College life isn’t easy.
Ask any student these days. There’s the struggle to discover one’s identity and career, the late nights staying up studying for finals, and the high expectations for success, whether from parents, peers, or the students themselves.
Above all is the fear of failure and humiliation. According to the Addiction Center, academic pressure to succeed is the most common reason college students give for using stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Concerta.
The students think they’re taking harmless substances that will help them study, but research shows that these stimulants can cause dangerous side effects, including anxiety, hallucinations, depression, and even high blood pressure. When combined with alcohol, which is common on college campuses, the effects can be even worse.
About one-third of college students have used these stimulants, with recent research showing that they’re widely available on college campuses for nonmedical use. Even high school students are now using “study drugs” to enhance academic performance.
Unfortunately, most students are unaware of the potentially serious side effects, with drug misuse recently linked to sudden death and damaging cardiovascular events.
Students have to find a way to cope with the pressure, but there are healthier and safer alternatives when it comes to improving focus and concentration. Those looking for a brain boost when studying should consider nootropics—supplements that help improve brain function without the damaging side effects of stimulant drugs.
Studying Stress is Real for High School and College Students
The American Addiction Centers (AAC) conducted a survey and found that 45 percent of college students reported high levels of stress—and that included only those who sought help from school counselors. Between 2010 and 2015, college campuses saw a 30 percent increase in students seeking counseling help, while enrollment increased by only 5 percent.
There are a number of different ways to cope with stress, but one of the most popular on college campuses is to use so-called “study drugs.”
AAC surveyed 980 current students and students graduating within the past five years and found that over 88 percent found school life to be stressful, with exams being the biggest source of stress, and 98 percent reported that the stress affected their mental health. Only 14 percent sought therapy for help.
Sixty percent used alcohol as a coping mechanism, while 26 percent admitted to having tried study drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, and Focalin—all drugs prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When considering sororities only, that percentage increased to 55 percent of students, and to 43 percent of students in fraternities.
New York Times reports that pressure over grades and competition for college admissions at high schools across the country is encouraging high school students, too, to turn to “good grade pills” for help. Students get them from their friends, buy them from student dealers, or fake symptoms to get prescriptions from doctors.
In an informal survey of recent high school graduates conducted by MinnPost, 22 percent of respondents admitted to taking these drugs without a prescription while in high school. About 54 percent knew of at least one person who had, and 89 percent acknowledged a portion of their classmates were using the drugs illegally.
Some of the most common drugs that students use in this manner include:
- Adderall: This is an amphetamine that stimulates the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which can affect mood and alertness. It’s prescribed to treat ADHD.
- Dexadrine: This is also an amphetamine that increases levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
- Focalin: Another drug similar to Adderall.
- Ritalin: This is a central nervous system stimulant that is used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. It acts as a short-term, immediate-release stimulant, increasing both dopamine and norepinephrine levels. It affects mainly the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, problem-solving and planning.
- Concerta: This contains the same active ingredient as Ritalin (methylphenidate), but is a long-acting drug, increasing dopamine levels steadily rather than immediately, as Ritalin does. It’s also used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.
- Vynanse: This is another central nervous system stimulant used to treat ADHD in children and adults, and moderate-to-severe binge eating disorder in adults. The active ingredient is lisdexamfetamine dimesylate.
- Modafinil: This is a “eugeroic,” a class of drugs that promote wakefulness and alertness. It’s prescribed to treat narcolepsy and shift work sleep disorder, as well as excessive daytime sleepiness associated with obstructive sleep apnea.
Because of misinformation on the Internet and throughout college campuses, students believe stimulants like these help increase concentration and stamina so they can successfully cram for their exams.
The drugs help them focus longer without succumbing to distraction, students say, allowing them to achieve the grades they want. Many use the drugs to pull all-nighters, saying they lack the time needed to study normally, and then use them again to stay awake during the actual exams. Once they’ve turned in their tests, they often celebrate with alcohol, combining the two substances in their systems.
To say that this practice is dangerous would be an understatement.
Study Drugs Come with Dangerous Side Effects
Most students believe that using study drugs will not harm them. They’re not using them to get high, they reason, but to boost their efforts to excel. Besides, they’re prescribed for those with ADHD and other similar conditions, so what harm could they cause?
It’s true that for individuals with ADHD—who often have a deficiency in certain neurotransmitters in the brain—these medications can improve focus and attention. For those who really need them, they can be a helpful treatment that allows students to perform their best in the classroom.
