Ashley* was just a freshman at the University of New Hampshire when she discovered Adderall. She had never heard of the drug before college, but a handful of her newfound friends routinely purchased Adderall pills from friends who had prescriptions. “They told me it was the best study drug, and that it helped keep you awake and focused on your work,” Ashley recalls. One night, when she had a 10 page paper to write, Ashley took her friends’ advice and bought one of these magic study pills to help her concentrate. The pill worked wonders, and soon, Ashley began taking them regularly – even to help her complete menial tasks.
Ashley realized that not only did Adderall help her complete assignments, but it also had one other major use: it helped her lose weight. “I noticed that any time I took Adderall, I just wouldn’t be hungry,” Ashley says. “I could go a full day without putting any food in my body, and I still felt energized.”
Today, as a junior in college, Ashley still takes Adderall regularly, without a prescription; and nowadays, her affinity for Adderall isn’t all about her grades. “Seriously, it’s great, because it basically combats all the beer and junk food I drink on the weekends,” she says.
Many college students nationwide are following suit with Ashley and taking Adderall as a dietary supplement. But while Ashley and many other college students see no harm in it, taking any drug without a prescription is a problem, and Adderrall certainly has its own set of dangerous side effects, especially when used as a weight loss aid.
What is Adderall?
Adderall is an amphetamine stimulant that is prescribed to people who have ADHD (Attention Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD, or narcolepsy, and is intended to increase alertness, concentration, and overall cognitive performance in those who have the disorders. The drug is also prescribed off-label to people who suffer from depression or are obese when no other drugs will work.
While the drug is extremely prevalent on college campuses, it’s regarded as a schedule II drug, which means that it has a high potential for abuse and addiction. Still, many college students have no problem taking these pills without a prescription. In fact, according to a study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 are twice as likely as their non full-time college students counterparts to have used Adderall for non-medical purposes within the last year.
For some college students, buying pills from students who have prescriptions becomes too much of a hassle, so they turn to other means of acquiring Adderall. “In my experience treating students, many times, students without ADHD will mimic symptoms, or say that they’ve had symptoms for a whole bunch of reasons,” says Dr. Kimberly Dennis, Medical Director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center. “They want Adderall for abusing the substance, losing weight, or for the academic edge.”
Many students believe that people with ADHD have an unfair advantage over those who don’t have the disorder, because those students are allowed to take the “miracle study drug.” In reality, however, the drug has different effects on those who are prescribed and those who are not. “The drug is used for people to give them more focus, more energy, and the drug actually calms down people who have ADD,” says Dr. David Kipper, author of The Addiction Solution: The New Paradigm in the Medical Treatment of Addiction. “For someone who doesn’t have ADD, the drug acts as a stimulant much like cocaine. Their libido goes up and the appetite goes down.”
Most students who abuse Adderall don’t know this, however, and continue to take it as a study drug to help them perform better. The “academic edge” might be the initial motivator for taking the drug, but once students like Ashley realize they are losing weight because of Adderall’s hunger suppressant capabilities, they become dependent on it for a whole new reason.
How Does Adderall Help You Lose Weight?
Since Adderall is a stimulant, when taken, it increases your metabolism and suppresses your appetite, says Dr. Dennis. The drug is much stronger and more potent than caffeine, so the effects on your metabolism and appetite are monumental. “Adderall is just like some of the old diet pills that have been taken off the market,” Dr. Dennis says.
Dr. Kipper offers a more scientific explanation for how Adderall helps you lose weight. “The drug produces more dopamine in the brain, which is the neurotransmitter that suppresses appetite,” he says. “It keeps the dopamine from being recycled and metabolized away.” Whenever we do something that is pleasurable, our mesolimbic reward system in the brain secretes dopamine as well. This means that we connect taking Adderall with a feeling of pleasure, and can lead to the addiction.
