How does Ritalin work?

Ritalin works by affecting the brain, causing a stimulant effect. Ritalin can make you more alert, but it can also cause seizures, heart palpitations or even hallucinations. More on how Ritalin works in the brain and body here.

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Ritalin (methylphenidate) is a prescription stimulant drug that’s used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.  How does Ritalin affect the body and brain? Does it have the same effects for everyone? Is Ritalin addictive? We’ll explore all those questions and more in this article. And we invite your questions about Ritalin at the end.

How does Ritalin work in the body?

Ritalin is a stimulant which works in the body by exciting the central nervous system. Rather than seek a Ritalin high, however, athletes and students use Ritalin for performance enhancement.  But Ritalin in system can be detected for a couple of days after ingestion for urinalysis.  In the body, however, Ritalin’s direct stimulant qualities can result in:

  • agitation
  • constricted blood vessels
  • increased blood glucose
  • increased blood pressure
  • increased heart rate
  • nervousness
  • opened up breathing passages
  • restlessness

Ritalin can also have unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, side effects. Most commonly, this includes dizziness, muscle tightness, or uncontrollable movements. But even at normal doses Ritalin can sometimes cause more serious adverse effects, such as shortness of breath, seizures, fast/pounding heartbeat, hallucinations, or changes in behavior and mood. There’s no way to predict who will experience these adverse effects, but they’re more likely to occur when Ritalin is taken in a way other than directed by a doctor (injecting or snorting Ritalin).

How does Ritalin affect the brain and nervous system?

Ritalin is a central nervous system stimulant. Ritalin (methylphenidate) acts in the brain similarly to a family of key brain neurotransmitters called monoamines, which include norepinephrine and dopamine. Stimulants enhance the effects of these chemicals in the brain. So at the most basic level, Ritalin works by increasing the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, stimulating attention and motivational circuits that your ability to focus and complete tasks. This action results in improved performance and cognitive enhancement.

In people with ADHD, Ritalin helps them focus and remain calm. But because Ritalin can significantly increase levels of dopamine in the brain, more and more people seek it for recreational or performance use. In fact, non-medical use of Ritalin is on the rise. Cognitive enhancement is one of the main reason that college students use Ritalin to study. And the surge in dopamine that comes with non-medical Ritalin use is also one of the reasons take Ritalin to get high. But taking Ritalin for non-medical reasons increase likelihood of Ritalin addiction.

How fast does Ritalin work

Ritalin reaches its peak level in the blood within 2 hours. Some people will crush and snort the powder from the tablets to try to get immediate effects, but this is very dangerous, especially with the extended release version of Ritalin. Although Ritalin may hit the system and take effect almost immediately, snorting Ritalin effects can result in increased instances of adverse effects, overdose, and potential death.

How long does Ritalin work?

Ritalin has a short half-life of only 1-3 hours, meaning it leaves the blood within a day. The extended-release formula will remain effective throughout the day, while the immediate release only works for 3-4 hours at a time.

What makes Ritalin work better

Taking Ritalin on an empty stomach may help your body absorb Ritalin better. But in general, Ritalin works best when it’s taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Taking Ritalin only when you feel you “need” it can actually make it less effective overall.

Does Ritalin work for everyone?

No, Ritalin is not right for everyone. Methylphenidate is a potentially addictive drug and should be avoided or taken with caution for certain people. First, Ritalin shouldn’t be prescribed to anyone who doesn’t need methylphenidate for a legitimate medical purpose due. Ritalin can have serious side effects in some people. Second, Ritalin should be avoided by people with a history of seizures or cardiovascular conditions due to medical risk. And third, people with a history of drug abuse or alcohol problems should consult a doctor before taking Ritalin.

How Ritalin works questions

Still have questions about how Ritalin works? Please leave your questions here. We try to answer all legitimate Ritalin questions personally and promptly. We also invite your comments and opinions about Ritalin in our comments section below.

Reference Sources: National Drug Intelligence Center: Ritalin Fast Facts
PubMed Health: Methylphenidate
Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention: Recreational Use of Ritalin on College Campuses
MedlinePlus: Methyphenidate
Brookhaven National Laboratory: How Ritalin Works

NIDA: How do stimulants affect the brain and body?
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.
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