- Adderall is a stimulant medication that is used to treat ADHD.
- It works by increasing the activity of the central nervous system, which can lead to higher energy levels, improved focus, and decreased restlessness and fidgeting.
- But Adderall also comes with a number of side effects, including headache, nervousness, and insomnia.
- This article was reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Adderall is a stimulant medication often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It causes changes in brain chemistry that can help improve ADHD symptoms like restlessness or inability to focus.
Adderall is helpful for many people, but can also carry serious risks including addiction or worsening heart problems. Here’s what you need to know about how Adderall works and the risks and benefits of taking it.
What is Adderall?
Adderall is a combination of two stimulant substances, dextroamphetamine and amphetamine. These stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system, which controls pathways in your brain and spinal cord that are responsible for most of your bodily functions.
So, when you take a stimulant medication like Adderall, you may have mind and body effects such as:
- Increased alertness
- Higher energy levels
- Improved focus
- Faster heart rate
- Higher blood pressure
- Decreased restlessness and fidgeting
- Longer attention span and ability to finish tasks
Adderall comes in two forms:
- Immediate-release version: You take it 2-3 times per day. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that ADHD patients should start with 5 mg of Adderall once or twice per day and increase as needed up to 40 mg per day. Children as early as 3 years old can take the immediate release version.
- Extended-release capsule: You take it once per day and it delivers a steady dose throughout the day. The FDA recommends using 20 mg per day and children as young as age 6 can take the extended-release capsule.
Experts think that ADHD may be caused by an imbalance of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Not having proper levels of these neurotransmitters can lead to symptoms of ADHD such as decreased motivation and an inability to focus.
Adderall causes your brain to release more dopamine and norepinephrine.. “The release of these chemicals in the brain increases attention and concentration,” says Gene Beresin, MD, a psychiatrist and director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Since Adderall can improve attention and focus, it can help people with ADHD develop better work habits and skills so that they are more equipped to perform socially, academically, and professionally, Beresin says.
Adderall works for many, but not all. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Adderall helps improve symptoms in 70% of adults with ADHD and 70%-80% of children.
Adderall will likely work best if it is combined with other ADHD treatments, like organizational skills training or cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of therapy that helps to change negative thought and behavior patterns. “The stimulants help tremendously with this, but the skills need to be taught through behavioral work,” Beresin says.
Side effects and risks of Adderall
While Adderall has many benefits, it can also cause serious side effects. Some common side effects in kids and adults include:
- Decreased appetite, which can disrupt proper growth and development in children
- Constipation or diarrhea
If any of these side effects are severe, contact your doctor to help monitor the symptoms. If you develop symptoms like fainting, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, get medical attention right away.
Adderall may worsen pre-existing heart conditions
Adderall can significantly increase your blood pressure and heart rate in the short term, which can cause problems for people with pre-existing heart conditions.
“However, with proper pediatric or medical guidance, stimulants are quite safe,” Beresin says.
Let your doctor know of any heart conditions before starting Adderall so they can determine if you are able to take it safely.
Adderall may worsen symptoms of certain mental disorders
For this reason, you should always tell your doctor about any health conditions you have and only take Adderall under the care of a clinician.
Adderall can cause addiction
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies Adderall as a Schedule II substance, meaning that it has a high potential to be abused or cause addiction.
If you take Adderall as prescribed by your doctor, you are less likely to become addicted. But if you take too much Adderall, or abuse it to get high, you may become dependent on it.
The bottom line
Adderall is a common medication that can be helpful in treating ADHD symptoms and improving the lives of people with ADHD. However, Adderall can also pose significant risks to your mental and physical health if it is not used properly. Never take Adderall without a prescription and if you have a severe reaction to Adderall, get medical help as soon as possible.