Adderall Abuse as an Eating Disorder
While Adderall will suppress appetite and increase the metabolism of almost anyone who takes it, those who have the potential to abuse it are typically biologically predisposed toward disordered eating, says Dr. Dennis. But if you’ve never had an eating disorder, don’t assume that the drug cannot affect you. “Some people may not really have been aware of having an eating disorder or maybe thought they were experiencing what every high schooler experiences,” Dr. Dennis says. “That may be enough to really bring out the eating disorder in a way that the person never experienced before.”
Adderall abuse for weight loss in itself isn’t exactly an eating disorder, but it’s a symptom of other eating disorders that we hear about all the time. “Adderall abuse could go along with anorexia to help people restrict their weight,” says Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “People might also engage in binge episodes and then use Adderall on alternative episodes.”
One college senior says that she was diagnosed with an eating disorder as a sophomore in high school, and ended up taking Adderall in college to help suppress her appetite. “I would occasionally snort and take Adderall both for the high and the appetite suppressing factors. Adderall led to cocaine use, in my case, and I was really unhealthy and out of control. At the time, I thought I needed coke or Adderall to prevent weight gain; I was afraid to stop using it.”
Are There Dangerous Side Effects?
The largest risk of taking Adderall is that there’s a huge potential for dependency and abuse for those who are not prescribed. “When you take a stimulant medication, or any abusive medication, after three or four months of taking it, the brain restructures itself,” says Dr. Kipper. “The brain becomes tolerant, so you have to take more of the drug to get the same effects.” Students may start out taking small amounts of Adderall to give them energy and suppress their appetite, but after the brain and body become tolerant, students can take far too much of the drug and become even more addicted.
Taking any prescription drug without consulting a doctor is extremely harmful, and in some cases, it can even be deadly. “Without knowing their genetic predisposition, [taking Adderall] could be playing with fire,” says Dr. Kipper. Without having a doctor go over your medical history and health problems, Adderall could react with an underlying health problem for serious side effects. “If you have any problems with your heart, there are cardiac risks,” says Dr. Dennis. “You could have abnormal heart beats, and if you take too much Adderall, it could be deadly.”
Adderall also increases blood pressure, increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks, can cause seizures and hair loss, and even can cause sudden death. When Adderall is used in excess, Dr. Dennis says it has the potential to bring out obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychosis, paranoid personalities, and delusions. “This is not a benign medication,” says Dr. Kipper.
When taking Adderall for weight loss, not only are you at risk for the negative side effects of the drug itself, but you’re also dealing with the negative problems that come with an eating disorder. Anorexia and bulimia cause thinning hair, low blood pressure, heart palpitations and heart failure, weak muscles, dizziness, insomnia, and can even make it difficult to get pregnant down the line.
One college senior describes the negative side effects she suffered from taking Adderall to lose weight. “I wasn’t sleeping at all regularly, not going to any of my classes, terrible ability to concentrate, irritability, intense depression, major body image issues, impulsive behaviors, and being completely irresponsible.”
While Adderall may seem like the miracle study drug and weight loss drug, the physical and mental implications of taking the drug without a prescription are not worth it. A college senior who won her battle with an eating disorder and Adderall use for weight loss shares her advice: “Drugs should never be used to lose weight – not even the ‘appetite suppressants’ you can buy at the grocery store. Whenever losing weight becomes a matter of forming or solidifying your identity or happiness, it’s a problem,” she says. “Weight loss should never be equated with happiness or a better life; that’s when it’s a disorder and is taking the place of some other, underlying problem that needs to be addressed. When you get to the source of why you want to lose weight and why it’s such a preoccupation or obsession, then and only then are you going to be happy and comfortable in your own skin. We’re taught to equate skinniness with success and happiness – nothing could be farther from the truth,” she says.
Anonymous college students from across the country
Dr. Kimberly Dennis, Medical Director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
Dr. David A. Kipper, author of The Addiction Solution: The New Paradigm in the Medical Treatment of Addiction
Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld, licensed clinical psychologist in New York City