You may never consider driving to a street corner, rolling down your window, and asking a person standing there to sell you methamphetamine. But if you’ve ever opened up a bottle of Vyvanse and slipped a pill into your mouth with the hopes of a quick and stimulating high, you are engaging in much the same behavior.
Vyvanse is a prescription medication made to help people deal with symptoms of addiction deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Chemically, this drug is quite similar to methamphetamine. Both drugs are associated with addiction, and both drugs can cause severe side effects.
Here’s what you need to know about Vyvanse, along with information about what you can do if you have been caught in a cycle of addiction. This is information that could save your life, or it could help you to save the life of someone you love.
Before we dive into the chemical details of Vyvanse, it might be useful to understand what the drug was initially designed to do and whom it was made to help.
Vyvanse is designed to help people with ADHD, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 4.4 percent of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with this condition.
People with ADHD have a variety of symptoms that can interfere with success in everyday life. They may:
- Fidget and pace during meetings
- Require multiple rest breaks throughout the day
- Take long periods to complete detailed tasks
- Engage in compulsive, inappropriate behavior
- Interrupt and talk over others
- Seem forgetful
These symptoms are vague, and sometimes, they can be attributed to other things. For example, someone going through a particularly nasty divorce may be unable to sleep through the night and feel consumed by sad memories during the day. Someone like this might be so scattered and sad that their behavior can shift to the inappropriate. It may seem as though ADHD is the cause, but something else is at the heart of the issue.
There is no blood test or brain scan that can diagnose ADHD. Instead, doctors must ask their patients a series of questions to understand if ADHD is at the root of the symptoms the person is experiencing.
Since an ADHD diagnosis is a bit imprecise, there is the possibility that some people are diagnosed with ADHD when they don’t actually have the condition, say experts interviewed in an article published by USA Today. It’s also possible, these experts say, that too many ADHD diagnoses have resulted in too many prescriptions for medications like Vyvanse.
It’s also possible that Vyvanse addiction begins, in some people, with a prescription. Official documentation from the manufacturer of Vyvanse suggests that the drug is less likely to spark an addiction when someone with ADHD takes it. For someone like this, the drug may feel therapeutic and not euphoric. But in someone without ADHD, the drug can cause reactions that can lead to the beginning of an addiction process.
Vyvanse and the Brain
Multiple medications can be used to treat ADHD. Most of these medications fall into the classification of stimulants. These drugs help to increase overall electrical activity within the brain, and they cause a chain reaction within brain cells that release chemicals associated with focus. It’s a bit like causing people to feel a surge of chemicals associated with the fight-or-flight response. When the drugs are working, they feel a focus that might elude them the rest of the time.
Of the drugs used to treat ADHD, there are two main groupings: methylphenidates (such as Ritalin and Concerta) and amphetamines (such as Adderall and Vyvanse). According to research from The Clinical Advisor, abuse rates of amphetamines are at least double the rates associated with methylphenidates.
The slow-release attribute is also designed to curb abuse of the drug. Substances that cause immediate, significant changes in the moments after they are taken are associated with higher amounts of drug addiction. The high they produce is very closely related to taking the drug, and that connection between drug use and a high is hard for the brain to overlook or forget. Brain cells can call out for more drugs after a few exposures to the substance.
That does not mean that Vyvanse is without addiction risks. In fact, as ADDitude magazine points out, Vyvanse is considered a Schedule II stimulant, meaning that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has determined that the drug comes with a high potential for abuse. To put this designation into perspective, cocaine is also a Schedule II stimulant.
Vyvanse and stimulants like it are addictive because they also work on brain centers associated with pleasure. When people take Vyvanse, the drug can prompt the brain to release dopamine, which is a chemical typically released in response to something positive. Dopamine is associated with a feeling of euphoria, and it is dopamine that is associated with addictions to substances like heroin. Since Vyvanse can trigger the same response, it should give users pause concerning the drug’s addiction potential.
Drug Use or Drug Abuse?
Since Vyvanse is a prescription medication, not a substance someone might buy off a dealer in the street, some people mistakenly believe the drug is benign. These people may use the drug in ways that the manufacturer never intended.
