Adderall is a stimulant that has been widely used for disorders such as ADHD and narcolepsy. It is also one of the most abused substances by students and athletes for its performance-enhancing qualities. Understand its uses and side effects, and uncover researched natural options that can increase your focus and protect your brain.
Disclaimer: By writing this post, we are not recommending this drug. Some of our readers who were already taking the drug requested that we commission a post on it, and we are simply providing information that is available in the scientific and clinical literature. Please discuss your medications with your doctor.
What is Adderall?
Adderall, otherwise known as dextroamphetamine-amphetamine, is a commonly prescribed drug used to increase focus. It belongs to a class of compounds called amphetamines, which act as stimulants in the central nervous system (CNS) to increase levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin [1, 2].
Over 3 million children have been prescribed Adderall or other stimulants to treat mental disorders such as ADHD. Symptoms of ADHD and other mental disorders include loss of focus, impulsiveness, and trouble staying still [1, 3].
Adults are also prescribed Adderall. The number of American adults who take Adderall for ADHD jumped 90% from 2002 to 2005 .
Adderall is common because it works efficiently and is often well-tolerated .
However, there are downfalls with stimulants like Adderall because they are often abused. In fact, stimulants are the second most abused drugs by college students.
Adderall use in college students was estimated to be around 2 to 8% per month and 3 to 16% per year .
Adderall is a Schedule II drug, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and dependency. When not being used for performance improvements, it is illicitly used to induce a euphoric high .
Adderall includes a mixture of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine salts :
- Dextroamphetamine (d-amphetamine) saccharate
- D-amphetamine sulfate
- Levoamphetamine (l-amphetamine) sulfate
- L-amphetamine aspartate
D- (right) and l- (left) amphetamine are the same molecule, but they are mirror images of the same structure. It is important that Adderall contain both l-amphetamine and d-amphetamine components as they have different properties and may complement each other in treating disorders like ADHD [8, 9].
A study of 11 children found that l-amphetamine works better in some children and d-amphetamine works better in others. Therefore, having both components is useful because it caters to both types of patients .
Mechanism of Action
Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant. It causes the release of norepinephrine by stimulating α- and β-adrenergic receptor sites. Adrenergic receptors are those that specifically release neurotransmitters noradrenaline or adrenaline .
Stimulating the α-adrenergic receptor sites causes :
- Constriction of blood vessels all over the body
Stimulating the β-adrenergic receptor sites increases :
- Heart rate
- Muscle blood flow
- The output of blood from the heart
All of these effects help to stimulate the brain into a more active state .
Adderall also releases adrenaline in the body, which results in increased energy levels .
Adderall prevents neurotransmitters from being taken up, broken down, and stored inside neurons. This is achieved by blocking transporters that bring molecules from the outside of the cell to the inside of the cell. Specifically, Adderall blocks :
- The dopamine reuptake transporter: It increases dopamine concentrations outside of the cell
- The noradrenaline reuptake transporter: It increases noradrenaline concentrations outside of the cell
This results in increased activity at the next cell, which is why it is referred to as a stimulant.
Amphetamines also prevent the storage of dopamine in compartments within the cell (vesicles). This increases the availability of dopamine for later use.
Adderall also inhibits the activity of proteins that break down dopamine (monoamine oxidase A and B), which further increases the amount of dopamine available for use in the brain .
Individual variations in dopamine levels may be responsible for improving “perceived intelligence” on Adderall. Patients with naturally high dopamine activity may be less likely to experience improvements in intelligence as opposed to patients with relatively average or low levels of dopamine .
In adults, amphetamines take longer to eliminate from the body, which increases its abuse potential .
Adderall vs. Ritalin
Adderall relieved symptoms (negative behavior, academic productivity, etc.) better than another commonly prescribed stimulant, Ritalin (methylphenidate). This effect was seen especially at low doses.
Adderall’s effects also last longer throughout the day, sometimes up to twice as long in higher doses. Doctors prescribe Adderall three times more often than Ritalin .
When comparing Adderall to Ritalin (methylphenidate) in a study of 58 children, Adderall worked better and lasted longer .
Adderall Effects and Uses
1) ADHD and ADD
The drug is used mainly in ADHD patients to increase attention and concentration and decrease overactivity and distractedness.
In a study of 25 children with ADHD, Adderall improved :
- Rates of negative behavior
- Academic productivity
- Staff/parent ratings of behavior
Adderall improved math test scores in a study of 30 students with ADHD .
Adderall is also widely prescribed for adults and adolescents for short-term management in ADHD. It is estimated to work in 70% of adult/adolescent patients. Long-term Adderall use for ADHD in adults/adolescents has not been proven to be helpful [5, 20].
