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9 min read

Why do stimulants calm ADHD symptoms?

Written by Klarity Editorial Team

Published: May 8, 2024

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Zoe Russell

Table of contents

If you’ve been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you or your healthcare provider use or consider stimulants to treat your symptoms. But the term “stimulants” can be confusing, especially because this class of drugs has the opposite effect on people with ADHD, often calming overactive and impulsive ADHD behaviors.

In this article, we look at how and why do stimulants calm ADHD symptoms. We also cover stimulant medications for ADHD and their safety profiles, including potential side effects, drug interactions, and warnings. 

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If you’re looking for an effective way to treat your ADHD symptoms, stimulants may be the right solution for you. Klarity has helped thousands of people access reliable, affordable, convenient ADHD diagnosis and treatment, including prescription medication. 

How ADHD stimulant medications affect neurotransmitters in the brain

One of the most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorders is ADHD in adults and children. People who struggle with ADHD have difficulty concentrating and often have hyperactive or impulsive behaviors. 

Stimulant ADHD medications help calm hyperactivity and impulsivity by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain.

How neurotransmitters work

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help facilitate communication within the complex signaling pathways of the brain. They act as a messaging system by carrying the signal from one neuron to another and are responsible for proper functioning within the brain and nervous system. 

The small area between 2 neurons is the synapse, which is where neurotransmitters are released from 1 neuron to travel to another. The neurotransmitters bind to receptors on the adjacent neuron.

The 3 main types of neurotransmitters are excitatory, inhibitory, and modulatory. When bound to the receptors of the neuron, the different neurotransmitters work by either stimulating the firing of the neuron or inhibiting the action potential from firing. In addition, modulating neurotransmitters enhance the excitatory or inhibitory response, although they don’t directly bind to the receptors. 

How and why do stimulants calm ADHD?

The lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in people with ADHD result in under-stimulation and reduced activity in certain areas of the brain that contribute to impulse control, decision-making, and maintaining attention. 

Stimulant medications increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. They also increase transmissions between neurons, which improves the chemical messaging system to help increase attention, cognitive ability, organization, and listening skills. 

Types of stimulants used to calm the symptoms of ADHD

There are 2 common types of stimulant ADHD meds: methylphenidate and amphetamine. Both prescription stimulants are considered the first line of treatment for ADHD in both children and adults. Although they belong to the same class of medications, there are differences between the 2. 

Ritalin or Concerta (methylphenidate)

Methylphenidate medications include generic methylphenidate and brand-name drugs Ritalin and Concerta. Methylphenidate works by blocking the reuptake of dopamine. In doing so, dopamine remains in the brain’s synapse (the spaces where neurons connect and communicate with each other) for longer, which results in more activation of the receiving neuron.

Adderall or Vyvanse (amphetamine)

Amphetamines are available in name brands such as Adderall and Vyvanse. Like methylphenidates, amphetamines block the reuptake of dopamine, causing increased activation of the adjacent neurons. In addition, amphetamines stimulate the release of dopamine and norepinephrine from the neurons as well, which causes a larger concentration of both dopamine and norepinephrine in the synapse. 

Potential side effects of stimulants

Stimulants have potential adverse effects that can occur right when starting the medication or with long-term use. Each patient’s reaction to medication is different, and some factors that influence the side effects include body weight, the dose prescribed, and tolerance to the medication. 

Common side effects of stimulant medications for ADHD

Some common side effects of stimulants for ADHD include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness 
  • Decreased appetite leading to weight loss
  • Difficulty falling asleep 
  • Headaches 
  • Psychological phenomena such as psychosis, paranoia 
  • Sweating, shortness of breath 
  • Palpitations, chest pain, increased heart rate, and high blood pressure 
  • Irregular heartbeat 
  • Seizure 

Warnings of ADHD stimulants

Stimulant medications are associated with a few serious and even potentially life-threatening side effects, including:

  • Seizures
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Stroke
  • Sudden cardiac death

Chances of experiencing these side effects increases if the medication is misused. 

Dependency warning of stimulants for ADHD

Stimulants are classified as Schedule II controlled substances due to their high potential for abuse, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Abuse of stimulant drugs can have harmful effects on the central nervous system (CNS). Abuse may result in serious side effects, which include increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and heightened alertness. 

Prescribing Schedule II stimulants is restricted to prevent abuse, such as limiting prescriptions to 30-day supply. Patients with a history of alcohol or substance abuse should generally avoid these medications. It’s important to use them as prescribed and communicate openly with healthcare providers to monitor for dependency and adverse effects.

Drug interactions for stimulant meds

Before you’re prescribed a new medication by your healthcare provider, it’s important to discuss what medications you currently take, including supplements and over-the-counter medications.  

As with most medications, there are medications that shouldn’t be taken with stimulants due to changes in effectiveness, including: 

  • Anticoagulants, which may cause exaggerated cardiovascular effects when used with stimulants
  • Chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic 
  • Phenytoin, decreased absorption 
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), such as linezolid, metaxalone, methylene blue, and isocarboxazid
  • Other stimulant medications, including weight loss medications 
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or street drugs like MDMA or ecstasy or  St. John’s wort, which Increase the risk of serotonin syndrome if taken with a stimulant

A closing note on stimulant medications for ADHD

Stimulant medications don’t cure ADHD. If you and your provider choose a stimulant, you’ll likely experience relief from hyperactive symptoms or impulsive behaviors, but your symptoms will return if you stop taking your medication. And while stimulants are an effective way of managing ADHD symptoms, you should also make lifestyle changes to avoid becoming dependent on medication alone.

Additionally, your body’s reaction to stimulant medications will be unique. Everyone’s brain responds differently to treatment. Always work closely with a healthcare provider to monitor your condition and adjust your dosage as needed. And for your safety, you never attempt to self-medicate.

Calm your ADHD with a stimulant or non-stimulant medication

If you have ADHD, stimulants may calm your symptoms. Klarity has helped thousands of Americans access fast, convenient online ADHD treatment that includes prescription medications, like stimulants, right from their homes. No insurance coverage is needed to begin affordable telehealth or in-person appointments, and your provider can help you determine which stimulant, if any, is right for your unique symptoms.Schedule an appointment with a licensed healthcare provider on Klarity today.

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