How Does Adderall Work?

Adderall works by affecting the brain, causing a stimulant effect. More on how Adderall works in the brain, nervous system and for how long here.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

ARTICLE SUMMARY: Adderall is a stimulant, psychoactive drug. It works by “speeding up” processes. As a side effect, it also increases the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.


Physical Effects

In general, Adderall (amphetamine salts) work in the body by affecting the brain and nervous system.  20 -30 minutes after oral administration, users usually feel a rush of energy and clarity which focuses their attention and quiets their appetite. This focus boosting cocktail alerts your sensations giving your brain the impression that it’s incredibly powerful and working at maximum efficiency.

However, some users can also experience a mild euphoric lift. This is because the amphetamines in Adderall are stimulants that block the chemicals that temper reward-based responses. This side effect – Adderall can get people high – is the reason it’s been classified as a Schedule II drug in the Controlled Substances Act.

Negative Side Effects

When people take Adderall, they can also experience unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, side effects. Most commonly, this includes stomach pain or headache. But even at normal doses Adderall can sometimes cause more serious adverse effects, including:

  • hallucinations
  • heart problems
  • seizures
  • shortness of breath

…or changes in behavior. There’s no way to predict who will experience these adverse effects, but they’re more likely to occur when Adderall is taken in a way other than directed by a doctor. You can report Adderall to the FDA through their online program, MedWatch.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that amphetamines like Adderall have a high potential for abuse. In fact, the FDA-approved label for Adderall warns that administration of amphetamines for prolonged periods of time may lead to drug dependence and should be avoided. The FDA further warns that, “Misuse of amphetamine may cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular adverse events.”

Brain Effects

The amphetamine salts found in Adderall are central nervous system stimulants. At its most basic level, Adderall works by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, in the brain. This is why people who use Adderall for non medical reasons may experience euphoric effect. And pursuing an Adderall high can get you addicted to amphetamines.

But therapeutic use of Adderall rarely develops into addiction. Adderall works in people with excessive sleepiness (narcolepsy) by stimulating the central nervous system. In people with ADHD, it has a paradoxical effect, helping them focus and remain calm. People using Adderall to treat ADHD won’t get “high” from their medication. Adderall’s stimulant qualities can affect the brain and nervous system and result in:

  • difficulty with sleep
  • nervousness
  • restlessness

In a 2006 testimony before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources Committee on Government Reform, United States House of Representatives, the National Institute of Drug Abuse Director, Dr. Nora Volkow explained the addiction potential of Adderall to be similar to cocaine. Additionally, doctors suggest that Adderall should not be used for more than a month because it might provoke drug dependence. Drug dependence is different than addiction, but can be a sign of it. To learn more, check out this Addiction Blog article on how people get addicted to Adderall.

Onset Of Effects

Adderall reaches its peak level in the blood in 1-2 hours. At that point, it has taken full effect. Sometimes people will crush and snort the powder from the tablets to try to get more immediate effects. Although possible, this practice is very dangerous. Snorting Adderall can result in increased adverse effects, overdose, or even sudden death.


Adderall stays in the body for several days, with a half life averaging around 10-11 hours. The extended-release formula will remain effective throughout the day, while the immediate release may need to be taken more frequently and is prescribed two or more times daily.


Adderall works best when it’s taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Taking Adderall only when you feel you “need” it can actually make the medication less effective. Taking Adderall with large amounts of vitamin C may also lessen the effects of Adderall. However, Adderall can be taken on an empty stomach to get the best effect.

Adderall is addictive and should be avoided by people with a history of addiction.

Mixing Adderall With Alcohol

Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol with Adderall does NOT enhance Adderall effects.  Instead, drinking while on Adderall increases your risk of alcohol poisoning and related accidents or death.

According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Report, published on July 2, 2012 Adderall abuse became a serious concern in the U.S. because it leads many people to serious health problems including overdose. To be more precise, the statistics revealed that in 2010, there were over 31,000 emergency room visits due to stimulants abuse. These numbers mark a 196% increase from 2004.


Adderall should not be used as a long term solution. It is known to provoke tolerance, or the need for more amounts or more frequent dosing to achieve initial therapeutic effect. Studies of chronic Adderall administration as early as the 1980’s evidence this.