2) Increases Focus
Most people that use Adderall medically use it to increase focus due to conditions such as ADHD or ADD (Attention deficit disorder). Some of the younger generations use Adderall to fight the loss of focus caused by sleep-deprivation .
One of Adderall’s main uses is to increase a type of focus called “sustained attention” or vigilance, which is the ability to stay attentive on a task for prolonged periods of time .
3) Increases Energy Levels
In a study of 40 students, the increase in energy was the second most improved cognitive function right after attention .
In a study of 12 adults, d-amphetamine was better than placebo at increasing energy levels .
However, in rats, d-amphetamine decreased the production of the following energy molecules in the brain :
- Adenosine triphosphate (only at temperatures > 80.6 ℉)
- Guanosine triphosphate (only at temperatures > 80.6 ℉)
- Phosphocreatine (only at temperatures > 80.6 ℉)
These effects were only seen with ambient temperatures greater than 80.6 ℉ .
These studies focus on d-amphetamine, which only makes up a portion of Adderall. Future tests with Adderall need to be implemented for a more accurate representation of Adderall’s effects in increasing energy.
Narcolepsy is a disorder that causes extreme daytime drowsiness. Adderall is a commonly used stimulant to combat narcolepsy, especially when needed for long periods of time. A form of Adderall, Adderall XR, is preferred as it works for longer periods of time and has a lower potential for abuse .
For late-stage narcolepsy (around 60 years of age), the first line treatments may not be effective and Adderall may be the best medication .
5) May Cause Weight Loss
In a study of 56 children and adolescents, the most common side effect of Adderall was weight loss. This was more prominent at higher doses.
Weight loss may also be due to the fact that Adderall helps control impulsivity, which prevents users from impulsively snacking or eating .
Although Adderall-induced weight loss is usually not severe, it may lead to anorexia. A study of 584 children found that anorexia occurred in 21.9% of the children. Similarly, a study of 287 teens found anorexia to occur in 35.6% of patients [27, 28, 29].
In some rare cases, Adderall may actually cause weight gain. A case study of an 11-year old boy saw Adderall use increase the boy’s weight by 8.8 lbs. in 6 weeks. Changing the timing of Adderall consumption from right after meals to 45 minutes before meals helped to normalize weight gain .
6) Increases Impulse Control
Improving impulse control can also help decrease weight .
7) Decreases Hyperactivity and Aggression
Adderall decreases hyperactivity in children with ADHD.
In a study of 18 children suffering from hyperactivity and aggression, Adderall decreased symptoms in 14 of the children. The other drug tested, methylphenidate only worked in 11 of the children and produced more unwanted side effects .
Adderall Side Effects
- Seizures (convulsions)
- Changes in vision or blurred vision
- Pupil dilation (mydriasis)
- Allergic reactions – Symptoms can include itching or hives, swelling of the mouth, face, or hands, difficulty breathing, feeling like you are about to pass out, or tightness in the chest.
- Fever or sweating
- Muscle problems such as spasms or twitching
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Hallucinations (visual and auditory)
- Chest pain
- Extreme energy
- Unusual mood or behavior
- Signs of heart problems (can be fast, slow, or uneven heartbeats)
- Signs of circulation problems (unexplained bruises, numbness, cold, color changes, or pain in fingers or toes)
The following side effects are not as severe but occur more frequent :
- Dry mouth
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss – Weight loss can be countered through other medications such as cyproheptadine or through a higher caloric diet .
- Stomach pain
Adderall may decrease short-term memory .
It may also lead to antisocial feelings, keeping users from enjoying or participating in interactions with others .
Adderall use can cause dependence, which can then lead to withdrawal symptoms when medication is ceased. Withdrawal can lead to :
- Social dysfunction
Some of the mental side effects occur due to too much dopamine in the brain. In a study of 14 patients, 12 patients dependant on amphetamines developed psychosis. This brought about schizophrenic-like paranoia and intense hallucinations [33, 34].
Adderall use by athletes may be dangerous as it increases body temperatures, which may cause heat stress, especially when they exercise for long periods of time because they are not feeling the symptoms of exhaustion and fatigue .
Risk of Heart Problems
The heart problems may be brought about by changes in heart rate and blood pressure that are seen following Adderall consumption. On average, Adderall increases heart rate 1 to 2 beats per minute. As the dose is increased, heart rate increases respectively [37, 7].
Because Adderall can increase heart rate, it is advised to take an electrocardiogram before proceeding with therapy. Heart attacks have only been reported in patients who have not been investigated for heart issues before being prescribed Adderall .
