use Adderall for non-medical purposes confessed to binge drinking and combining the Adderall with their alcohol (from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health); and that is most likely because, as such users would say, “Adderall is definitely not a drug.”

    The Ugly Side of Adderall

    The truth is that Adderall is most certainly a drug. When it is misused, it can cause a number of undesired effects in a user, including:

    • Sleep disorders
    • Anxiety
    • Headache
    • Loss of appetite
    • Mood swings
    • Sexual dysfunction

    Chronic or extreme use of Adderall can cause more serious problems, including breathing trouble, cold sweats, rapid heartbeat, fever, blurred vision, and even hallucinations.

    If a user realizes they have become hooked on Adderall, quitting is not as easy as a simple matter of not taking Adderall anymore. After constant exposure and bombardment by the amphetamine salts in Adderall, the user’s brain no longer knows how to function without the drug. Suddenly ceasing the intake of the drug can cause withdrawal effects like:

    •  Depression
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Muscle cramps and pain
    • Trembling
    • Nightmares
    • Suicidal thoughts

    For this reason, patients should not try and quit taking Adderall on their own. The temptation to relapse will be too great, and the danger of hurting themselves or someone around them should preclude any attempt at self-treatment.

    Treating Adderall Abuse

    Therefore, the best way to go about properly kicking an Adderall habit is to check into a drug treatment facility. At the facility, medical professionals and staff members will conduct a full evaluation of the patient. They will find out how much Adderall he is on, what other substances he is taking, and any co-occurring mental conditions they should know about. This information influences the first stage of treatment, which is detox. In detox, the patient is carefully weaned off the Adderall. The process is done with strict medical supervision, to ensure that the patient doesn’t harm himself, and that he can be given carefully selected medication (like anti-anxiety benzodiazepines, for example) to ease the process. Since the detoxing patient is in a very vulnerable stage, doctors have to choose exact medications and offer precise dosages. This is why the information obtained during the evaluation process is critical. The final step of treatment is psychotherapy, which is the culmination of the entire treatment program. By this point, the patient has been broken of her physical craving for Adderall, but psychotherapy addresses the mental craving, and the reasons why the patient abused Adderall to begin with it. A psychotherapist will help the patient understand what those reasons are, and then help her see new ways of thinking and behaving, such that she can better resist the temptation to misuse Adderall again when she leaves treatment. This form of psychotherapy is known as cognitive behavioral therapy, but there are other therapeutic approaches that therapists can employ based on what they feel would work best for the patient. Even though the completion of psychotherapy signals the end of treatment, it is still up to the patient to be responsible for his own sobriety. To that effect, he may be encouraged to join an aftercare support program, like a 12-step group, in order to keep himself accountable and maintain his continued abstinence once he has left the umbrella of formal treatment.

    Adderall is most definitely a drug, and it can certainly be abused. Here at Futures of Palm Beach, we know that, and we want you to be aware of the risks posed by unhealthy Adderall consumption.

    If you have any questions about using Adderall, or if you’re afraid that a loved one may be taking too much Adderall, please call us today and speak to one of our trained intake specialists. We are standing by to answer your questions.

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