Amphetamines are a group of drugs that stimulate the central nervous system. Some amphetamines are medically prescribed to treat various health conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Other amphetamines are used recreationally.
Regardless of their use, whether medical or recreational, amphetamines can be highly addictive, in some cases leading to substance use disorders that require professional treatment. Even when prescribed, then, their use must be carefully monitored by healthcare providers. Here you’ll learn all about amphetamines, including types of amphetamines, most common forms of use, and how to identify them— among still other interesting and little-known facts about these drugs….
What Are Amphetamines?
Amphetamines are synthetic, psychoactive stimulant drugs that act on the central nervous system by speeding up the rate at which neurochemical messages are transmitted between the brain and body. As a class of drugs, amphetamines comprise both legal and illegal varieties. Amphetamines are known to increase wakefulness and cognitive function and alertness. (Taking too large a dose, however, can impair cognitive function and cause other life-threatening health problems.) Other effects of amphetamines can be euphoria and increased energy.
In 1887, a Romanian chemist synthesized amphetamine from ephedrine, a natural stimulant that can also be synthesized. The drug was not used clinically, however, until the 1920s when doctors began to prescribe it for asthma, colds and hay fever. By World War II, researchers had discovered that amphetamines could also treat obesity, narcolepsy and even mild cases of depression. They noted that these drugs could boost alertness and endurance. Today, amphetamines are primarily used to treat health conditions like ADD/ADHD, obesity and narcolepsy— but, because of these drugs’ serious risks for abuse, they are tightly controlled.
There are different amphetamine formulations, which means there can be some variation in how these drugs work (depending on the formulation). Generally, though, these drugs work by increasing dopamine production in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex as well as some other locations. The increase in dopamine accelerates the transmission of messages between the brain and body, sending physical and mental activities into a higher gear. Sometimes amphetamines can cause a release of adrenaline and other stress hormones. Interestingly, amphetamines increase the amount of dopamine flowing in the synaptic gap much like cocaine does but via a different mechanism.
Types of Amphetamines & Uses
There are various types of legal and illicit amphetamines, but they can be grouped into these three major categories, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research:
Amphetamine-based prescriptions fall into one of the first two categories: They are either amphetamine or dextroamphetamine in type and formula. Methamphetamine (better known as “meth”) is a third, more dangerous (and illegal) type of amphetamine.
The more common amphetamines available by prescription include:
- dextroamphetamine (Adderall) – for ADD/ADHD and, occasionally, narcolepsy
- levoamphetamine (Cydril) – for ADHD, obsesity and narcolepsy
- lisdexamphetamine (Vyvanse) – for ADHD
Of course, taking any of these drugs without a prescription is illegal.
There are, additionally, many different types of street amphetamines. (Read on to learn more about these illicit types of amphetamines and their slang names.) Methamphetamine is structurally similar to amphetamine but it is more potent and more addictive.
Common Forms of Amphetamine Use
The most common form of amphetamine use is via a doctor’s prescription for a relatively common mental disorder known as ADD/ADHD. (The condition, affecting just under five percent of the U.S. population, can be disabling and even crippling for some people. Many of them rely on stimulant drugs like amphtetamines—sometimes also called “smart drugs”—to function better at work or in school.) When prescribed by a doctor, these medications come in the form of pills that are ingested by swallowing. (This, then, is the most common method of use.)
Amphetamine pills are not always taken as prescribed or obtained from a doctor, however. While recreational use of amphetamine is less common than legitimate medical use of the drug, amphetamine abuse is more common than you might think. For example, a 2008 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that three million Americans annually were non-medically using amphetamine-type medications. And, in February 2016, Johns Hopkins researchers found that rates of Adderall abuse alone, including Adderall-related trips to the ER, had skyrocketed among young adults during the period from 2006 to 2011.
As for more common methods of non-medical use and abuse? Swallowing pills that are not your prescription or taking a higher dose than what was prescribed are common forms of non-medical use. At other times, amphetamine and methamphetamine pills are crushed and snorted, dissolved in water and injected, or even inhaled in a vaporized form. In its pure form, amphetamine looks like clear, crystalline rock and is most often vaporized and smoked in a glass pipe. This method of administration ensures the quickest absorption into the bloodstream short of injection, which is more dangerous. Meth users also consume the drug in powder form, orally or by smoking or injecting it.
