It’s no secret that caffeinated beverages are popular. In America, more than 150 million adults drink coffee every day. People rely on coffee because it contains caffeine. But many people may not know that caffeine is a drug.
Stimulants, such as medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), work by increasing the activity of the nervous system.
Stimulants are a group of legal and illegal drugs that include caffeine, ADHD medications, tyrosine, peptides, and cocaine, among others.
In moderation, caffeine use is generally safe in people with and without ADHD.
Stimulants used to treat ADHD carry the potential for dependence and misuse in people with and without the condition.
Caffeine is a stimulant—the same drug class that also includes amphetamines, Ritalin, and cocaine, among other substances. Some stimulants have legit medical purposes and doctors prescribe them to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults and children. However, stimulants (“study drugs”) can also be misused, especially among college students.
What are stimulants?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines a stimulant as a drug that excites or activates the nervous system, increasing the levels of psychological and nerve activity in the body.
One of the most popular and readily available stimulants is caffeine, found in various energy drinks, sodas, coffee, tea, and over-the-counter medicines.
Certain stimulant drugs are commonly prescribed to treat ADHD—and are reportedly used by up to 58.7% of college students. Examples include:
- Adderall (amphetamine-dextroamphetamine)
- Concerta (methylphenidate extended-release)
- Focalin (dexmethylphenidate)
- Ritalin (methylphenidate)
ADHD and stimulants
ADHD is often diagnosed in children but can continue or emerge in adulthood. Nearly 6 million U.S. children ages 3-17 were diagnosed with ADHD from 2016-2019.
Common symptoms of ADHD include hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, difficulty sitting still, talking excessively, interrupting others in conversations, and trouble focusing. People with untreated ADHD may have trouble at school or work, sometimes leading to unemployment, financial issues, relationship problems, and health issues. ADHD is a disorder that is diagnosed by a psychiatrist or other healthcare provider. If you think you have ADHD, see an expert for advice.
What do stimulants do in the body?
Stimulants are known for their energizing effects. These drugs are reported to enhance alertness, improve physical and cognitive performance, and elevate mood. In appropriate amounts, certain stimulants—such as caffeine—are generally safe for people without underlying heart or blood pressure problems.
Stimulants work by exciting or activating the nervous system, increasing the levels of psychological and nerve activity in the body. Stimulants engage the dopamine system and release norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) responsible for alertness, awareness, excitability, and euphoria. These euphoric, stimulating effects are what make stimulants, particularly ADHD drugs, prone to misuse and recreational use.
In people with and without ADHD, stimulants are thought to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in attention span, motivation, pleasure, and movement. In people with ADHD, stimulant medications can be highly effective in boosting focus while reducing hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.
What happens if you take stimulants without ADHD?
Research has shown that taking stimulants without ADHD does not seem to improve cognitive function. However, some studies suggest that students who take stimulants only think the drug helps them perform better. But, in reality, their performance remained about the same as without stimulant use.
If you take prescription stimulants without ADHD, especially with frequent use or high doses, you’re putting yourself at risk for developing unwanted and potentially dangerous side effects.
Possible side effects of taking ADHD stimulants include:
- Changes in appetite
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Disruptions in sleep
- Anxiety or restlessness
Other side effects may include seizures, heart attack, stroke, and physical or psychological dependence. Some people are more at risk for developing side effects from stimulant drugs than others. Because of these risks, stimulants should only be used under the supervision of a healthcare provider for a legitimate medical purpose.
People can misuse ADHD stimulants in a variety of ways. Common examples of misuse include taking or buying the drug from a friend or family member or taking a prescribed stimulant drug more often or at a higher dose than recommended by your healthcare provider.
Unfortunately, other stimulants, such as methamphetamine, and cocaine, are commonly abused. Users attempt to experience the euphoric effects of stimulants by swallowing the medication or snorting, smoking, or injecting the crushed medication. Many prescription ADHD medications, such as Concerta, are formulated to deter misuse and diversion because crushing the tablets renders the drug inactive.
Do stimulants impact longevity?
It’s not likely. Theories exist proposing stimulants have longevity benefits. But, research shows that using stimulants, such as amphetamines, may accelerate the aging process. Stimulants can make the heart beat harder and raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of long-term cardiovascular complications.
Mixed evidence exists regarding the benefits of coffee and other caffeinated beverages on health and longevity. In general, most healthy individuals with and without ADHD can safely tolerate up to 400 mg of caffeine daily (equal to about 4 cups of regular coffee). Consuming more than this can lead to migraines, irritability, insomnia, and stomach upset.
With stimulants, like many other types of drugs, “the poison is in the dose.” When taken in proper doses as part of a healthy lifestyle, many people can tolerate or even benefit from appropriate stimulant use.
Before using prescription-only stimulants for a non-medical purpose, it’s essential to consider the long-term consequences, which likely outweigh the short-term perceived benefits.