When the medications are used in healthy students, though, they can create dangerous side effects.
All of these drugs contain stimulants that are qualified as highly addictive, particularly at high doses. Students take them to get better grades, but can then become addicted because the drugs produce feelings of confidence, euphoria, and suppressed appetite.
Studies have shown that overuse of the drugs, such as that which occurs in those who become dependent on them, can cause sudden death, toxic psychosis, anxiety, sleep disturbances, stroke, seizures, and heart problems. They have also been shown to induce states of psychosis, paranoia, anxiety, and depression in some people.
Mixing smart drugs with alcohol can affect the brain in such a way that students can no longer tell when they’ve reached their drinking limit. They often drink more as a result, putting themselves at a higher risk for alcohol poisoning, injury, assault, and death.
According to one study review, the increased use of these non-prescribed drugs on college campuses have occurred alongside a similar increase in related suicides, emergency room visits, and dangerous overdoses by students in universities across the country. The Addiction Center notes that the majority of emergency room visits involving Adderall—incidences of which nearly tripled between 2005 and 2010—also involved alcohol.
The problem has become so serious that some universities have banned the use of study drugs, or banned college clinicians from diagnosing ADHD or prescribing related medications. Others have required students to sign contracts stating that they would not share their medications, but that sharing still occurs on a regular basis.
Of course, using or buying these medications without a prescription is illegal.
Students Sharing and Selling Dangerous Study Drugs to Other Students
From fall 2005 through fall 2006, scientists studied over 1,800 undergraduates at a large, public, southeastern research university in the United States. Of the study participants, 34 percent reported the illegal use of ADHD stimulants. Most used them to help them cope with academic stress, and said they helped them reduce fatigue and increase cognition and memory.
Furthermore, most said it was easy to get hold of these drugs.
About 2.5 million Americans are prescribed prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin to treat ADHD. According to a 2005 study of more than 10,000 college students from across the country, about half of those taking drugs for ADHD were asked to sell their medication to peers and friends. Almost every student abusing the drugs got them from friends or classmates with ADHD.
In a 2016 national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, results showed that about two-thirds of young adults got their Adderall and other stimulates from their friends, roommates, and family members with prescriptions.
This is a dangerous trend not only for the students abusing the drugs, but for those who are selling or giving them away. Individuals with ADHD need their medications to perform optimally and may be hurting themselves by sharing them. On campuses where the drugs have been banned, students sharing or selling them can face fines and possible suspension or expulsion.
It’s also a federal crime to distribute stimulants without a license to prescribe, which means students could face legal ramifications if caught.
A Safer Alternative—Nootropics for Studying
Considering all these dangers, students are wise to avoid taking these stimulant drugs. Fortunately, there are safer alternatives called “nootropics.” These are brain-boosting supplements that can help safely increase a student’s ability to focus and pay attention without dangerous side effects.
The term “nootropics” comes from the Greek nous, which means “mind,” and trepein, which means “to bend.” A Romanian doctor named Dr. Corneliu Giurgea was the first to coin the term, after discovering the drug he was working on for treating motion sickness also helped improve memory.
Giurgea came up with a set of criteria that a substance must meet to classify as a nootropic. These included:
- it must enhance brain function in some way—often by protecting brain cells, encouraging cell-to-cell communication, and increasing resistance to stress
- it must not create the usual side effects of psychotropic drugs like lithium or antidepressants
Today, nootropics can be either medications or natural supplements that help boost brainpower. Below are seven of the most effective for improving study time.
1. Bacopa Monnieri
This is an herb that is popular in Ayurvedic medicine. Also called “moneywort” or “Brahmi,” it’s been used in India for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes, including to help reduce epileptic seizures. The plant itself has succulent oblong leaves and white or purple flowers.
Modern-day research has discovered that the powerful compounds in this herb may provide a number of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, boosting antioxidant protection, and reducing the risk of cancer.
Where this herb really shines, though, is in its positive effects on the brain. Like study drugs, it has shown to be helpful in those suffering from ADHD.
In one 2014 study, scientists found that 225 mg/day over a period of six months helped reduce symptoms in children with ADHD. More specifically, it reduced restlessness by 93 percent, self-control by 89 percent, attention problems by 85 percent.
Even better, the herb was well tolerated by all the children, with no recorded side effects.
Other studies show that Bacopa monnieri can help prevent anxiety and stress and enhance brain function, improving learning, memory, processing speed, and attention.
