Millions of Americans struggle every day with the simple task of trying to focus and pay attention. But for these individuals, staying focused is anything but simple. Life happens and everyone struggles from time to time by focusing on the most important task at hand.
For some, it’s just a simple loss of concentration due to boredom or fatigue. But for others, staying focused is a constant struggle that runs much deeper. For people living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, more commonly known as ADHD, the struggle is real.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), ADHD is “is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children.” However, many adults also suffer from this disorder. “An estimated 5 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults have ADHD,” according to the APA. The most common symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivity, loss of focus, and impulsivity.
While some people with ADHD learn to deal with this disorder with behavioral therapy, most children diagnosed with ADHD use some type of medication: usually Adderall or Ritalin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percent of children in the U.S. between the ages of 2-17 years diagnosed with ADHD taking medication was 62 percent in 20161.
That represents 5.2 percent of all children in the U.S. in that age group. While Adderall and Ritalin are certainly the most common ADHD medications, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best for everyone.
The fact is no two people are exactly the same. Everyone responds differently to different medications. That means, while Adderall or Ritalin could be the best choice for some ADHD patients, they aren’t necessarily the best for all patients.
What Is Adderall?
So, what exactly is Adderall? The name Adderall is actually a brand name of a prescription drug used to treat ADHD. So what drugs make up Adderall? It’s a combination of two drugs, dextroamphetamine, and amphetamine, which are both stimulants. Adderall is intended to help people with ADHD better control their activities and improve their ability to focus. So let’s take a closer look at the benefits, side effects and withdrawals of Adderall.
- Benefits – because Adderall is an amphetamine it’s designed to help raise the norepinephrine and dopamine levels in your brain. When it works correctly and hits the right spots in the brain, Adderall’s benefits include better focus, less impulsivity, increased attention span, a more awake feeling, and less depression. Adderall usually works for four to six hours, which can be beneficial for people who need to concentrate for longer periods of time.
- Side Effects – common side effects of Adderall include loss of appetite, anxiety, headache, trouble sleeping, dizziness, irritability, increased heart rate, and dry mouth. There are other more serious possible side effects with Adderall, including unusual wounds on your fingers or toes, abnormal thoughts or extreme behavior changes. Uncontrolled movements, depression, and aggression are other possible negative side effects of Adderall.
- Withdrawals – like many medications, patients who stop taking Adderall can experience withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, according to AddictionCenter.com, people who take large doses of Adderall can become dependent on the drug. This can lead to building up a tolerance, which makes the patient feel less of an effect from the drug. Some people in this situation decide to stop taking the drug believing it doesn’t have the same effect.Unfortunately, some people can’t function normally when they stop taking the medication. That is the first sign of withdrawals. Essentially, the withdrawals of Adderall are the opposite of the drug’s benefits. The withdrawal symptoms are also very similar to the medication’s side effects, with insomnia, nightmares, and achiness possible, as well.
What Is Ritalin?
Ritalin, like Adderall, is a brand name prescription drug designed to treat ADHD. It’s a methylphenidate, which is also a stimulant. Therefore, it works in a similar manner as Adderall. However, there are differences and the benefits, side effects, and withdrawals vary slightly.
- Benefits – much like Adderall, Ritalin is designed to increase the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine helps people to have more control over their behaviors. Thus the benefits of Ritalin are much like Adderall. When it works properly it helps improve concentration, overcome distractions, and enhance your decision-making ability. Ritalin does generally work quicker than Adderall, but its effects typically don’t last as long, usually two to three hours.
- Side Effects – Ritalin has several similar side effects as Adderall. Additionally, according to WebMD, nervousness, nausea, and vomiting are also common side effects people can experience when taking Ritalin. There are other, more serious, but less common side effects that should be addressed with your doctor right away. They include blood flow problems, irregular heartbeat, mood swings, fainting, seizure, shortness of breath, and thoughts of suicide, to name a few.
- Withdrawals – the withdrawal symptoms of Ritalin are the same as Adderall, including feeling exhausted, sleeping excessively, feeling depressed and having an increased appetite. Sometimes people start back on the drug in order to ease both the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms.
So with that information in mind, are there alternatives to using these drugs? The answer is yes. There are other options. But again, everyone is unique. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer for treating ADHD. So what are the best alternatives to these two very popular drugs?
Can Nootropics Help With ADHD?
Let’s start with nootropics. Wikipedia, states that: “Nootropics are drugs, supplements or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, creativity, motivation or memory.” So can they help with ADHD? The short answer, again, is yes.
According to ADHD.boss, “When used responsibly, many high-quality nootropics will help you reduce stress, boost productivity, feel happier, and improve your overall quality of life.” However, not everyone will respond to nootropics the same way. There are also dozens of nootropic options to choose from. In many cases, they might not work to the same degree as stimulant meds like Adderall and Ritalin. However, they can, and do, work for certain people with ADHD.
What Are the Top Prescription and/or Synthetic Alternatives To Adderall?
Provigil is the brand name for modafinil. While it is mainly used to treat sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, some people use it to treat their ADHD. According to research from the University of Cambridge, Department of Psychiatry published on PubMed.gov, some patients have shown improvement in their ADHD symptoms with modafinil when compared to a placebo.
This is a prodrug (a biologically inactive compound that can be metabolized in the body to produce a drug) of modafinil. Adrafinil is a little harder on the liver than modafinil, but it looks like a promising option to treat ADHD when used occasionally.
This medication is generally used to treat hypertension, but some patients have found it useful in helping to reduce the hyperactivity tendencies that often come with ADHD. It is sometimes used together with stimulant meds.
This is a non-stimulant ADHD medication, which is a norepinephrine (noradrenaline) reuptake inhibitor use for the treatment of ADHD. It’s approved for children 6-years and older and adults with ADHD.