- High blood pressure or other cardiovascular problems
- Severe anxiety
- Tourette’s syndrome (muscle twitches, otherwise known as tics)
- Frequent seizures
- History of drug abuse
- Overactive thyroid
- Allergies to Adderall or other amphetamines
People that have had recent disorders that have caused the narrowing of the gut or liver damage should also stay clear of Adderall use .
You should ask your doctor before taking Adderall if you have any of these conditions :
- Heart or blood vessel diseases
- Kidney disease
- History of heart attack, stroke, or seizure
- Self-history or family history of depression or mental health problems
Tell any doctor or dentist you see that you are on Adderall, as it can affect certain medical results .
Abuse (Non-Prescribed Use)
Due to the normalization of Adderall use, many people don’t consider Adderall dangerous. In a survey of university students, only 2% of users thought Adderall was “very dangerous.” Up to 81% of users saw Adderall as “not dangerous at all” or “slightly dangerous” .
Abuse rates have been increasing in adults. Patients over 55 years of age that have been sent to the ER for amphetamine abuse has increased by 700% from 1995 to 2002. The number of adults that will need treatment for amphetamine misuse is estimated to rise from 1.7 million in 2000 to 4.4 million in 2020 [1, 6, 2].
Adults are at higher risks of abusing Adderall due to the fact that it takes longer to be cleared from the body .
In a survey of non-prescription Adderall student users, 93.5% used Adderall and other stimulants to increase focus when studying .
Students who abuse Adderall report :
- Improvements in mood
- Motivation to work
- Less time needed to accomplish tasks
- Increased physical and mental energy
There is very little scientific evidence supporting the fact that Adderall improves cognitive performance in non-prescription users. A study of 46 volunteers found that Adderall had no effect on memory, creativity, intelligence, or standardized testing, but the volunteers believed that they were improving .
Believing that Adderall can improve cognitive performance may, in fact, help some people simply by increasing self-confidence. Therefore, even if there is no actual cognitive boost, the belief that there may be can improve performance .
This misconception is the reason why many people still use Adderall for schoolwork, stock trading, surgery, athletics, etc. .
Combining Adderall and monoamine-oxidase inhibitors (MAO-I) can be dangerous. Combining these two substances can result in :
- Muscle spasms (hyperkinesis and opisthotonus)
- Fever (of up to 109.4 ℉)
After taking an MAO-I, it is advised to wait 14 days before taking Adderall.
Adderall may also interfere with any of these drugs/medicines. Ask a doctor about using Adderall if taking :
- Ammonium chloride
- Glutamic acid
- Sodium acid phosphate
- St. John’s Wort
- Tryptophan supplements
- Allergy medicine
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Blood pressure medications
- Migraine medications
A study of 18 subjects given Adderall and alcohol indicated that Adderall is not effective in eliminating the intoxicating effects of alcohol. The combination of substances did not improve driving and traffic violations were not decreased by taking Adderall .
In fact, in another study of 25 male volunteers, driving skills were significantly decreased when given Adderall .
- Extended-release capsule (Adderall XR): When taking Adderall in this form, it is advised to take the capsule in the morning, otherwise insomnia may occur at night. The pill can be taken with or without food, but it must be taken the same way each time. XR tablets should be taken once a day. They peak at 4 to 7 hours and last around 12 hours.
- Immediate-release tablet (Adderall IR): Make sure to follow the medication guide that comes with the prescription. It is advised to take the tablet in the morning or early afternoon, otherwise, insomnia may occur at night. IR tablets are usually taken twice a day. They show effects after 45 to 60 minutes and peak at 2 to 3 hours.
If a dose is missed but it is close to the time to take the next dose, then wait until then and take the dose. Otherwise, take the dose as soon as you remember. Do not “double-up” to account for a missed dose .
The different doses of Adderall sold are 5mg, 10mg, 15mg, 20mg, and 30mg. They may be in tablet form or the extended release form. Extended-release tablets are labeled Adderall XR while instant release tablets are labeled Adderall IR .
Children should not be given more than 30mg per day for XR tablets. Adults should not take over 20mg XR a day, as there is a lack of evidence in adults that support the use of higher doses .
In this list, we focus on alternatives that specifically use some of the same mechanisms as Adderall (such as blocking MAO-A or affecting certain neurotransmitters).
We’ve also included natural options that have strong antioxidant activity. Emerging research suggests that antioxidants (like glutathione and SOD) may play an important role in brain health, especially in ADHD [46, 47, 48].
Research into many of these compounds is still in its early stages. Their effectiveness and long-term safety in humans is unclear.
You should always consult your doctor before changing or stopping your medications.
It’s also important to let your doctor know of all the supplements you are currently taking, in case of potential interactions.