In the article titled, “Dopamine Dilemma,” author Dr. Jason Yanofski, MD built on the idea that Adderall may actually become less effective over time. His studies of the phenomenon of paradoxical decompensation in Adderall patients theorize that decreasing the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine is the opposite of what patients with ADHD need, and could theoretically lead to worsening of symptoms.

Furthermore, this stimulant has quite a reputation among the “highly addictive” prescription drugs. In theory, amphetamine salts shouldn’t be prescribed to anyone who doesn’t need it for a legitimate medical purpose due to the risks of side effects, including possible addiction. And in some people, Adderall can trigger serious side effects, particularly those with a history of seizures or cardiovascular conditions.

Missing A Dose

Medline Plus advises that if you happen to forget a dose you should take it as soon as you remember. However, if it is almost time for your next scheduled dose, than it’s best to skip the missed dose. Whatever you do make sure NOT to take Adderall before going to bed since it might cause sleeping problems.

IMPORTANT:  DO NOT take extra medicine to make up your missed dose. Make sure you consult your doctor in case you forget a dose.

Dosing Guidelines

It is a recommended medical practice to start using Adderall at the lowest effective dosage. But in general, how much Adderall is safe for a person in terms of dosing is up to 40 mg per day for children, and 60 mg per day for adults. More or less dosage will depend upon physical tolerance to amphetamines.

The dosing regimen should always be adjusted according to a persons individual response and their therapeutic needs. 

Adderall is available in the following forms and strength:

ADDERALL XR 5 mg capsules
ADDERALL XR 10 mg capsules
ADDERALL XR 15 mg capsules
ADDERALL XR 20 mg capsules
ADDERALL XR 25 mg capsules
ADDERALL XR 30 mg capsules

Children: 6-12 year old children with ADHD should start with 10 mg once daily in the morning. The daily dosage may be adjusted and increased from 5 to 10 mg at weekly intervals. The maximum recommended dose for children is 30 mg per day. Doses larger than 30 mg per day of have not been studied in children. NOTE HERE: The use of Adderall for children younger than 6 years has not been studied yet.

Adolescents: The recommended starting Adderall dose for adolescents between 13 and 17 years is 10 mg per day. The dose may be increased to 20 mg  after 1 week if ADHD symptoms do not resolve.

Adults: In adults diagnosed with ADHD who are either starting treatment for the first time or switching from another medication, the recommended dose is 20 mg/day.

Signs of a Problem

In 2016, the Monitoring the Future study found that college students were using Adderall more often than Ritalin in order to enhance performance, or to get high. This is one way that you can start a problem with Adderall. Basically, if you’re taking Adderall for effect…and cannot stop, you may need professional help.

Other red flags that signal a problem can include:

  • An increased tolerance for Adderall; needing more over time.
  • Continuing to take Adderall in spite of problems with health, home, work, or school.
  • Craving Adderall.
  • Taking more Adderall than you plan.
  • Thinking obsessively about your next dose.

The bottom line is this: if you think Adderall is a problem, it probably is.

Using stimulants to get high will work… for a time. Inevitably, the effects wear off and leave you with a dopamine crash. If you notice any of the signs above and want to get help, reach out. Either call us on our hotline, seek medical advice from a doctor, talk to a pharmacist, or whatever it takes.

Just know that losing control of Adderall doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Drug problems are medical problems.

They can be treated. It’s up to you to seek the help.

Leave Your Questions Here

Still have a question about amphetamines?

In case you have any further questions, please feel free to post them below. We will try our best to answer you personally and promptly. And if we don’t know the answer to your question(s), we’ll refer you to someone who does.

Reference Sources: NHTSA Drug and Human Performance Fact Sheets: Methamphetamine (And Amphetamine)
Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention: Prescription Stimulants: Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Dexedrine
FDA Medication Guide: Adderall XR
Toxnet: Amphetamine
Medline Plus: Dextroamphetamine and Amphetamine
NCBI: Long-acting stimulants: development and dosing
FDA: Adderall 
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS serves as the Chief Medical Officer of the Texas Healt...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.


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  1. I have a mix between anxiety and add and when I take adderall the concentration is at its best . However I noticed it makes me more irritable and when they put me on lexapro for anxiety I had no energy. Is there a way to take both to help with both things. I know I need to make sure I check with my doctor but I don’t know if you have any advice on what to even ask for my doctor on both issues.