Amphetamines most commonly come in pill or capsule form and in a variety of colors, including blue, orange and mustard-yellow (among still other colors). In many cases, each pill in a prescription bottle will be imprinted with a letter and a number (signifying the dose).
When bought and sold on the street, amphetamines most commonly appear as a white, pink, grey, or yellowish powder. They have also been known to show up in liquid, paste, powder, and crystal form. On the streets, amphetamines are known by these commonly occurring slang names: “speed,” “whiz,” “uppers,” “dexies,” “pep pills,” “bennies,” “ice,” “crank,” and “black beauty.”
The Effects of Amphetamines
The effects of amphetamines—and the intensity of these effects—will depend on the strength of the dose and the particular formulation, as well as individual variables, such as weight, height, duration of use and any other underlying medical issues.
Immediate, short-term effects of amphetamines can include:
- a burst of energy and excitability
- a heightened sense of alertness and focus
- increased heart rate and respiration
- a spike in blood pressure
- reduced appetite
- dry mouth and jaw clenching
- dilated pupils
When used as prescribed for ADD/ADHD and other conditions such as obesity, some of these effects can be therapeutic: greater mental focus and alertness for someone with ADD or a lower appetite for someone looking to control their weight, for example.
When not used as prescribed, amphetamines can have unpleasant, even life-threatening mental and physical effects. These can include:
- Blurred vision
- Respiratory distress
- Cardiovascular collapse
- Memory loss
- Permanent brain damage
Amphetamines’ History as a Drug of Abuse and Stimulant
Amphetamines have occupied a long and fascinating chapter in twentieth-century U.S. history. Researchers have called the years between 1929 and 1971 America’s “first amphetamine epidemic”— the implication being that amphetamines continue to be a serious public health problem that “in many ways … surpasses heroin.” From its humble beginnings as a substitute for ephedrine (another stimulant) in asthma inhalers, amphetamines quickly caught on as a widely accepted treatment for depression and an incredibly popular weight-loss tool. By 1945, the national, per-capita, amphetamine consumption rate for the U.S. was enough to supply half a million Americans with two tablets daily (the standard dose for depression and weight loss).
Despite their dangers, then, within a very short time span amphetamines quickly assumed favored status over other prescribed stimulants like ephedrine— and held that position for much of the twentieth century. To some degree, amphetamines may still enjoy a place at the top of the stimulant hierarchy, as evidenced by the immense popularity of the amphetamine stimulant Adderall and its high rates of abuse among young adults and college students.
Amphetamines When Combined with Other Substances
Amphetamines, when combined with other substances, raise the likelihood of a fatal overdose. In fact, fatal overdoses can be quite common among amphetamine users who simultaneously inject heroin (an act known as “speedballing”) or who binge drink. Both of these combinations involve combining amphetamine with a “downer” (a substance with depressant effects).
Another potentially very dangerous combination is amphetamine with the more potent stimulant cocaine, which can dramatically magnify the effects of both drugs, triggering seizures and other life-threatening circumstances.
How Is Amphetamine Addictive?
Amphetamine is addictive because it causes an exaggerated spike in levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, thereby activating the brain’s pleasure-and-reward center. That increase in dopamine is what causes a sense of euphoria to set in at higher-than-prescribed doses of an amphetamine medication or while smoking meth. This euphoria or sense of pleasure—attached to the behavior of taking the drug—can cause first-time users to seek out more and more of the same experience and go through cravings in its absence. In some cases, the learned behavior and its reward only progress and escalate over time, ultimately developing into the full-blown disease of addiction that hijacks and rewires the brain.
Once these steps have been set in motion, intervention is crucial and professional treatment is imperative. Medically integrated care that addresses the physiological processes of addiction, as well as the psychological, emotional and behavioral components of the disease, offers the best prospects of recovery. FHE Health has had the privilege of helping many amphetamine users get clean and go on to live a happy, healthy and rewarding life. Step into that bright future, starting today: call us for a free consultation. Our knowledgeable and compassionate counselors are here 24/7 and will be glad to help.