Synephrine (or p-synephrine) is an organic compound naturally found in plants and animals, most notably in bitter orange.
Synephrine works in many different ways. One mechanism is the activation of TAAR1, a protein that controls neurotransmitter transport. This activation ultimately leads to an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine. Amphetamine medications also involve TAAR1 activation [49, 50].
One review of over 20 studies including 360 people found that synephrine increases metabolism, resulting in modest weight loss .
In a small study of 25 people, synephrine increased energy use while at rest. Participants also reported an increased readiness to perform and improved cognitive function .
There is some concern that synephrine may negatively impact the heart. It is known to activate alpha-1 and alpha-2 adrenoreceptors, which increase heart rate and blood pressure .
Recent research suggests that synephrine has minimal to no effect on heart rate and blood pressure. For instance, a review of 30 human studies did not reveal any negative effects on the heart [53, 51, 54, 55].
But be careful when buying synephrine supplements. There are multiple forms available and they do not all have the same effect. Check out our synephrine article for a full breakdown.
Tyrosine is also naturally converted into a compound called tyramine. Similar to adderall, tyramine can activate TAAR1, leading to more dopamine and norepinephrine release .
According to a review of 15 studies, tyrosine supplementation improves working memory and information processing, but only in stressful situations .
As far as ADHD goes, it’s less clear how useful tyrosine is.
In an older study of 12 adults, tyrosine improved ADHD symptoms in 8 of the participants. However, all of the patients developed a tolerance after 6 weeks and no longer saw improvements .
Another small study of 7 children diagnosed with ADHD found no benefit with tyrosine .
3) Ginkgo Biloba
For example, one review of 12 studies found that ginkgo biloba extract improves cognition in patients with dementia .
A different review of 4 clinical trials with 1628 patients shows that it also improves behavioral and psychological symptoms associated with dementia .
In an analysis of 21 trials with 2608 people, ginkgo biloba improved cognitive function and daily living activities in those with Alzheimer’s disease .
These cognitive effects are likely due to increases in dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Similar to adderall, ginkgo biloba may affect the expression of neurotransmitter transporters, such as VMAT2, DAT, and NET [70, 71, 72].
4) Asian Ginseng
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), also known as red or Korean ginseng, contains chemicals that may boost cognitive function. More specifically, compounds called ginsenosides have been shown to increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain [73, 74].
A small study of 18 children with ADHD found improvements to attention and focus after 2 months of ginseng supplements .
According to a review of 5 clinical trials, ginseng may improve some aspects of cognitive function, behavior, and quality of life. However, the researchers concluded that the existing evidence is weak and that more studies are needed .
The extract has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, which may explain its cognitive enhancing effects .
A different study of 78 people with mild cognitive impairment found that Pycnogenol improves cognition test scores by 18% .
Research is also examining Pycnogenol’s usefulness in ADHD, a condition that is linked to oxidative damage .
According to a clinical trial of 57 children with ADHD, Pycnogenol reduces dopamine and norepinephrine, two compounds that can worsen oxidative stress. This led to fewer hyperactivity symptoms after one month of treatment .
Another trial, this time with 61 ADHD children, also found improvements to hyperactivity, attention, and coordination. However, symptoms returned a month after stopping Pycnogenol, implying that the extract must be used continuously to see benefits .
This herb may have benefits on cognition, thanks in part to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the brain. Cell studies also show that bacopa is an MAO-A blocker, much like adderall [84, 85].
A number of scientific reviews have supported bacopa’s cognitive benefits.
One review of 9 studies including 518 people found that bacopa improves cognition, attention, and memory .
7) Gotu Kola
But the health benefits in humans are a bit more ambiguous.
A review of 11 clinical trials found no improvements to cognitive function compared to placebo. However, they did find that gotu kola improves alertness and reduces feelings of anger .
These cognitive improvements may be due to the acetylcholinesterase blocking ability of celastrus .
But be careful, no clinical trials have been performed with celastrus. Its safety and effectiveness in humans is unclear.
9) Sunlight Exposure
Improving mood and brain health may be as simple as getting more sunlight.
A number of studies have revealed sunlight’s important role in mood, behavior, and cognition .
One large observational study looked at the effect of sunlight on 16.8k people. They found a strong association between low sunlight exposure and increased cognitive impairments .
According to another study of 109 office workers, sunlight reduces depression and improves sleep quality .
And it doesn’t take much. Just 5 minutes of daytime light exposure can increase activity in the brain, according to one study .
Why does sunlight help?
But other mechanisms may be at play as well. Research indicates that sunlight increases glutamate release. It also regulates the circadian rhythm, which has important effects on mood disorders (especially for bipolar disorder) [103, 109, 110].