  2. Hi! I have a gene mutation that makes me a super metabolizer for Adderall! I was curious if you were familiar with what does I should take, since I metabolize it quickly, what would a safe dose be for me? If you would need specifics of the gene mutation and weight in order to calculate it, I can put those in my reply. I have an appointment next Friday, so I’d like to show my doctor a suggested dose. I finally did my psychological testing and was diagnosed with ADHD at 29, I’ve been in need of something for focus for so long and I really hope this is the one that helps me find some order in my head. Thank you!

  3. Should Adderall be prescribed to someone who has not been properly diagnosed? My husband was put on it just because he told his dr that he couldn’t focus. That is all the dr needed to hear and now this is the fourth time he has been on it in a little over a year and he forgets things he says, gets mean and says things that my husband would never say. Every time he comes off of it he doesn’t remember saying any of these things. What can I do?

    1. Hi Help. I suggest that you consult with another doctor, and seek help from a professional for your husband’s behavior.

  4. If you are unable to get your prescription refilled for several weeks can this make you unusually sleepy if you take adarell for sleep apnea?

  5. My son who is 15 weighs around 140ibs, started to take adderal extended release at 10 mgs per day. Its been almost a week now and he claims to not feel any different and thinks that it is not working. Does he need to give it more time, increase the dosage, or is it not the one for him. There are alot of stimulants to choise from. What do you think? Please help….

    1. Hi Jennifer. Wait for a while, and see if there’s an effect. If there’s still no effect, I suggest that you consult with your son’s doctor.

  6. My son has ADDH, as a child he took ridlin. His dr’s say it won’t work for him (adderaol). What can be done to let him at least try it for a trial period. He is now an adult. Is there any other drug that will work for ADDH? TKANKS

    1. Hi Sheila. Have your son tried functioning without medications? First, I suggest that your son consult with his doctor, and runs some tests to see whether he can manage without medications.

  7. In response to Lynn, and Lyn Row’s questions, I am on Wellbutrin, and take the generic version called Buproprion. My psychiatrist knew this, and gave me a script for adderall, 20 mg 2x daily. So there is not a problem with the mixture, assuming you do not have other chemical input to sway the dynamic. He did tell me not to take nuvigil (armodafanil is the generic) while taking adderall, because they are both uppers, and can compound each others affects for potentially adverse and unpredictable affects, given my needs and situation. You also do not want pseudophedrine added to the chemical composition in your body, again, because sudafed and others including this medication serve as uppers.

    another insight or observation from conversing with my doctor and my own research, Adderall speeds up the neuro transmitters within your brain, and for a person with ADD, whose frontal cortex (controlling the executive functions of the brain, i.e. decision making) is firing super speed compared to normal brain function, Adderall does not slow that part of the brain down, but rather speeds up the communication with the rest of the brain, so that decisions and thoughts do not get lost or distracted from before the executive decision has a chance to reach the part of the brain or body that will “remember” it or carry it out. The “upper” effect of adderall, on a person with ADD, has a calming affect because it balances the wobbliness in the brain as it functions.
    With those who do not have ADD or the symptoms of ADD are affected in the opposite way, because an Upper for them will actually amplify everything in their brain and body, accellerating it beyond the speed of the Frontal Cortex, creating a gap between stimulus and the ability to process it.

    Like imagine a pair of vehicles driving side by side. This is normal, balanced brain function.
    For an ADD brain, vehicle A is far ahead (the frontal cortex) and Adderall speeds up Car B (the rest of the brain and the ability to execute messages from A) so they can drive side by side again.
    For a non-ADD brain, Adderall speeds up car B, creating antic energy in the execution side of the brain as well as the body, while Car A stays put, and the decision making ability of that brain is no longer able to effectively deliver messages to the other parts of the brain because they are no longer paying attention.

    Just hoping to help explain in layman’s terms what is going on.
    Be Blessed.

  8. I’m wondering how the adderall xr 10mg works. how many times does it release (from what i understand it is a times release so it lasts about 12 hours?) and how many mg does it release each time?

  9. Can half a 30 mg adderall (pill not capsule ) Enhance your performance in physical sports like Football,MMA, Boxing, or Hockey? Or will it affect performance negatively

    1. Hi Jose. Adderall is used only as prescribed by a doctor. So, I suggest that you speak with your doctor about your concern.

  10. I accidentally grabbed the wrong bottle of medicine and took my nine year Olds adderall 15 mg by mistake. I’m 43 and weigh 200 lbs. I am on a prescription for buproprion and I’m scared of what it’s going to do. I tried to make myself throw up and couldn’t do it. Should I be worried

    1. Hi, Lynn. Vomiting may not help eliminate drugs from the system if they have not been metabolized, and will not help you feel better. Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, or if you don’t feel well, call 911 ASAP.