This is a natural amino acid that can help reduce overstimulation and encourage a sense of calm. On its own, it affects brain waves in such a way that it helps promote “wakeful relaxation,” which can make it easier for you to focus while studying or taking an exam.
Combining L-theanine with caffeine can be an effective way to get that caffeine boost without the accompanying jitteriness. In one study, individuals who took both 50 mg of caffeine and 100 mg of L-theanine experienced greater improvements in memory than those who took the caffeine alone. Both groups experienced improvements in energy, processing speed, and accuracy.
“These results replicate previous evidence which suggests that L-theanine and caffeine in combination are beneficial for improving performance on cognitively demanding tasks,” the researchers wrote.
Also called CTP Choline, this is a supplement combining:
- Choline—a natural compound in the body that helps brain cells produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for mental focus and learning
- Cytidine—a precursor for uridine, which is like a “brain vitamin” necessary for communication in the brain
Together, this duo can help boost levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, increasing motivation and cell-to-cell communication and sustaining energy levels. By raising levels of acetylcholine, citicoline supports the brain’s process of turning short-term memories into long-term ones.
This nootropic can also enhance glucose metabolism and increase blood flow to the brain, helping the brain to function optimally.
4. Lion’s Mane
This is a type of mushroom (Hericium erinaceus)—also called yamabushitake—that can be eaten or taken as a supplement. It’s white and globe-shaped, with long shaggy spines; thus, the name.
The mushroom has been linked with a number of health benefits, including boosting the immune system, reducing inflammation, and providing antioxidant protection.
Lion’s mane can also boost cognitive health. In fact, it’s so powerful scientists have suggested that it may have potential for treating mental declines caused by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
In one 2009 study, researchers tested lion’s mane on those with mild cognitive impairment and found that it increased scores on a scientific cognitive function scale. In addition, the improvements increased the longer the subjects took the supplement.
Other studies have indicated that lion’s mane extract can help improve the functioning of the hippocampus, which is responsible for processing memories and emotional responses. And if you’re stressed out about your exams, this may be the right choice for you because it has natural anti-anxiety effects.
In a 2010 study, those taking lion’s mane experienced reduced symptoms of both anxiety and depression when compared to those taking a placebo.
This is an herb that helps the body better cope with periods of stress. Also popular in Ayurvedic medicine, it’s been used for thousands of years as a general body tonic and to help people feel strong and avoid illness.
Today, we know that Ashwagandha has a number of potential health benefits, and one of those is to ease stress and improve concentration. Several studies have shown that it can reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a so-called “stress hormone” that is released during times of stress, and can cause inflammation in cases of chronic stress.
A grounding herb, this nootropic can help you deal with the stress of exam time, encouraging a calm, stable mood while also helping you to get the sleep you need. In one 2012 study, researchers found that those suffering from chronic stress who took an Ashwagandha supplement experienced a 69 percent average reduction in anxiety and insomnia when compared to those taking a placebo.
Alpha-glycerylphosphorycholine—Alpha-GPC—is a natural compound present in the body that can help boost levels of acetylcholine in the brain, boosting memory and recall and increasing brain activity.
This nootropic is considered especially effective for boosting memory and attention and can be used with other nootropics for optimal results. Some students combine this nootropic with caffeine, as well, to improve mental performance.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that higher choline intake—and alpha-GPC boosts choline—was linked with improved cognitive function, particularly with increased verbal memory, visual memory, and verbal learning.
This is a synthetic medication that acts as a mild stimulant to help boost memory, learning capacity, attention, and alertness. It was developed in the 1970s and is available today without a prescription as a supplemental nootropic.
The medication seems to work by stimulating certain neurotransmitter sites in the brain, and by modulating the production and release of those neurotransmitters, particularly acetylcholine and glutamate. Both of these are important for learning and memory, as well as overall cognition.
Oxiracetam can also enhance communication between nerve cells in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and memory. And though it is a mild stimulant, it lacks the classic side effects of smart drugs, and is not associated with sleeplessness, jitteriness, or nervousness.
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With over 20 years as a professional writer/editor in the health and wellness industry, Colleen M. Story has authored thousands of articles for publications like “Healthline” and “Women’s Health;” worked with high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products and Kellogg’s; and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, healthy diet, and cancer recovery. She’s also an award-winning author of both novels and non-fiction books, and a frequent motivational speaker inspiring people from all walks of life to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment. Find more at her author website and her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.