Written by Dr. Savannah Muncy, Pharm.D on
September 11, 2021
Written by Dr. Savannah Muncy, Pharm.D on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

What does ADHD medication do to the brain? See, when we think of medication for ADHD, many people think it’s a cure-all. But what is actually going on in your head when you take this type of medication?

In this article, we will discuss what exactly happens to your brain and what side effects you can expect from taking ADHD medications.

ADHD Medications

ADHD medications like Adderall or Ritalin are stimulants used to treat ADHD symptoms.

These drugs increase the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain, which can improve memory, attention span, and brain activity levels—basically, what you would expect from an effective medication for ADHD.

The Dopamine Connection

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that influences feelings of pleasure, motivation, and what we identify as ‘desire’—it plays an important role in the brain’s reward system.

When you do something pleasurable (for example, eat delicious food or watch a movie series that you love), your body releases dopamine to make it memorable—essentially, what the brain is trying to do through dopamine release, is increase this pleasurable behavior.

ADHD medications work by increasing levels of dopamine in what’s called the mesolimbic pathway. This area of your brain contains a reward center that responds to healthy rewards like food and sex, as well as drugs such as nicotine and cocaine.

The Norepinephrine Connection

Norepinephrine is what’s known as a ‘stress hormone’—it increases your heart rate and blood pressure but also acts to improve memory storage.

When taking ADHD medications, norepinephrine levels are increased in another part of the brain called the locus coeruleus—this part of the brain is what modulates your stress response and manages how you respond to stressful stimuli.

Increasing norepinephrine in the locus coeruleus helps manage ADHD symptoms by allowing people with ADHD to concentrate despite their surroundings.

For example, if someone were taking an exam, they would most likely be able to focus better even when it’s noisy due to the effects of norepinephrine.

What does ADHD medication do to the brain?

ADHD medication works by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain.

These medications are stimulants, which increase dopamine and norepinephrine. Increases in these brain chemicals can help improve attention span, memory storage, motivation, desire for pleasurable activities as well as overall activity level. 

Side Effects of ADHD Medication

ADHD medications are generally safe, but there are side effects to be aware of. The most common ones include the following:

  • loss of appetite
  • dry mouth/skin
  • sleep problems (insomnia) or weight changes 
  • irritability
  • stomach aches or headaches

These side effects can often be managed by adjusting dosage amounts and timing throughout the day.

It’s important to take these medications as prescribed by your doctor, even if you are feeling well.

When stopping ADHD medication abruptly, side effects can be worse than what they were originally, so it is always best to discuss any changes with your physician first.

Side effects vary depending on what type of ADHD medication you are taking.

For example, some medications might make you have difficulty sleeping—which is what causes the most common side effects from Adderall and Ritalin. In contrast, Vyvanse has a lower risk of insomnia.

Other forms of treatment for ADHD symptoms include therapy or even dietary changes such as what diet causes ADHD.

Also, it is important to note that ADHD medications are not a cure-all but can be an effective tool in managing symptoms of ADHD as well as improving concentration and memory storage to help people with ADHD focus on what’s important—just like everyone else does.

Long-Term Effects of ADHD Medication on the Brain

It’s important to discuss what long-term effects ADHD medications have on the brain and how they work in conjunction with other treatments—such as therapy or dietary changes that can help improve symptoms of ADHD.

Long-term use is not associated with any known side effects; however, doctors do recommend taking breaks from medication every once in a while if possible (for example, for about two weeks every three months).

This allows your brain to go back to its original state, so you can see what it’s like without ADHD medications.

That said, the effects of stopping medication are often worse than what they originally were before starting treatment, so there is always a risk involved in taking breaks from these medications.

ADHD medications can help reduce the risk of developing social or emotional issues—such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems—which is what happens when you stop taking them abruptly without supervision from a doctor.

Additionally, other treatments work well with ADHD medication, such as therapy to learn strategies for coping with symptoms as well as what diet causes ADHD.

The brain is an incredibly complex organ—and what does ADHD medication do to the brain is only one of many factors that play into what happens when you have this disorder.

