5 Natural Adderall Alternatives: Nootropics to Improve Focus & Mood

by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC | Reviewed by Advisory Board

natural adderall alternatives

5 Natural Adderall Alternatives: Over-the-Counter Nootropics that Increase Focus

Adderall is one of the most common prescriptions globally. It is a mixture of amphetamine isomers (dextroamphetamine and levoamphetamine) used for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other health conditions like narcolepsy.

While Adderall is suggested to be effective at treating the symptoms of ADHD and augmenting cognitive function, its potent stimulatory properties can lead to bothersome side effects, notably anxiety, loss of appetite, restlessness, nausea, and headache [1]. In extreme cases, Adderall may even cause seizures. It also remains to be seen what Adderall really does to brain health when used routinely for decades.

As such, interest in natural Adderall alternatives is growing, leading more people with ADHD to the world of nootropics. However, not all nootropic supplements are created equal, and the specific ingredients in these products often vary significantly in terms of their effects on brain function.

Only a select few natural Adderall alternatives exist. Read on to learn what they are and how they can mimic the effects of Adderall.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to replace the advice of a licensed medical professional. Always consult with your doctor before making changes to your prescription medication regimen or taking any nootropics or dietary supplements that may alter ADHD symptoms and mood.

HOW DOES ADDERALL WORK?

Adderall is a 3:1 mixture of dextroamphetamine and levoamphetamine salts, respectively. Dextroamphetamine and levoamphetamine are chemically related to methamphetamine, albeit significantly less potent and with a markedly better safety profile. None of these compounds are naturally occurring, but they are similar in molecular structure to adrenaline (epinephrine).

Amphetamine has a sizeable but somewhat controversial body of evidence supporting its efficacy for improving focus, vigilance, and cognitive function, especially in those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) [2]. It is a potent central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that works by rapidly elevating levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

These neurotransmitters surge through brain pathways in the prefrontal cortex to increase focus, attentiveness, arousal, and motivation. Dopamine tends to be the primary neurotransmitter responsible for the pleasure of virtually every experience that feels rewarding, whether it’s eating a sugary piece of cake, having sex, or winning a sporting competition.

We crave dopamine as humans; it motivates us to perform activities that (may) result in satisfying and pleasurable feelings. Hence, the dopamine rush that drugs like Adderall induce is highly addicting, especially in those who don’t have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

As a person without ADHD begins to rely on a substance like Adderall to enhance brain performance, mood, and focus, dopamine receptors in the prefrontal cortex are downregulated. The brain fights for homeostasis and compensates for all the extra dopamine released via amphetamine by stripping neurons of their dopamine receptors, creating a reinforcing loop cycle of transient highs followed by sharp mood swings/crashing [3].

Consequently, amphetamine has fewer dopamine receptors to target as abuse continues, and the benefits of Adderall diminish despite increasing doses. However, the adrenal effects persist, so people start to feel "wired but tired" — a common ramification of overusing prescription stimulants.

ADDERALL USE: SIDE EFFECTS AND LONG-TERM SAFETY

While some studies have analyzed the effects of Adderall use over 10-15 years, Millenials are basically the first generation that has been readily prescribed the drug in the history of humanity [4]. It’s important to note that people without ADHD who use Adderall are more likely to experience serious side effects, especially if it’s abused.

What’s disconcerting is that a 2012 review published in Brain and Behavior found that Adderall was the second most common form of illicit drug use (marijuana was number one) [5]. By illicit, we mean nonmedical use (i.e. without a prescription from a medical professional).

Even more worrying is that the rate of workers in the United States who tested positive for amphetamine rose by 44% between 2011-2015. It’s not surprising that Adderall addiction and misuse are on the rise when you consider that amphetamine is the veritable “lite” version of methamphetamine (in a manner of speaking).

Interestingly, a recent pilot study of healthy college students found that Adderall provided little benefit for cognitive function [6]. This suggests that people who don’t have ADHD don’t gain much from using Adderall, at least in terms of mental performance. Hence, if you’re a student and looking to “study smarter” the night before an exam, buying Adderall off your peers isn’t the actual smart way to go about it (nor is it legal).

Adderall misuse/abuse can lead to a slippery slope of addiction where people start taking larger doses of Adderall to get the euphoric mood and focus benefits that were initially present at nominal doses. Eventually, brain function becomes dependent on amphetamine. This is why those who don’t have ADHD usually end up in a vicious cycle of taking egregious doses of Adderall to get high, then fighting the subsequent crash with more Adderall.

Now, does that mean people without ADHD who intermittently use small doses of Adderall XR will experience permanent brain health damage? Certainly not. There will be some short-term biological changes in brain chemistry, but they won’t be irreversible.

Nevertheless, the misuse of Adderall is something to be concerned about, especially for people who don’t truly have ADHD or another medical condition that's treatable with amphetamine. The good news is that certain natural Adderall alternatives can enhance focus and concentration without detriment to brain function in the long run.

WHAT CAUSES ADHD?

Several myths regarding the cause of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) persist to this day despite underwhelming evidence of their veracity. Many people believe ADHD results from excess sugar in the diet, bad parenting habits, and children playing too many video games. There is no conclusive data suggesting that any of these increase the likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis [7].

