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Anyone who has spent time in a competitive academic setting has probably heard about amphetamines and the rumor that they boost student performance. That is because hardcore, studious types and last-minute procrastinators alike often use so-called “smart” or “study” drugs like Adderall for this very purpose.
But do these medications really help you study better and are they safe? Those who have grown up regularly seeing these drugs in high school and college settings may think so—especially when these substances are quite popular on campuses. One study found that around seven percent of students use study drugs. Another study, this one limited to the liberal arts school in Maine, Bates College, found 30 percent of the student body was using these drugs. Meanwhile, around half of students with legitimate prescriptions have said they have felt pressured to sell their meds for recreational purposes.
The popularity of these drugs, including among high-achieving students who don’t use other drugs of abuse, can make these drugs appear safe. Many students can then be led to believe that using study drugs is a safe way to make learning more effective. However, this isn’t the case. Using a medication like Adderall recreationally is very dangerous and can contribute to serious academic and other consequences.
What Are Amphetamines?
The term “amphetamine” refers to a class of central nervous system stimulants. These drugs, at a therapeutic dose, can improve cognitive control and increase wakefulness. Amphetamines can also boost reaction times and increase muscle strength. For someone with a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (ADD), these drugs can make a huge difference, by improving focus, attention and cognitive alertness.
Amphetamine doses are carefully controlled because the downsides of taking larger quantities can be very dangerous. When used in excess of therapeutic levels, these drugs can have serious side effects, including muscle deterioration and cognitive decline. Due to the potential risks, Adderall and sister drugs are safest when taken under the supervision of a medical professional.
Amphetamines for ADHD
Amphetamines do have safe, healthy medical uses in individuals who require assistance in focusing on daily tasks. They are most commonly prescribed to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is a mental health disorder that causes problems with focus and attention. Those with ADHD may struggle to concentrate on tasks, remember to take care of routine activities, stay on task without getting distracted, sit still for long periods of time, or hold a conversation without interrupting or changing subjects. Subtypes of ADHD include inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive and combination.
Amphetamines, when used as prescribed, can adjust brain chemistry in a way that makes controlling impulses and actions easier. While not everyone with ADHD requires medication, those who gain insufficient progress in therapy may find amphetamines beneficial.
5 Reasons Amphetamines Fail as Study Meds
A lot of college students often feel intense pressure to succeed in classes. When it seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to meet educational and social obligations, cutting corners can sound appealing. Smart drugs are popular among students of all kinds, from straight-A seekers to those who leave assignments until the last minute.
Regardless of one’s frequency of use, using study drugs can be problematic. Even infrequent use isn’t okay; the long-term effects on both the body and learning habits can be quite serious, as evidenced by these five realities….
Amphetamines Interrupt Study Habits
Learning how to read, process and retain information is a vital skill in life. Education, jobs and even aspects of life at home require an ability to analyze information and implement knowledge to make decisions. This is a skill many people learn in secondary school and post-secondary degree programs.
Drugs like Adderall, however, can be detrimental to the learning process. Amphetamines impair the brain’s innate ability to process information. The chemical structure of amphetamines—not the brain’s natural capacity to learn and change for the better as it acquires more information—are what boost performance.
In addition to being unsafe, using drugs without a doctor’s medical oversight can also create a psychological crutch. Students who only study when they are using amphetamines may find themselves unable to focus when drugs are out of reach. They may soon find they are dependent on the drug.
Amphetamines Can Be Addictive
As with any drug, amphetamines can be addictive when taken in large doses for long periods of times. Generally, therapeutic doses like those prescribed out of medical necessity are unlikely to cause addiction. Taking more than prescribed can pose problems, however.
Most students who use Adderall do not obtain these pills legally. In the absence of a prescription, it’s difficult to determine what a safe amount for use would be. This increases the likelihood of taking doses in excess of normal levels. Students who are focused on short-term benefits rather than health risks may increase their use to achieve their desired results. Unfortunately, this behavior can lead to addiction.
One Reddit user described their own experiences as such: “I’ve known people who, with good intentions, started taking a lot of Adderall to help with school. It doesn’t end well. The bad thing is you justify taking more to help your studies, so it becomes easier and easier to give in. Eventually every exam, every paper, every day. You don’t realize until it’s too late, and you start having wicked withdraws.”
Amphetamines Benefits Are Short-Lived
Amphetamines like Adderall work quickly but do not generally work over a long period of time. This means that students who take Adderall may be able to immediately focus on tasks only to find themselves crashing when the medication wears off.
When students need to study longer than a typical dose allows, excessive consumption may occur. Users will exceed the recommended amounts, putting themselves into dangerous situations.
In addition to these risks, research indicates that occasional use of amphetamines for recreation purposes can have long-term effects on memory. One study found that students who took Adderall performed worse on memory tasks 24 hours later, even after a full night of sleep. This indicates that Adderall may be helpful in the short-term but won’t benefit outcomes in the future.
Amphetamines Negatively Affect Mood and Sleep
One of the primary reasons college students employ amphetamines is to stay awake while studying. The stimulant effects of drugs like Adderall can decrease fatigue, allowing students to cram overnight when necessary.
While this is desirable when studying, forcing the body to stay awake longer than is safe is never healthy. A lack of sleep can create unhealthy sleep patterns in the future, reduce productivity and harm cognitive function. Use of stimulants regularly can lead to poorer quality of sleep over time, which can make it harder to study in the future.
When not regulated, consistent amphetamine use can also impact mood. Chronic amphetamine use is correlated with feeling stressed and anxious. This can be related to low quality sleep but can also be a standard side effect of use. Other users may feel depressed, irritable, or on edge.
Amphetamines Can Cause Negative Health Effects
Amphetamines can harm moods and sleeping patterns, but the health risks go even further. Unsafe usage habits, as are common among recreational users, can pose risks to the heart, increasing the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. Adderall can also cause anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders and chronic headaches when not used as prescribed.
Health effects aren’t always clear before use, either. As one Reddit user put it, “I was prescribed once and I didn’t like it because I had a hard time peeing. Sure it helped me focus, but sometimes side effects outweigh the actual benefit. You really should talk to a medical professional.”
Amphetamines can be very beneficial when used as prescribed, but the slope is slippery for recreational users. While the short-term advantages may seem appealing, the risks aren’t worth it.