In order to determine what will work best for your unique needs, it’s important to talk with a doctor about what treatment options are available.

Always speak to your physician about ADHD medications and what you should expect from treatment options—since there is no one-size-fits-all approach for everyone with this disorder.

Benefits of ADHD Medication

The benefits of ADHD medication are what make it a useful tool in managing symptoms as well as improving concentration and memory storage.

In addition to reducing the effects of impulsivity, hyperactivity, and lack of focus, these medications can also:

  • increase motivation for pleasurable activities such as exercise or social interactions.
  • help people with ADHD focus on what’s important, even when it is stressful.
  • improve self-esteem and mood by managing symptoms to help people function in daily life—such as going back to school or work after a long absence due to their illness. 

What does ADHD medication feel like?

If you’re wondering what does ADHD medication feel like, it’s important to note that each person is unique, and what works for one person might not work as well for someone else.

For example, some people report feeling a “rush” of energy when they take stimulant medications such as what causes ADHD—whereas others experience heightened feelings of anxiety or irritability.

The side effects of medication for ADHD vary depending on what type you are taking—such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, or other forms that may not be stimulants (like Intuniv).

Other common side effects include appetite loss, dry mouth, and weight loss or gain.

However, what happens when you stop taking ADHD medication varies from person to person—and again, no two people have the exact same experience.

Does ADHD damage the brain?

There is no conclusive evidence that suggests ADHD medications cause any long-term damage.

As with anything else in life, it’s important not to abuse what causes ADHD—and at doctor’s orders taking breaks from medication can help avoid building up a tolerance or dependence on what helps treat this disorder.

What happens when I stop taking my medications?

Since adult brains aren’t fully developed until we reach our mid-20s, what happens when you stop taking medication for ADHD varies from person to person.

For example, some people might have a more difficult time with impulsivity and hyperactivity than before they started treatment—while others see no changes in these symptoms after stopping their medications.

It’s important that if you choose to take medication for ADHD, you do so under the supervision of a doctor or mental health professional.

Strategies to cope with symptoms when taking ADHD medications may include therapy—which helps people understand symptoms of ADHD and how they can manage them more effectively without requiring medications.  

Additional strategies to cope may also include:

  • exercise routines, including yoga and meditation.
  • eating a healthy diet that includes lots of whole grains and vegetables.
  • getting enough sleep. 
  • using tools to stay organized and manage time more efficiently, such as using a mobile device to help keep track of what you need to get done each day. 

ADHD Zombie Effect: Truth or False?

Some people might think what happens when you stop taking ADHD medication is that they become what doctors call “zombies” or completely unresponsive.

However, this isn’t the case!

It’s more likely that some symptoms flare up as a result, which may also cause some people to feel irritable and unfocused—but this always varies from one person to another.

And while some people report feeling “zombie-like” or sluggish after stopping taking medication for ADHD, others experience no changes in symptoms whatsoever.

Long-Term Effects of Stimulants on the Brain

Stimulants are what cause ADHD medication to work.

While stimulant medications may be very helpful for some individuals, others find that they can lead to tolerance or dependence, which means people need higher doses over time in order to get the same effect.

For this reason, it’s important not to take ADHD medication without first consulting with your doctor.

Strategies to avoid tolerance or dependence include taking breaks from stimulants or even switching medications entirely if what helps treat ADHD no longer seems effective. 

Concluding Thoughts

Medication for ADHD generally helps your brain fight the disorder and manage its symptoms.

And as a general rule, ADHD medications are best used under the supervision of a doctor or mental health professional who can monitor what works and what doesn’t, as well as how often you need your medication refilled.

The side effects associated with taking medication for ADHD are usually mild, and no two people have the exact same experience.

If your doctor prescribes an ADHD medication, it’s best not to skip doses or stop treatment altogether without first consulting with them so they can help you assess what’s best for your needs.

If you are not so sure yet if you or someone you know has ADHD or if you want to get the right prescription that suits you best, take this ADHD quiz today.

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