Amphetamines: Everything You Need to Know
What Are Amphetamines?
Amphetamines are stimulant drugs that act on the central nervous system. Often known as the ‘study drugs’ Adderall and Ritalin, amphetamines increase brain activity, resulting in higher energy levels, better focus, more confidence, and can create a feeling of euphoria.
Amphetamines act like adrenaline, which is one of the body’s natural stimulants, to speed up the central nervous system. Amphetamines include a group of three drugs: amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, and methamphetamine.
Amphetamines have a long history. They were first created in Germany in 1887 by the German chemist L. Edeleano.1 However, their ability to stimulate the central nervous system was not fully discovered until the 1930s. The very first use of amphetamines (around the 1930s) was as a nasal spray to treat nasal congestion; it was called Benzedrine. Shortly after, doctors began recommending the use of amphetamines for a range of issues such as alcohol hangovers, narcolepsy, depression, weight loss, hyperactivity in children, and for vomiting during pregnancy.
During this time, the use of amphetamines grew as their addictive properties were not yet known, and they were cheap and widely available. During the Second World War, military in the U.S. Great Britain, Germany, and Japan used amphetamines for their soldiers to increase their alertness and endurance. During the 1960s and 1970s, the abuse of amphetamines and amphetamine addiction became widespread as people started to inject amphetamines, which gave them an instant feeling of euphoria.
In their prescribed form, amphetamines are used to treat hyperactivity, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy (a condition that causes people to fall asleep suddenly and uncontrollably), Parkinson’s disease, obesity, and occasionally to treat depression.
Amphetamines reduce hunger, making them useful for weight loss, and they also increase breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. When used for ADHD and hyper-activity however, they have a calming effect.
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, between two and four million children have been diagnosed with ADHD/hyperactivity disorder and have been legally prescribed amphetamines.
How Are Amphetamines Taken?
Amphetamines are white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powders. When prepared illegally, amphetamines can contain hints of gray or pink and may be in the form of powder, crystals, or chunks that look like shaved glass or rock salt.
Legal and prescribed amphetamines are typically found in a pill form that is swallowed, while illegal amphetamines are often injected, smoked, or sniffed. When amphetamines are used illegally and not as prescribed, they can be dangerous and pose the risk of addiction.
Increased body temperature
Increased heart rate
Unrealistic feelings of confidence/power
Increased blood pressure
Signs of Amphetamine Abuse
While amphetamine that is taken as prescribed by a doctor has a lower risk of addiction, amphetamine abuse can be very dangerous. Amphetamines are abused in several ways: the pills are crushed and snorted, resulting in feeling the effects more quickly and strongly. Amphetamine is also, at times, dissolved in water and injected straight into the bloodstream which can cause an immediate and very strong high.
In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that approximately 4.8 million people aged 12 or older in the U.S. abused prescription amphetamine medications. This is the equivalent of approximately 1.8% of the population. Some of the telltale signs of amphetamine abuse are:
Methamphetamine is a drug that is chemically similar to amphetamine but causes a faster and stronger feeling of a “high” when used. Because it is highly addictive, it is considered to be an illegal drug worldwide.
In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that approximately 1.2 million people use methamphetamine, which is about 0.4% of the U.S. population. In 2017, this number rose to 1.6 million people. 2 The average age of users is around 23 years old. However, in 2018, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that approximately 0.5% of 8th, 10th and 12th graders had reported using methamphetamine in the past year.
While it is scary to think about adolescents using a drug as addictive as meth, the good news is that the use of methamphetamines by adolescents has decreased significantly since 1999 when the drug was first added to the MTF survey.
How does amphetamine addiction happen? Many people think that because amphetamines are prescribed medication, they cannot be addictive. That is simply not true.
Tolerance and Dependence
When amphetamine users abuse the drug regularly, they develop a tolerance to the drug. More and more must be taken to achieve the same effect. This creates a cycle of needing to take larger doses of amphetamine every time in a “binge and crash” cycle. When a person needs to keep taking more and more amphetamine to feel high, the body gets used to the drug. If they don’t take it anymore, they feel unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. This is how addiction occurs: the body and mind need to take an increasing amount of the drug to feel the effects.
Amphetamine Related Hospitalizations
A study conducted by researchers from 2003 to 2015 found that over that period, there were 1,292,300 amphetamine related hospitalizations. 3 While amphetamine-related hospitalizations did decrease slightly between 2005 and 2008, they increased from 55,447 hospitalizations in 2008 to 206,180 hospitalizations in 2015, which is almost four times as many hospitalizations in the span of seven years. This shows that amphetamine use can be very dangerous, especially if the drug is abused.
When someone abuses amphetamines regularly, their body becomes used to functioning on amphetamines. When the user stops taking, they experience withdrawal symptoms because their body is not used to functioning without the drug.
Withdrawal symptoms may include:
While the worst of the withdrawal only lasts for 1-2 days, symptoms such as mood swings, sleep problems, low energy, and cravings can last for weeks.
Treatment for Amphetamine Addiction
Treatment for amphetamine addiction typically begins with a detox, where the user stops using amphetamines entirely and allows the body time to clear out the amphetamines and get used to functioning without them. During the detox phase, medications might be used to help manage unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
While there is no specific medication available to help with the withdrawal symptoms from amphetamine addiction, sometimes antidepressants are used to help with feelings of depression, or antipsychotics might be used to help with irritability and agitation. Once the initial detox period is over, there are a variety of treatment options available. Some include:
Patients stay at a facility for 30-90 days to focus on treatment.
