Adderall is a mixture of amphetamine salts formulated to treat the symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Some people claim Adderall is an effective nootropic, but is this really true? Furthermore, is Adderall safe? And if not, are there any effective Adderall alternative nootropics worth trying?
The Usage Of Adderall
Adderall works by increasing neurotransmitters, mostly dopamine and norepinephrine, available to the brain. Through Adderall’s primary action, it activates certain receptor types that facilitate the release of dopamine from inside the neuron into the synaptic cleft, where it can stimulate the next neuron in the neural circuit (1).
It is considered to be an effective medication for ADHD. One review of available literature estimates that it works to alleviate symptoms in around 70% of sufferers (2). There are side effects, but they are usually mild enough to be tolerable.
Effective treatment of ADHD is important because the condition is very common, especially in adolescents. A review from 2012 concluded that 5.9-7.1% of children and adolescents suffer from ADHD worldwide (3).
Since Adderall improves symptoms such as insufficient attention, wouldn’t it make sense that Adderall would be an effective nootropic to improve cognitive performance in the general population?
Why Not Use Adderall?
The majority of ADHD sufferers or parents of minors suffering ADHD use Adderall or other stimulant medications to treat their symptoms. It can be a safe and effective medicine when used under the supervision of a medical professional. So, why seek out alternatives? There are several reasons why people may be motivated to do so, as follows:
Side Effects And Contraindications
The most common reason to avoid Adderall is due to its acute side effects. The prescribing information lists the most common of these as “loss of appetite, insomnia, abdominal pain, emotional lability, vomiting, nervousness, nausea, and fever” (4).
Unpleasant as these symptoms are, more serious side effects are also possible. These include psychiatric events and seizures, as well as cardiovascular issues that have resulted in death (5). While these are not common outcomes, it is understandable that some people may be put off by them.
There are some contraindications for Adderall that may prevent patients with ADHD from receiving a prescription. These include existing cardiovascular problems, glaucoma, and the prescription of many psychiatric medications (6).
Development Of Substance Use Disorders
While Adderall is an effective medication at therapeutic doses, it is also a Class II controlled substance with the potential for recreational abuse and addiction. Evidence suggests that people with ADHD may have elevated risk for substance use disorders (7), so it is understandable that people may choose to avoid that risk – especially for parents worried about their children developing an addiction.
When abused, Adderall can cause harmful side effects. The National Institute of Health reports that prescription stimulants are a commonly abused class of drugs and have high addictive potential. They also can have serious or lethal side effects including cardiovascular problems, changes in blood pressure and psychosis (8).
Adderall As A Cognitive Enhancer
Some Adderall users don’t suffer from ADHD, but seek to use it as a general nootropic cognitive enhancer. This is such a common phenomenon that a 2017 review estimated that at least 10% of American postsecondary students (of ages 18-25) had used Adderall as a study aid (9).
Despite popular self-reporting that it works as a “smart pill”, evidence suggests that Adderall does not function as a cognitive enhancer. In one review of central nervous system stimulants, Adderall did not improve cognitive performance or memory by any measure in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials (10).
Another review considered 45 individual studies that tested Adderall’s impact on normally healthy adults at different standard measures of cognitive performance, memory, and learning. The majority of the studies found no significant improvements for the Adderall group compared to the control group. For studies where improvements were seen, they were modest (11).
These self-reported improvements may simply be due to people feeling slightly euphoric on the drug and therefore feel more accomplished in the task they are involved in.
Adderall alternatives may have better cognitive-enhancing properties than Adderall itself, making them a better choice for this purpose, especially considering most nootropic alternatives aren’t addictive. The popular opinion suggesting that Adderall functions as a cognitive enhancer is not backed up by evidence, and trying alternatives is more likely to derive success, both for cognitive enhancement, and as a means to reduce potential dependance.
Insufficient Evidence Of Long-Term Efficacy
The body of evidence supports Adderall as an acute treatment for ADHD symptoms, but the data does not back up its efficacy on longer time scales. A review of the literature found that very few quality studies had even investigated the performance of children and adolescents on Adderall for months at a time, and those that did could not find evidence of performance improvement (12).
A multisite study of children prescribed ADHD tested a range of indicators over an eight-year period, including academic (school grades), social (arrests) and various medical indications associated with ADHD. The study found that for 91% of the variables, no significant improvements in outcomes were observed in the group taking ADHD (13).
