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Stimulant Medications for ADHD: How They Work & Side Effects

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

  • Stimulant medications for ADHD boost dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain's central nervous system. They can enhance focus and reduce ADHD-related fatigue.

  • Medications are taken in pill form and can be short-lasting (taken multiple times a day) or long-lasting(taken once a day in the morning).

  • The most commonly prescribed ADHD medications are stimulants, such as methylphenidate and amphetamines.

  • Stimulant meds, generally safe for ADHD, can cause side effects like appetite loss, insomnia, high blood pressure, and headaches. Severity varies based on individuals and dosage.

Among all children, 2-17 years of age with ADHD, 6 out of 10 (62%) take medication for their ADHD and represent 1 out of 20 of all U.S. children. The most commonly prescribed medications are stimulants, such as methylphenidate and amphetamines.

Exploring How ADHD Medications Work

Stimulant drugs work on the central nervous system by increasing the amounts of hormones called dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. They are often effective in increasing concentration and decreasing the fatigue common in ADHD.

Medications are taken in pill form and can be short-lasting (taken multiple times a day) or long-lasting (taken once a day in the morning).

Stimulant medications can lead to a decrease in symptoms in up to 70% of children with ADHD . The FDA approves the use of stimulant medications in children over age 6, but children as young as 4 or 5 are commonly being prescribed these medications as well..

Depending on health care coverage, medication can be expensive in the long run, as the benefits are only seen as long as the person continues to take the medication.

What Are Nonstimulant Medications for ADHD?

Nonstimulant medications for ADHD provide an alternative treatment approach for individuals who may not respond well to stimulant medications or prefer a different option.

These medications primarily target ADHD symptoms by affecting certain neurotransmitters in the brain.

Atomoxetine, for instance, is a nonstimulant medication that increases the levels of norepinephrine in the brain (a hormone that regulate alertness, attention, and the body's physiological reactions to stress), helping to improve focus and impulse control.

Guanfacine and clonidine, on the other hand, work by affecting alpha-2 adrenergic receptors (they're like "brakes" in the nervous system, calming the body and boosting focus by slowing down nerve signals), which can lead to enhanced attention and reduced hyperactivity.

Nonstimulant medications are often chosen for their lower risk of abuse and addiction compared to stimulants, making them a valuable choice for individuals with a history of substance abuse or those who experience adverse side effects with stimulant medications.

Side Effects of ADHD Medication

While stimulant medications have been deemed to be safe for use in treating ADHD, there are some common side effects, including loss of appetite, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, and headaches. The severity of side effects varies between individuals and depending on medication dosage.

Researchers are still debating the benefits of stimulant medication in treating ADHD, and a number of interesting studies have been done in recent years which question the efficacy and long-term benefits of stimulant medications for ADHD.

For instance, a 2014 study done in Quebec, Canada, following a policy change that led to an increase in the prescription of stimulant medications for ADHD, found that this increase in medication did not lead to improvement in emotional functioning or academic outcomes among children with ADHD in the medium or long run.


ADHD medication options highlight personalized treatment, stressing collaboration with your provider to find the right fit for your needs. However, the journey doesn't end with prescription and dosage. Your healthcare provider should closely observe your progress and any potential side effects.

Furthermore, it's important to note that medication is just one facet of the comprehensive approach to managing ADHD. Beyond pharmaceutical intervention, cognitive behavioral therapy and neurofeedback are among the potential tools at your disposal.

Your healthcare provider should guide you through these alternatives, designing a holistic strategy that addresses your specific circumstances and aspirations.

Through informed decisions, careful monitoring, and a personalized treatment plan, you'll be empowered to embrace a future filled with improved focus, productivity, and overall well-being.

Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you improve your focus, as well as manage ADHD symptoms such as inattention and impulsivity. Take this 10-second quiz to check if you’re eligible to kick-start your journey for better brain health.


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