These are structured intensive programs run by a hospital that is an alternative option to residential treatment. Outpatient treatment can offer individuals more freedom as they don’t have to live at the facility.
Sober Living Houses
Sober living houses are residential facilities that require a person to maintain sobriety while living there. They support residents in their recovery, but the program is not hospital-based.
There are also some alternative methods that can be used in treatment, particularly to help with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. These include herbal remedies, exercise, acupuncture, yoga, or massages.
Once a user leaves a treatment facility and has completed their detox, the work doesn’t simply end there. It is important for a user to have a relapse prevention plan to stop them from using amphetamines again and falling back into a cycle of addiction. Some options for recovery plans include the following:
Myths About Amphetamines
Myth #1: Amphetamines Like Ritalin and Adderall Make You Smarter
Although amphetamines might improve your focus and concentration, they don’t help you learn any better, and they do not make you smarter. To learn better, you have to exercise your brain through repetition. Using amphetamines is a shortcut that does not exercise your brain and won’t help you to learn new information or skills. Actually, research has shown that students who use drugs like Ritalin and Adderall have lower GPAs in high school and college than those who don’t. 4
Myth #2: Amphetamines Make You Perform Better
Athletes believe that amphetamines can make your physical performance better and can make you run faster. This is because amphetamines speed up the central nervous system and can provide an increase in energy, but contrary to belief, they do not improve physical performance. Although they might provide more energy, that energy does not suddenly mean that you can run faster or perform better. Unfortunately, due to this belief, many athletes have turned to amphetamines to try and improve their performance. In reality, amphetamine use is harming athletes rather than helping them since they are using the drug without a valid medical reason. 5
Myth #3: Amphetamines are Good for Weight Loss
Many people believe that because amphetamines speed up your metabolism, they are a good way to lose weight. While you might lose weight when using amphetamines, the weight loss will not be permanent and is not healthy. Once amphetamines finish metabolizing fat, they start metabolizing muscle, and eventually, they begin to metabolize your organs, which can cause organ failure. Rather than losing a healthy amount of weight, people who use amphetamines for weight loss typically end up underweight and addicted to the drug. Amphetamines can also destroy your hair, skin, teeth, and nails.
Myth #4: Amphetamines are Not Harmful
Because amphetamines can be prescribed by doctors, people tend to believe that they are not harmful. While prescription amphetamines such as Adderall and Ritalin are effective when taken in the correct dosages and for medical issues such as ADHD, they can be very harmful to people who take them without a medical reason. Amphetamine is highly addictive when taken incorrectly and can lead to overdose, especially when mixed with other drugs.
Myth #5: Amphetamines are Prescribed by Doctors, So They are Not Addictive
Amphetamines are highly addictive, which is why they can only be used when prescribed by doctors for a valid medical reason, and when taken in the correct dosages. Just because amphetamines are a prescription medication does not mean they don’t have the potential to be abused. Many legal prescription drugs, when taken incorrectly, pose a dangerous threat of addiction and overdose.
Myth #6: Taking Someone Else’s Amphetamine Prescription is Okay
Doctors prescribe medication to an individual based on their weight, symptoms, and body chemistry. When taking amphetamines, doctors will monitor how you react to them and might adjust the medication depending on your symptoms. If someone else starts taking your prescription, it will not be individually tailored to their needs and symptoms, especially if they are taking it for non-medical reasons.
Myth #7: If Your Doctor Prescribes Amphetamine, it Doesn’t Matter How you Take it
It is very important to take any medication that has been prescribed exactly as directed. You should never take more or less than the dosage that has been prescribed. Pills should always be swallowed orally and should not be crushed or dissolved to be ingested differently. It is also important to advise your doctor of any other medications you are taking as it can be very dangerous to mix amphetamines with other medications, as well as with alcohol.
Are Amphetamines and Methamphetamines Different?
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding amphetamines is that amphetamines and methamphetamines are the same things. While they are chemically similar, amphetamines and methamphetamines are very different. While amphetamines are most commonly associated with Adderall and Ritalin, methamphetamines are typically known as the illegal drug meth or crystal meth. Amphetamines are legal and prescribed by doctors for medical issues such as ADHD while methamphetamines are widely known to be more dangerous and are thus illegal worldwide.6
While both drugs have addictive properties and can be dangerous, methamphetamines enter your brain faster and cause a stronger and quicker high. Although both amphetamines and methamphetamines are Schedule II drugs (meaning that the Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled them as having a high potential for abuse), methamphetamines are a more popular street drug and lead to higher rates of addiction. Although both have high potentials for abuse, amphetamine is a prescribed medication while methamphetamine is an illegal street drug.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that nationwide, overdose deaths related to the category of drugs that includes methamphetamines increased 7.5 times between 2007 and 2017. That is a huge increase in the number of deaths related to drugs such as methamphetamines.
Recovery from Amphetamine Addiction
Recovery from amphetamine addiction can be difficult. Many people would benefit from a medically supervised detox and recovery. The medical supervision can reduce the harmful physical and mental effects, and reduce the chance of a relapse. Doctors will also be able to prescribe and monitor helpful medications closely. Medically supervised detox for amphetamine addiction also allows the facility to provide education and support to you and your family. If you are addicted to amphetamines, consider seeing a professional right away.