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How Does Adderall Work? All You Need To Know

How Does Adderall Work? All You Need To Know

By Kire Stojkovski M.D
Editor Jonathan Hoarau Published 08 February 2021
Time to read 11 min

You may have heard that Adderall use can be a great way to boost your grades or performance at work, especially when you’re struggling. In fact, maybe some of your friends already take the drug, which is one of the most common prescription stimulants.

On the other hand, you’re concerned about the consequences of using stimulant drugs for performance, including drug dependence and substance abuse. Is it really safe, or even effective to begin with? Let’s look at how Adderall works, and if there are better alternatives.

Key Takeaways: How Fast Does Adderall Tolerance Build?

  • Adderall is a stimulant medication used to treat ADHD because it increases levels of dopamine, noradrenaline, and other neurotransmitters.
  • The ADHD medication acts through working on neurotransmitter transporters and enzymes responsible for breaking them down.
  • Adderall tolerance and increased acidity in your stomach reduce the drug’s efficacy, which may push you towards higher doses.
  • Adverse psychological effects of Adderall may include increased risk of manic symptoms, panic attacks, and mood swings.
  • Adderall neurotoxicity symptoms come from a loss of dopamine cells.
  • Nootropic supplements may aid addiction treatment by providing cellular protection and enhanced regeneration, alongside replacing Adderall’s dopamine-boosting effects.

What Does Adderall Do?

Adderall is a stimulant medication made from mixed amphetamine salts and prescribed to relieve ADHD symptoms. It boosts cognitive functions to reduce inattention, poor motivation, and general executive dysfunction. By acting on the brain’s reward center by the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline, you are more motivated to work towards your goal.

Tasks that you previously couldn’t be bothered to do start to feel worthwhile, and you no longer feel like you have to force yourself to get started or persevere. While it is a common ADHD medication, these effects make Adderall a common target of

abuse [1].

What Is Adderall Prescribed For?

Adderall is a prescription medication for managing the symptoms of:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Narcolepsy.
  • Obesity, as a short-term treatment [2].

Does Adderall Make You Smarter?

Adderall does not directly make you smarter. The actions of dopamine sought out by Adderall users center around motivation and focus. With increased dopamine, working towards your goal feels more worthwhile, even if you will only be rewarded further into the future. When you’re more willing to make an effort, you’re more willing to study and learn [3].

You may know of dopamine as the neurotransmitter deficient in the nerve and movement disorder Parkinson’s disease, but it plays key roles in learning too. The neurotransmitter increases in short bursts when you revise information, or learn something new in relation to it. This helps to strengthen and preserve these memories, so you can learn without forgetting [4].

Does Adderall Work As a Study Drug?

Unfortunately, Adderall is not effective as a study pill. Research on college students who did not have ADHD found that the positive effects of Adderall were minimal. The only “benefits” were in perceived abilities and mood, so you’re likely to just get a chemical confidence boost.

However, autonomic nervous system effects such as elevated blood pressure were still seen. This can have negative consequences for your cardiovascular health if you already have hypertension and have fallen into Adderall addiction [5].

How Does Adderall Work In the Brain?

Adderall works by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and dopamine. It also increases serotonin, acetylcholine, and GABA.

The drug achieves its effects in three ways: slowing the reuptake of noradrenaline and dopamine back into neurons, slowing their degradation, and boosting their release into the synapses. These synapses—the gaps between neurons—are where the neurotransmitters support communication. Once they have been taken back into cells, they are not functional [2].

Adderall slows the breakdown of neurotransmitters by inhibiting monoamine oxidase (MAO). This is the same effect that the MAO inhibitor class of antidepressants exerts. It also interferes with the function of certain neurotransmitter transporters, and changes electrical and chemical gradients to keep dopamine and noradrenaline where they need to be so they can function [2].

Reasons for Adderall Not Working

The simplest reason why Adderall may not work is that your body has adapted by turning down the production of dopamine and noradrenaline. This is a natural response in order to maintain balance, or homeostasis [6]. However, fading effects may be one reason why many people fall into Adderall addiction, as you feel that you need increasingly high doses of the stimulant drug.

Increased acidity in your stomach can be another reason why Adderall fails [7]. Taking Adderall on an empty stomach, or drinking something acidic such as citrus juice or black coffee can reduce absorption. Even just taking vitamin C (ascorbic acid) supplements can impair absorption.

How Long Does Adderall Take To Work?

Part of why Adderall is a common target for drug abuse is how fast it works. Within an hour, you have likely begun to feel its effects. After three hours, your blood levels of Adderall have already peaked [7].

Adderall Side Effects

how does adderall work

Adderall has a range of neurological, cardiovascular, and other side effects. Common issues include mood swings, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and even panic attacks at larger doses [7]. To make things worse, Adderall withdrawal symptoms can push you to keep abusing Adderall.

Adderall Side Effects in Females

Adderall and pregnancy do not mix well. High blood pressure, one of the side effects of Adderall, can be associated with preeclampsia. This is a life-threatening pregnancy complication for you and your baby. Substance abuse with Adderall can also lead to premature birth. Therefore, it is best to avoid Adderall and other substances that may raise your blood pressure [8].

Adderall abuse may theoretically be riskier in women due to having a lower body weight on average compared to men. As you would not be using the stimulant drugs under supervision, you may suffer more adverse effects, since you could be taking the same dose as a man.

Adderall Neurotoxicity

Long-term Adderall abuse is toxic to the central nervous system. Commonly-used doses of Adderall lead to degeneration of dopamine nerve terminals and a loss of dopamine receptors. In primates taking real-world amounts of the drug, their production of dopamine and its transporters significantly declined [9].

