Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder affecting children and adults. ADHD is characterized by increased impulsivity and focus problems, making certain aspects of life, education, and socialization more difficult.

ADHD is often treated with stimulant medications like Ritalin and Adderall. Both of these drugs are similar substances useful in treating ADHD and other issues like narcolepsy. While they are similar, they come with some subtle differences that may make them better or worse for your needs. But how do these drugs compare, and what are their respective side effects? Learn more about Ritalin and Adderall and which one might be better for your needs.

Why Is ADHD Treated with Stimulants?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often begins in young children and may be present from birth. The exact causes of ADHD are unknown, but it’s likely due to several contributing factors, including genetics, early brain injuries, low birth weight, early exposure to environmental toxins, and smoking during pregnancy.

The disorder causes inattention and hyperactivity, but it can also contribute to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. But if a disorder causes hyperactivity and the inability to focus, why would you want to take a stimulant? Stimulants work because of how ADHD affects your brain chemistry. 

Dopamine is an important chemical in your brain that’s related to reward, motivation, and pleasure. Things like eating your favorite meal, your first kiss, and crawling into a warm, comfortable bed at night cause a significant release of dopamine, which then binds to your dopamine receptors to cause feelings of pleasure. 

This chemical is important in encouraging you to repeat health activities like finding food, shelter, and companionship. However, while you’re doing regular tasks, there are low levels of ambient dopamine in your system that keep you motivated, even through tasks that aren’t very exciting. 

It’s thought that ADHD causes lower ambient dopamine levels. When someone with ADHD is doing certain tasks, low dopamine levels don’t provide enough reward and motivation. Distractions and impulses are hard to resist and constantly pull your attention away from the task. Stimulant medications increase dopamine levels by blocking a reuptake process, which removes chemicals from the brain to recycle them. Since these medications increase dopamine levels, you can easily focus and resist impulses. 

What is Adderall?

Adderall is the prescription brand name that contains a drug called amphetamine. It’s a central nervous system stimulant that increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels. Adderall also contains another stimulant drug called dextroamphetamine. The FDA first approved it in 1996. In 2019, more than 24 million prescriptions were sold, making Adderall the 24th most popular drug in the United States that year. 

Adderall is a useful medication when treating ADHD, but it can also cause side effects, including dependence, addiction, and overdose. These symptoms are typically related to misuse and abuse. Using the drug without a prescription or beyond what is prescribed may increase your risk of uncomfortable side effects and addiction. 

Adderall is sometimes used as a recreational stimulant, but it’s also misused as a cognitive enhancing drug. College students may use Adderall to increase wakefulness and focus through long study sessions. While the drug can keep you awake, like caffeine, there is a lack of evidence that it can improve cognition in people without ADHD. 

What Is Ritalin?

Ritalin is another prescription drug that’s often used to treat ADHD. It contains the active ingredient methylphenidate, which is a central nervous system stimulant similar to amphetamines but chemically different. Methylphenidate is older than Adderall as a medication. It was first synthesized in 1944 and approved for use in the U.S. in 1955. In 2019, more than 14 million prescriptions were written for the drug in the U.S., making Ritalin the 51st most popular drug in the country. 

Like Adderall, Ritalin can be used as a recreational drug in the pursuit of a stimulating high, but it’s also commonly used as a cognitive-enhancing drug. Both Ritalin and Adderall are federally controlled substances and classified as Schedule II substances. This means they are considered to have the potential for abuse though they also have accepted medical uses.

What are Adderall And Ritalin's Side Effects?

Adderall and Ritalin are both stimulants that cause similar effects and side effects in the body. Both can affect the brain and body in ways that are consistent with other central nervous system stimulants. Several common side effects may appear when you first start taking the medications but disappear when your body gets used to them. When you take any new prescription, it’s important to make a note of new, lasting, or worsening symptoms. Keep your doctor informed about the drug’s effectiveness as well. You may need to work with your doctor to find the right medicine and dose for your needs. 

Adults and children may experience some of the same side effects when taking Adderall or Ritalin, especially when you first start taking the drugs. Those common side effects can include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Dry mouth
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness

Children may experience delayed or slowed growth. Stimulants can sometimes stunt the growth of children that take them for a long time. If children fail to meet growth benchmarks while on stimulant medication, they may need to switch to a different medication or stop taking stimulant medications.

When Ritalin and Adderall are used for long periods, they may lead to chemical dependence or addiction. Stimulant dependence can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop taking the drug or cut back. Withdrawal symptoms can include fatigue, hypersomnia, depression, the inability to feel pleasure, and suicidal thoughts.  

Adderall or Ritalin: Which One Is Stronger?

There are several variables to consider when you’re comparing the strengths of two similar medications. It’s important to note that stronger medications aren’t necessarily more effective. The drug that works to treat your symptoms best may not be the strongest option. Plus, there are other variables to consider, such as the time it takes for the drug to kick in and the length of time the medicine works before wearing off.

Adderall and Ritalin cause similar effects, but there are some key differences. Both come in immediate-release and extended-release forms. Immediate-release drugs deliver the full dose as soon as your digestive system starts to break it down. Extended-release versions are designed so that you can take one large dose that slowly releases during the day. Regular Adderall works for four to six hours, while Ritalin works for three to four hours. Extended-release Adderall lasts for eight to 12 hours. Methylphenidate is sold in an extended-release form called Concerta, which lasts for 10 to 14 hours. Ritalin generally starts working faster than Adderall, but it also wears off more quickly. 

The standard doses of Adderall and Ritalin are extremely similar. However, a 1999 study found that Adderall was slightly more effective in smaller doses in adults, suggesting that it’s slightly stronger. However, Ritalin may be the better option for some, especially if they need the drug to work more quickly. In some people, it can take as long as an hour for both drugs to begin working. However, Ritalin can begin working within 20 minutes.


Treatment for Stimulant Addiction

Chemical dependence can occur with regular, long-term use of drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Dependence can cause your body and brain chemistry to rely on either one. If you stop taking it, you may experience a rebound of ADHD symptoms and other symptoms like fatigue and depression. Addiction can also occur after long-term use, but it’s more likely to happen after abusing a prescription stimulant. Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of the brain and causes powerful compulsions to use that are hard to resist. 

Stimulant addiction and dependence can be treated effectively, leading to long-term sobriety. Withdrawal symptoms from stimulants can be uncomfortable, but they usually aren’t deadly. However, in some cases, stimulant withdrawal can cause feelings of depression that lead to suicidal thoughts. It’s important to see help immediately if you’re experiencing these dangerous symptoms. 

Addiction treatment involves several levels of care, including inpatient and outpatient treatment services. Through each level of care, you may go through several therapies that are intended to address your specific needs. Individual, group, and behavioral therapies are common.

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