This article originally appeared on Tonic in the US.
The scenario: Your friend doesn't actually have ADHD—or at least hasn't gone to a doctor to confirm. Yet when he finds his mind too frequently wandering away from office spreadsheets and into the dark abyss of Reddit, he busts out his amateur street pharmacist skills and acquires some meds to "help him focus" and "get more shit done." It's normal, he tells you: He is part of a sizable and growing group of young people who do this.
The hope: Popping a legal, physician-prescribed, FDA-approved pill in the name of productivity is basically, like, an applause-worthy form of workplace initiative.
What is Adderall used for?
Adderall is a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin work to compensate for deficits, not increase performance, says Eugene Arnold, a professor of psychopharmacology at the Ohio State University. Someone with ADHD tends to have a very inactive prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls things like attention span.
What does Adderall do for people with ADHD?
"Give them a stimulant and they're relatively back at 'normal'," Arnold says. "That's because these drugs hike up the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain's reward center, which helps people feel more alert and attentive and has a calming effect."But wait, your friend protests, Adderall makes me focus too. Maybe, but that might be in his head. "Research has shown that the placebo effect of ADHD drugs is quite large, so you feel more focused because you tell yourself that's supposed to be the effect," says Karen Miotto, director of the UCLA Addiction Medicine Service. A review of 40 studies found that in more than half of the research, adults without ADHD who took stimulants didn't see any cognitive improvements.
Plus, being able to concentrate doesn't mean your ability to learn and/or do things well gets any better. "Stimulants may help with certain kinds of recall and attention but they don't actually boost skills like multitasking and complex learning tasks, which is the bulk of what most jobs have you doing anyway," Miotto says. What is a complex learning task? It's not something like remembering that Kelly in accounting is a vegan, but rather things like coming up with a business strategy or knowing how to persuade a finicky client—and stimulants don't do much in that department.
Still, here's a concession for your buddy: Though self-medicating is never really a great idea, he *might* be on to something. A study that came out earlier this summer from Massachusetts General Hospital found that students whomisuse prescription stimulants are more likely to have ADHD than students who don't. But side note: 20 percent of this group also had both a drug and alcohol abuse problem. Researchers think people who pop stimulants when they are not supposed to might be prone to misusing other things as well. So, there does exist a sliver of possibility that you'll have to STFU because your friend has successfully self-diagnosed and is part of the 4 percent of Americans who have ADHD. But figuring that out would require him to confirm that with a real doctor, who would run a bunch of tests to make sure.
Is Adderall bad for you?
It can be. The same molecules that rev up the sleepy parts of the brain also jumpstart the cardiovascular system—sometimes too much, Arnold says. In rare cases, Ritalin and Adderall can result in serious side effects such as abnormal heart rate, heart attacks, seizures, and even sudden death. Those are more likely if you take a larger dose than prescribed (and you wouldn't know what yours was if you haven't sat down with a doc to talk about it) or have an underlying heart condition. Beyond that, who knows? There aren't any studies on the long-term effects of stimulants on people who pop them when they're not supposed to.
Effects of Adderall if you don't have ADHD:
If you don't need them, stimulants could make it easier to remember something, but they're not all they're cracked up to be in terms of helping you do better at work. You might experience some side effects, though—ranging from headaches, loss of appetite, and jitteriness to elevated blood pressure, palpitations, and insomnia. And you are—er, he is—likely to feel a bit sluggish and maybe even have the sads, since you've just overloaded the brain with more dopamine than it needs, which means all the happy will come crashing down after the meds have circulated out of your system.
The bottom line:
This is not like a Requiem For A Dream heroin habit, and if it hasn't killed your friend yet it probably won't. But given that the side effects of meds like Adderall and Ritalin are not fun and the fact that these drugs likely don't even do what your friend thinks they're doing for him, it doesn't make sense to take them.
If it's focus he's after, you could offer a lame but tried and true strategy: sleep. As Miotto says, knocking out—like, a proper seven to nine hours of sober sleep and not just a bout of drunken unconsciousness—not only keeps you alert and focused, it can improve complex learning.