People may be swayed by the data – or lack of it – into seeking alternatives for themselves or their children.
Whether we are suffering from ADHD or simply looking to enhance our cognition past its usual levels, a good place to start is understanding what specifically about our cognition we’re trying to improve.
When we measure cognition or problem solving, we are usually talking about a group of brain functions called Executive Functions (EF). These solve the complex problems that we encounter in our everyday lives.
We often encounter complex problems in our lives that require solutions. Picking between different actions in these situations is not easy. Executive functions weigh the different variables involved to choose an action.
To do this requires weighing up multiple basic perceptions, like reasoning, problem-solving, interpreting language and reading faces. Supplements can boost the basic abilities that these skills are based on (14).
This is achieved through the same neural pathways that Adderall acts on. It mostly works by manipulating dopamine. Dopamine helps to control executive functions by rewarding the brain for pursuing goals. It is also a necessary step in the synthesis pathways of adrenaline and noradrenaline which contribute to executive functions and also control more basic functions (15).
There are a lot of people who are searching for alternatives to Adderall, which after reviewing the side effects, makes sense.
Numerous natural plants can act as cognitive enhancers, both by influencing the dopamine system and through other pathways.
This means that there are plenty of safe and effective nootropic alternatives to Adderall which may be useful both for ADHD sufferers and other people seeking to improve their mental performance. But of course, if you’ve been prescribed Adderall by your physician, then please consult with them before getting off medication and using a nootropic substance as an alternative.
The following seven nootropics can be used as Adderall alternatives in different circumstances, and for different people.
The most common Adderall alternative is something you might consume already. Caffeine acts on the dopamine system by inhibiting adenosine. Adenosine inhibits the central nervous system, so caffeine increases the effects of dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin (16).
As a result, caffeine has arousing effects on normal functions, including executive functions (17). Drinking coffee and tea can help you in your day to day activities.
Caffeine’s activity on the dopamine system is largely responsible for the overall stimulation it provides. Adderall stimulates the mind, in the same way, releasing more dopamine, therefore encouraging activity towards rewarding outcomes (18).
An alternative to coffee which may be more effective as an Adderall alternative is Modafinil. This stimulant is prescribed to treat narcolepsy – the sleep disorder which causes patients to fall asleep throughout the day.
Modafinil’s mode of action is similar to those of Adderall and Ritalin, and like these medications, it activates the neural pathways which stimulate activity. In a study of 60 healthy volunteers, Modafinil increased performance in memory and planning based tasks. Adderall and Ritalin had a similar profile of effects on these tests (19).
A study of 15 fighter pilots in-flight tests compared the effects of Modafinil and Adderall in maintaining wakefulness. It found that Modafinil was comparable to Adderall in maintaining alertness (20).
EEG scans – the standard electrical scans of brain activity – suggest that the brain areas activated by Modafinil are similar to those activated by Adderall. But, the effects are more selective, resulting in fewer side effects (21).
Because it is highly selective for the central nervous system, which is considered to mediate the symptoms of depression, Modafinil has been tested as a co-treatment for antidepressants. The results of these tests are promising.
In a pilot test with seven volunteers suffering from clinical depression, Modafinil caused significant improvements in scores on the Hamilton Depression Test. Daily doses of 100mg were sufficient to significantly reduce depression symptoms in all volunteers within one week (22).
Green tea contains an amino acid called Theanine which can be highly beneficial to human health. At sufficient doses, the green tea extract L-Theanine improves performance in standard tests of cognitive ability in humans (23).
Theanine also has the ability to reduce stress by suppressing the effects of stress hormones like cortisol. Stress hormones are a major contributing factor to numerous common mental disorders including anxiety and depression (24).
While Theanine is naturally found in green tea, it is in relatively small amounts. In order to consume the amount of L-Theanine proven to provide benefits in studies, a person would have to consume between 9-15 cups of green tea per day (25).
This means that nootropic supplements are the best way to gain the benefits of L-Theanine. It is a major component of many popular nootropic stacks and is available from many prominent suppliers of nootropics.
Some people, particularly parents of small children, may be looking for alternatives to Adderall which do not act as stimulants. Most stimulants have the capability of causing harmful side effects.
One of the first-used nootropics, Piracetam, has been shown to improve cognition by increasing blood flow and glucose consumption by brain cells (26).