The only upside to this is that children seem to be more resilient. As kids are more likely to take ADHD medications, we can at least say that they are spared from some long-term Adderall dangers, particularly its neurotoxic effects.

Adderall neurotoxicity can even come from cycling on and off the drug. The sudden fall in dopamine you experience from missing a dose triggers a rise in the stress hormone cortisol. This contributes to drug cravings and the withdrawal symptoms seen in the Adderall crash. Cortisol damages your already-matured neurons, and impairs the growth of new ones [10] [11].

Even short-term abuse of stimulant medications can lead to neurotoxic effects. Known risks of Adderall use include the development or worsening of manic and psychotic (schizophrenia-like) symptoms. If you have any personal or family history of bipolar disorder or any psychotic mental illnesses, your doctor may not prescribe you Adderall at all as it’s too risky [7].

Additionally, Adderall tolerance mostly concerns the dopamine and noradrenaline signaling systems. Your sensitivity to the drug’s ability to boost serotonin may remain unchanged, putting you at risk of serotonin syndrome if you increase your Adderall dose [9].

Serotonin syndrome is a consequence of heavy Adderall misuse that we don’t typically associate with stimulant medications. It features symptoms involving the autonomic nervous system, including sweating, rapid heart rate, and vomiting. Other symptoms include confusion, agitation, overactive reflexes, and excessively tense muscles [12].

Best Adderall Alternatives

The best alternatives to stimulant drug use are nootropic supplements, often referred to as “OTC Adderall”, or natural Adderall. Our two top picks are Mind Lab Pro and Performance Lab Mind. These are generally safer than pharmaceuticals, but seek your doctor’s advice if you are in a medical detox program after long-term physical dependence.

A quality nootropic will not only increase dopamine and noradrenaline but also protect your brain tissue from oxidative stress and support blood flow and cellular regeneration. This may assist in addiction treatment after heavy Adderall use. Nootropics are not over-stimulating either.

If mixing Adderall and caffeine is too much for you, but you miss coffee, you can be reunited with your favorite Starbucks order once more.

Mind Lab Pro

how does adderall work

Mind Lab Pro is a nootropic stack of 11 ingredients aimed at supporting brain health from all angles. While some ingredients such as tyrosine give you a dopamine boost, others, including lion’s mane extract and Rhodiola rosea extract, assist brain cell regeneration. This is often the missing piece of addiction treatment: repairing the damage from amphetamine exposure.

The regenerative role of lion’s mane centers around an increase in growth factors that promote the division and development of neural stem cells into mature brain cells. Rhodiola rosea plays a protective role, lowering levels of cortisol so it does not impair regeneration. As a result, both have shown benefits in mental health [13].

Performance Lab

how does adderall work

Performance Lab Mind is a simpler nootropic stack, with an emphasis on four key ingredients. These each play multiple roles in supporting your immediate and long-term brain health.

For example, maritime pine bark extract is both an antioxidant and circulatory stimulant. While it doesn’t boost blood flow on its own, the extract does restore your blood vessels’ sensitivity to chemical signals to widen. This means more oxygen and nutrient flow to your brain, while the cells are protected against damage [14].


What are the most important things we need to know about how Adderall works?

How Does Adderall Work on Someone Without ADHD?

Like people with ADHD, Adderall increases the levels of dopamine, noradrenaline, and other neurotransmitters in your brain. However, it has little to no benefit on your cognitive function if you don’t suffer from ADHD.

How Can I Get Adderall?

Adderall and other pharmaceutical central nervous system stimulants, such as Ritalin, are prescription drugs. You cannot legally purchase it without a prescription. Some people buy it illegally from a person with a prescription who is selling the drug onwards, but this is dangerous. Not only is it illegal, but you have no access to support if you suffer from severe side effects.

What Does Adderall Do to a Normal Person?

Adderall provides no significant benefit to a normal person, apart from a mood-lifting effect and higher perceived performance. You can still experience the negative side effects, however, from mood swings to trouble sleeping. Adderall abuse could be one of the most “expensive” highs you will get, as some side effects are very dangerous.

Should I Take Adderall If I Have High Blood Pressure?

As Adderall use raises blood pressure, we do not recommend that you try it if you already have hypertension or are at risk for other cardiovascular complications. You do not have medical support when you buy prescription drugs illegally.

How Does Adderall Make You Feel if You have ADHD?

If you suffer from ADHD, Adderall should make you feel more focused and motivated to achieve your goals. If you need Adderall, you could expect to finally feel like quitting your favorite procrastination tools (or enjoying them at the appropriate time) and getting to work.

Why Does Adderall Calm Me Down?

Adderall may make you feel calmer because of increased productivity. When you’re better able to finish assignments on time or meet your clients’ or boss’s deadlines, you most likely feel less stressed.

How Long Does Adderall Last?

A dose of immediate-release Adderall will last for up to 5-6 hours. The extended-release variant, Adderall XR, lasts much longer and only needs to be taken once a day.

Can You be Denied Employment for Adderall?

No, not when you have a doctor’s prescription. Being a prescribed drug, all you have to do is prove that you are taking it under a physician’s instruction. Without such evidence, the employer is legally at liberty to treat you as an employee abusing illegal substances. To be safe, double-check with your state-specific laws.


Adderall is a powerful dopamine and noradrenaline boosting drug, preventing their breakdown while enhancing their release into the synapses. However, even though taking Adderall as a study pill may sound like a good idea, it’s not worthwhile if you don’t have ADHD.

Neurological side effects including increased risk of mania or psychosis, and possibly long-term damage to your dopamine pathways, mean we need alternatives. Nootropic supplements may thankfully be the answer.


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