Since the dawn of their creation, stimulants have been viewed as somewhat of a “Wonder Drug” in the United States. They are intended to help you focus, give you energy, keep kids in line, and help aid in the battle for America’s obsession with weight gain.
However, there is a darker underbelly to the world of stimulant drugs, and while yes, they were once known as “mommy’s little helpers” they have since become one of the most widely prescribed, and widely abused drugs in the United States.
A Brief History of Stimulants
Upon its discovery in the 1880s, amphetamine was originally used to help clear up congestion in the sinuses. It turned out when it was inhaled, it did a pretty great job at clearing up nasal passages and the lungs. So, benzedrine, which was a cotton strip soaked in amphetamine oil, was put on the shelves to help people with congestion.
As it turned out, people actually preferred the euphoric high they received from the medication more than they cared about having stuffy noses, so people soon started buying the over-the-counter medication and eating or injecting the amphetamine oil from the cotton strip.
Over time, amphetamines turned into pills that were used to help with sleep disorders, depression, and weight loss. Eventually, the American military saw amphetamines as a prized weapon of their own that could aid in the battle against fatigue for the soldiers on foot.
Not only did it help against fatigue, but it was also effective in making the soldiers “more confident and purposeful”. By the end of World War II, an estimated 16 million Americans had been exposed to or prescribed these Benzedrine pills, and then civilian use only skyrocketed. This was the wives, for weight loss, for spending long hours cooking and cleaning and caring for the children.
As time went on, people started noticing dangers associated with overusing amphetamines and the addictions they created. As the ’70s rolled around, over 3.2 million Americans suffered from an amphetamine addiction, and they finally made it into the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule III drug.
Stimulants in Today’s Society
In our society today, stimulants are one of the most used classes of drugs out there. They are widely prescribed, and most commonly used to raise alertness and focus, as well as boosting mood and yes, still helping with weight loss.
The most commonly abused stimulants in our society today are:
- Prescription Stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderall, Dexedrine
All of these stimulants are extremely addictive, and many of those people try most of these drugs during their teenage years.
Primarily, these drugs can be prescribed for a whole slew of reasons, and are common prescriptions for anyone between the age of 8-85. These are a group of psychoactive drugs that work by affecting the Central Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System. Again, they are also widely used in obesity and weight loss treatments, but much less so since researchers have discovered how easily addictive they can be.
The most commonly prescribed stimulant medications are given to children as a remedy for ADHD and ADD and they consist of Ritalin, Adderall, Dexedrine, Concerta, and Vyvanse. Their main objective is to enhance dopamine and norepinephrine, the chemicals for relaxation and euphoria.
Research suggests that stimulants actually damage the brain’s decision-making abilities, which can lead down a slippery slope when it comes to addiction. So the main question here is, why are we giving “overactive” children a drug that will inhibit their decision-making abilities? Studies show that these same decision-making centers in the brain are the ones that are the most affected by cocaine and methamphetamine.
A study released by the American Psychological Association published findings that not only do prescription and nonprescription stimulants lead to poor decision making, but they also lead to a decreased ability to be “flexible” when things change, or when a plan is altered.
Impulsivity was also a common side effect of these drugs, as the study discovered that participants that used stimulant drugs agreed to questions such as, “I do things without thinking” and “I change jobs often”.
Overall, the research suggested that people who abuse or who take prescription drugs and medication have highly altered prefrontal cortices, which actually can make them more susceptible to continue using drugs. When a combination of impulsivity, poor decision making, and an early introduction to drugs are present, it creates a perfect recipe for addiction.
Stimulant Use in America
In a research letter posted in September of 2016, researchers discovered an alarming trend in the increased use of stimulants among American youths and adults between the years of 2010 and 2014. According to the research, performed by Julie Zito Ph.D., Leanne Metcalfe Ph.D., and Mehmet Burcu MS, the trends were as follows:
- Between 1996 and 1998, prescription stimulant use among youth increased by 4.0%
- Between 2010 and 2012 that number increased by 6.6%
- From 2010-2014, there was a marked increase in prescription stimulant use among all age groups, although it was actually greater among adults between the ages of 20-39-year-olds.
- In 2014, stimulant use was substantially greater among boys between the ages of 0-19 but increased for women between the ages of 35-64.
Not only has stimulant use shown an increase, both among youths and adults, but hospital visits, trips to rehab, and co-occurring addictions have also become more prevalent. For example:
- In 2012, nearly 360,000 people received treatment for a stimulant addiction
- In 2011, 38% of emergency room visits involving alcohol also showed the presence of stimulant drugs.
It is no secret that Americans have a love affair with stimulant medications. They are considered the cure-all by many for everything from an overactive child to a weight problem. However, is this “wonder drug” doing more harm than it is doing good?