This is a novel mechanism of action that boosts brain function without artificially stimulating central nervous system receptors, the mode of action by which Adderall and most other stimulant medications function. These other medications include Ritalin, as well as popular recreational stimulants like cocaine and antidepressants like Fluoxetine (27).
Piracetam has even been effective in studies at treating dyslexia. In a study of 16 dyslexic volunteers, piracetam improved performances in standardized dyslexia tests by 15% compared to a control group (28).
Noopept is effective at very low doses compared to other nootropics, since it is rapidly absorbed by the body and efficiently crosses the blood-brain barrier to exert its action within the brain (29).
Some Adderall alternatives are purpose-designed. Noopept is the name of a molecule synthesized specifically to reduce the toxic effects of certain neurotransmitters, including glutamate (30).
This effect can help to improve memory and cognition at all stages of memory storage, processing, and recall (31)
These stimulating effects of Noopept can be observed by electroencephalograms – brain wave scans. Alpha wave activity, which is associated with primary cognitive functions, is significantly increased in patients after taking the supplement (32).
Like most effective nootropics, Noopept also works by other modes of action. By increasing the concentration of the neurotrophin Nerve Growth Factor in the brain, it acts as a neuroprotectant. This means that it works to protect neurons from cellular breakdown and helps dead cells’ components be recycled efficiently (33).
When the desired effect is a general enhancement of your cognitive abilities, you don’t always have to look for a pharmaceutical product. Many compounds that enhance cognition occur naturally in the diet.
Cacao, the ground form of the cacao berry which chocolate is made from, is one of these. Even consuming chocolate throughout your life can result in improvements in reasoning ability, measured by a standardized test called the Mini-Mental State Examination (34).
Cacao contains large amounts of flavonoids. These chemicals are pigments that color plants. When consumed, they can act on the central nervous system in two ways.
Firstly, flavonoids improve blood-flow and exert antioxidant effects, improving the general health of cells and improving the blood supply to all cells in the body (35).
They also exert specific neurological effects in the brain. They act in the hippocampus, a region strongly associated with learning and memory. Flavonoids increase the production of neurotrophins, chemicals that enhance neurodegeneration – the creation of new brain cells. They also exert neuroprotective effects, helping to preserve existing brain cells and efficiently recycling those that die (36).
If you’re looking for an effective and safe alternative treatment for ADHD, supplementation with dietary minerals may help.
Magnesium supplements can probably reduce symptoms of hyperexcitability in human volunteers within 6 months. This effect was observed in all subjects of a recent major study (37).
In fact, magnesium deficiency is a common symptom of adolescent ADHD sufferers. In a study of 116 children, 95% of the children were deficient in the mineral, based on analysis of blood samples collected from the patients (38).
In a study of 50 children diagnosed with ADHD, 20 of whom displayed disruptive classroom behavior, 200mg of magnesium supplementation per day significantly reduced symptoms of the disorder. This was measured by standardized tests of ADHD-related behavior such as the Conners Rating Scale and Wendel’s Scale of Behavior (39).
Magnesium affects the central nervous system in numerous ways. It is an ion used in many ion channels for efficient communication between neurons. It is also required for the synthesis of some neurotransmitters, including serotonin, and aids in the repair and recycling of neurons (40).
Are Adderall Alternatives Worth Trying?
Adderall is a common medication for ADHD, but a lot of people take it for other purposes too. Some people take it to improve their cognitive abilities, while others use it to stay awake, usually to do more work.
Others may use larger doses of Adderall recreationally to produce a stimulating effect similar to cocaine. Used in this way, it presents significant risks of serious side effects. But, that hasn’t stopped a large amount of students or other high-performers from trying it to improve their academic performance.
Evidence suggests that using Adderall as a cognitive enhancer isn’t likely to work. Adderall alternatives may work better in this faculty, with a lot of evidence backing up nootropics like Noopept and Modafinil to reliably improve cognitive ability.
To treat ADHD, Adderall is considered a safe and effective medication in most circumstances. Other solutions may also have positive effects, including dietary supplementation with flavonoid-rich foods like cacao.
Common dietary minerals like magnesium can also have an impact on ADHD symptoms. Children tend to see an increase in symptoms when they are deficient in the mineral, while supplementation can improve them.
Adderall doesn’t seem to be as effective as many people perceive it to be. Regardless, it does increase focus and attention. However, there are a plethora of natural and synthetic nootropic compounds which can help to improve cognitive function without the severe side effects which can accompany excessive adderall use.