  11. Can anyone answer Lyn Rows question regarding Adderall, Levoxyl, and Wellbutrin. I am on all three as well. My docs do not know I am taking the adderall. I am also on Testim1%.

  12. Would an overdose occur during the peak? Im not prescribed it and I never do it. But today I used 3 15mg Ir throughout the day. Its been 9 hours since the last dose. I have a little bit of a fast heart rate but nothing debilitating. I think its more of me being scared I took to much. Should I be okay?

  13. I was prescribed adder all for years for excessive day time sleepyness and it worked great for me. I was able to stay awake and get my daily tasks done no problem and actually got my daily activities done quicker then normal but I had noticed I was becoming dependent to it also after about a couple of months my doctor would have to up the dosage because I was getting used to it. I have quit taking it since then because I didn’t want to form a full on addiction to it. I took it for about 3-4 years been off it for about 3, 3 1/2, 4 years and have learned to work through my day without it. Also had to stop taking it because the perscription is expensive and I don’t have insurance to help cover it. I was taking 50mg once a day.

  14. My doctor switched me from Vyvanse 40MG to Adderall IR 20MG.
    The Adderall doesn’t feel like the Vyvanse at all, although they both are Amphetamines.
    Question time: Vyvanse works by turning on your body’s Fight or Flight Response. Does adderall do the same thing, or is it doing something different, because like i said before, It doesn’t feel like the Vyvanse did.

  15. Hello Glen. Thanks for your question. Adderall affects each person differently. She’ll have to give it a try (at the lowest therapeutic dose possible), record the side effects and report back to her prescribing doctor for adjustments, when needed. But it’s really quite impossible to predict the outcome of an ADHD medication until you start it.

  16. My wife takes Adderall for ADHD and she tells me that if were to take it it acts like speed. Well that may be true what I need answered is will Adderall not only help her excutive funtions but in some way act like speed to her? Will it keep her awake or perk her up after she takes it. Because it is an Amphetamine not only does it add dopemine to her brain but will stimilate her heart and body??? thank you

  17. Hi Jeff. Adderall can work for some people to treat daytime fatigue. But if you find yourself wired, note the symptoms, the time and dosage of Adderall and report them to your prescribing doctor. It’s possible that amphetamines are not right for you.

  18. Hi, I was formally diagnosed with narcolepsy in 2005, tried provigil and nuvigil on and off for years, new doctor just prescribed adderrall 20mg 2x per day. I am very nervous about taking it, have tried it 2x so far and gave me bad insomnia which is horrible for someone already sleepy. Should I be nervous about taking it? Has it been shown to be beneficial in treating excessive daytime sleepiness? Thanks

  19. Hi Janet. This is a question best fielded by your prescribing doctor or a pharmacist. Please let us know if need additional help.

  20. I have been prescribed Adderall IR 10mg twice per day. Is this a medication that has to be taken on a regular basis in order to be effective? And how long before I notice any benefit from the medication?

  21. Hi Matt. Thanks for your question. It seems to be both. Effects of stimulants are dose-dependent and higher doses can lead to better therapeutic responses, depending on medical use. Furthermore, the time of peak effects and the duration of action can increase with increased doses of Adderall. You can read more by searching for “ adderall dose length of action” in your internet browser.

  22. Hi Annonomous. While it may not be too dangerous to take a low dose of Adderall, it is ILLEGAL. If you are caught taking someone else’s prescription, you can be jailed. Also, Adderall has been known to cause adverse side effects such as heart palpitations, dry mouth, rashes or impotence. Sudden death has also been reported on Adderall, although these cases are rare. We DO NOT RECOMMEND taking Adderall to study…the enhanced focus and concentration can compel you to use Adderall more often, and even become addicted to it. Did we answer your question?

  23. Hi Matthew. Great question, thanks. Adderall is prescribed with caution to anyone with a personal or family history of ANY drug, alcohol or substance addiction. Adderall can cause euphoria, and there is a higher risk of developing an amphetamine addiction in these populations than in people with no prior history of substance abuse.

  24. “Adderall is addictive and should be avoided by people with a history of addiction.” Does this mean anyone who is addicted to any drug, or only individuals addicted to amphetamines?

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