This is a family of drugs that have already been researched for many years. In fact, there are decades of studies showing that racetams have very few side effects. Like Adderall, racetams offer mood-enhancing effects, but they are created in a sustainable way. There are three main types of racetams. According to NootropicsExpert.com:
- Aniracetam – “Aniracetam has been shown to relieve depression, boost learning & memory, improve verbal fluidity, increase music listening pleasure, and make you more social.”
- Piracetam – “Piracetam has been shown to increase Cerebral Circulation, improve creativity and verbal fluency, boost memory, learning, and recall and improve mood.”
- Oxiracetam – “Oxiracetam has been shown to improve short and long-term memory, boost concentration and focus, improve cognition and increase cognitive energy.”
This nootropic supplement originated in Russia and is very similar to racetams. According to Nootropicsreview.org, “it is highly demanded because it increases your cognitive abilities and enhances your ability to focus. It also helps you take in and learn a greater amount of information at one time.”
While Phenibut does have some memory enhancing properties, it is most appreciated for its association with reducing anxiety. It also helps stimulate dopamine receptors, much like a Gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA (see below for more about GABA).
What Are The Best Natural Alternatives?
Besides other prescription and synthetic alternatives, many people diagnosed with ADHD use natural alternatives to treat their symptoms. These are some of the most popular options.
Some research suggests that having a deficiency in B vitamins, especially B6, can lead to fatigue and irritability in both adults and children with ADHD. Meantime, having sufficient levels of B6, with the help of nutritional changes or supplements, can decrease anxiety-like symptoms and increase alertness.
This is an Ayurvedic herb. It is not a stimulant like ADHD medications. However, it is an adaptogen and in some cases, it helps people feel more relaxed and at ease in social settings. It has also been used to help reduce anxiety and improve memory function.
Caffeine and L-Theanine
L-Theanine is an amino acid that is found in tea leaves, most commonly in green tea. It is sometimes referred to as a “calming” amino acid. Much like drinking green tea, some people feel calm, focused, and relaxed when using L-Theanine.
It is generally considered safe, and effective. Most people that use this amino acid to treat ADHD have found the greatest benefit comes when taken with caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant so when you combine the two, you get the added bonus of being mentally stimulated and creative, to go along with a feeling of calmness.
Rhodiola Rosea is considered by some to be one of the best nootropics for people who suffer from ADHD symptoms. Because it’s a natural brain adaptogen, it can help boost your mood, regulate chemicals in your brain, and help you better handle stress.
Alpha GPC is a highly bio-available version of Choline. The Alpha GPC supplement is a precursor to Acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter that’s crucial for memory and learning. When Choline levels are low your brain has a hard time making enough Acetylcholine. This could lead to poor memory and brain fog.
Huperzine comes from a type of moss that grows naturally in China. According to Livestrong.com, “some doctors use huperzine in conjunction with other herbs and compounds to treat ADHD. However, more research is needed as to the effectiveness of huperzine by itself in improving the symptoms of ADHD.”
L-Tyrosine is a crucial amino acid and a direct precursor to dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps you feel calm and satisfied, making it much easier to sit down and stay focused. When you’re deficient in L-Tyrosine your dopamine levels can decrease, which can mess up your productivity.
NADH or NAD+
This nutritional supplement is a non-stimulant that your body naturally uses to increase activity in several areas of the brain, including those used for focusing, thinking, attention, concentration, memory recall, and decision making. According to NADH.com, “a clinical research study showed giving a child with ADHD 20mg of NADH (daily) significantly increases their brain performance by up to 25% in the areas of the brain used for cognitive functioning.”
GABA is a neurotransmitter. It sends chemical messages through the brain and the nervous system. Its role is to reduce or inhibit neuron activity. Studies have shown that some patients with ADHD have a GABA deficiency2. According to Health Central, a lack of GABA is associated with, “Brain fog, mood swings, increased stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, and aggression.” The jury is still out as to whether or not taking GABA supplements will help improve ADHD symptoms, but some patients have reported positive results.
How to Transition Safely Off of Adderall
As with any medication, and even some supplements, quitting them can be difficult. The withdrawal symptoms can be downright scary. Therefore, quitting cold turkey is not a smart option in almost all cases. It is best to transition slowly. This is true whether you’re going to stop taking all ADHD medication and supplements completely, or if you’re going to transition to another prescription or supplement.
One of the best approaches is to slowly reduce your dosage a week at a time. However, everyone is different so your body and mind could respond differently than someone else’s. One approach, according to The Recovery Village, is to taper off in 10 percent increments. This could mean reducing your dose by 5 mg one week at a time. Others might have to go even slower and some might be able to move a little quicker. Additionally, the pace at which you transition could also depend on how long you’ve been taking Adderall and how large your current dosage is.
If you are moving to a different prescription, obviously you will need to consult with your doctor before you stop Adderall and start a different medication. If you want to move strictly to ADHD supplements, you should add them in much the same way you taper off of Adderall: little by little. Start with one supplement at a time and keep your doses low so you can see how you respond to the new treatment.
Living with ADHD can be very frustrating. Using ADHD medication, like Adderall, to treat the symptoms of ADHD can be helpful. However, the thought of depending on ADHD medication to function properly for the rest of one’s life is not very appealing.
For some, Adderall or Ritalin is the right answer. But for many others, non-prescription alternatives, like nootropics and other natural supplements, can provide valuable help with ADHD symptoms, without the negative side effects of taking prescription medication long-term.
In the end, anyone suffering from ADHD will likely have to experience some trial and error before finding the right solution. However, there are several natural alternatives to using Adderall. And for many people, these have been very helpful in treating the symptoms of ADHD.