A woman with the habit of abusing ADHD medications told The New York Times that she needed the medication to succeed at work. If she did not take the medication, she told the newspaper, she would be dealing with a performance handicap her competitors did not face. She used the medication to help her stay awake all night, working on her reports and presentations so she would be prepared for meetings the following day. The drug kept her awake and focused so that she could get the job done.
Students also feel as though the drug helps them to perform. They might take Vyvanse to help them conduct all-night cram sessions before an important test, or they might use the medication to allow them to hold down jobs and study — all without the need for a full night of sleep.
Research cited by The Yale Tribune suggests that these students are not getting the benefits they had hoped for. Instead, college students who take these stimulants tend to have a lower grade-point average (GPA) than those who don’t. Students who use the medications tend to procrastinate, knowing the drugs will help them to take a hard run at a deadline right before it comes around, so they do not truly learn the subjects taught in their classes. One night of cramming cannot make up for months of study.
People under pressure may truly believe that their drug use is beneficial. The damage done to brain cells with each dose may keep them from seeing the truth.
Brain cells are adept at changing due to influences from the environment. Each dose of drugs changes brain cells in key ways, and those changes can optimize brain cells for drug use. In time, they only work at peak levels when the drug is present. When drugs are gone, the cells can lapse into disorganization.
For someone accustomed to taking Vyvanse regularly, skipping doses can lead to various issues such as:
- A loss of focus
All of these symptoms can go away with one dose of drugs, and someone who makes this connection may come to believe that their best self is only available through a tablet of Vyvanse. Someone like this may honestly believe the drug is a solution.
Unfortunately, just as brain cells adapt to the presence of drugs, they can also adapt to a specific dose of drugs. In time, a small dose a person once used to take may not be enough to help the brain perform at an optimal level.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, adults should take no more than 70 mg (milligrams) of Vyvanse per day.
Even at that level, people who take the drug can experience various adverse effects such as:
- Dry mouth
- Blood pressure and heart rate increases
- Sudden cardiac death
People with an addiction may find that their usual dose no longer brings about the changes they crave. They may be prompted to take larger and larger amounts of drugs, and with each increase, the risk of side effects also increases.
People who abuse Vyvanse may also mix in other substances, including alcohol. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mixing alcohol with Vyvanse can lead to intense sedation, which can be so severe that people slide into a coma-like state that can lead to death.
How is Vyvanse Abuse Treated?
People with an addiction to Vyvanse may believe there is no solution available to them. When they stop abusing the drug or even when they cut back on the dose, they may feel sick and scared. This cycle can be broken with the help of a professional.
While there are no medications available to stop stimulant withdrawal symptoms, doctors can use medications to treat the symptoms withdrawal can cause. Therapy can help to slow the heart rate and lower body temperature so that people do not face significant cardiac side effects as they move through withdrawal. Doctors can also use medications to calm the chaotic and terrifying thoughts that come with stimulant withdrawal.
This detox process is not technically a therapy for addiction. While detox can help people to process the Vyvanse left within their bodies, they will be left with deep cravings for the drug when detox is over, and they may not have the skills to fight back against those cravings when they appear. A therapy program can be a big help.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, therapy helps people to change unhealthy patterns of thinking, and that shift in thought can then help people to change the way in which they behave. Therapy can also help people to learn new strategies they can use to avoid drug-use triggers, and they can practice the skills they might need to avoid temptation.
For someone with a Vyvanse addiction, for example, therapy might involve digging into the roots of competitiveness. The person might come to understand why it seemed so important to be better than everyone else, and the person might come to grips with childhood triggers that lead to an adulthood of intense competition.
The person might learn how to exercise or meditate when stress levels begin to rise, and the person might also learn how to talk about a sense of rising pressure. This could help to eliminate a trigger for drug use before it begins. Finally, the person might also begin to identify people who can either sell or provide drugs and then cut ties with those unhealthy influences.
Therapy like this can be incredibly powerful, especially when it is provided in a safe environment in which drugs are not available. When given a chance to step away from day-to-day stresses, people can make meaningful changes.