Now, does that mean that eating too much sugar and playing video games around the clock is conducive to healthy brain function in children and adolescents? Of course not. Just because something may not directly cause ADHD doesn’t necessarily it's healthy or good for the brain.

Research suggests that ADHD is a biological disorder suspected of being caused by genes that alter dopamine production in key functional regions of the brain [8]. In children and adults genetically predisposed to ADHD, bad parenting, poor diet, and playing too many video games could exacerbate the symptoms.

Symptoms of ADHD generally include the inability to focus/concentrate, forgetfulness, lack of motivation, frequent talking, impulsiveness, being disorganized, poor time management, and many others.

Some controversial theories argue that ADHD is a disease of modernity and the result of the sharp contrast between our fast-paced, stressful daily lives and the slow, methodical pacing in classroom/workplace settings. The 21st century has brought about a new era of technology and connectivity unlike anything before its time.

Children are raised with smartphones that have access to anything their mind can imagine, more immersive video games, and social media platforms that enable them to connect with their friends (and strangers across the globe) at any moment. The sense of urgency kids have in their daily lives transfers to the classroom (and to the workplace for adults).

While ADHD is at least partly, if not mostly, a genetic disorder, it’s time we acknowledge that technological and societal "advancements" have influenced its incidence. On that note, the following section will detail five of the best natural alternatives to Adderall that are readily available over-the-counter.

5 Adderall Alternatives to Enhance Focus & Concentration

It goes without saying that if you have ADHD and currently take Adderall to treat it, you should not stop using it or try replacing it with any over-the-counter Adderall alternative. Always consult with a doctor/psychiatrist or related medical professional before making changes to prescription medication or taking any dietary supplement that may interfere with your condition.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here are five of the best natural alternatives to Adderall for improving focus and concentration:

CDP-CHOLINE/ALPHA-GPC

CDP-choline and alpha-GPC are highly bioavailable forms of choline - an organic water-soluble vitamin found in the human brain. Choline is an essential B vitamin-like micronutrient in the synthesis of acetylcholine - a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in arousal, motivation, cognition, and memory [9]. As such, CDP-choline and alpha-GPC appear to have a multitude of nootropic effects that can promote overall brain health.

Research suggests that alpha-GPC and CDP-choline may also increase strength performance by as much as 3% in just a matter of days [10]. While 3% may not seem like a lot, it’s actually quite a significant improvement when you look at the bigger picture.

Before you buy nootropics with choline, be aware that many supplements contain choline bitartrate, which is poorly absorbed and ineffective. Even exceptionally large doses of choline bitartrate provide minimal amounts of absorbable choline, rendering it worthless as a natural alternative to Adderall. bunk [11]. Stick to the CDP choline and alpha-GPC as these are superior for focus and concentration.

L-TYROSINE

L-tyrosine is a conditionally essential amino acid that serves as a precursor to dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that govern motivation and reward. (Recall that Adderall works by targeting these neurotransmitters.) Hence, L-tyrosine is a logical alternative to Adderall and may even be prudent as a supplement to take with Adderall.

Research shows that supplementing with L-tyrosine can significantly enhance cognitive performance, especially under acutely stressful situations (like cramming the night before an exam) [12]. L-Tyrosine has also been shown to improve “cognitive flexibility,” meaning it can help you adapt to changing cognitive demands and block extraneous thoughts [13].

One study also found that L-tyrosine improves "deep/critical thinking" rather than brainstorming (divergent thinking) [14]. In other words, this natural Adderall alternative is perfect for a night of intense studying. Evidence suggests that the benefits of L-tyrosine are most prominent in subjects who lack healthy amounts of norepinephrine [15].

L-Theanine (or Vinpocetine)

L-Theanine and vinpocetine are organic compounds derived from tea leaves and the periwinkle plant, respectively. These are unique in that they actually reduce heart rate and don't stimulate the central nervous system but instead work by increasing blood flow to the brain, enhancing neuronal uptake of nutrients, altering brainwave frequency, and "taking the edge off" stimulants like caffeine [16, 17].

A recent study of children with ADHD showed that a combination of L-theanine and caffeine significantly improved attention span and reduced mind wandering compared to a placebo [18]. What’s particularly intriguing about vinpocetine and L-theanine is that they are exceptionally safe (nearly no documented side effects in standard dosages) and make for great adjuncts to other natural Adderall alternatives on this list.

For example, combining vinpocetine or L-theanine with caffeine can help mitigate any jittery, stimulatory side effects while bolstering the nootropic benefits and brain metabolism.

HUPERZINE-A

Huperzine-A is a sesquiterpene alkaloid derived from the Chinese herb Huperzia serrata and functions as an acetylcholinesterase/ACE inhibitor, meaning it decreases the rate of acetylcholine breakdown/recycling. In turn, huperzine-A increases acetylcholine transmission, contributing to cognitive function and brain performance [19].

At least one study has demonstrated huperzine-A enhances memory and improves learning in healthy subjects [20]. It is also highly safe, with very few documented side effects. Much like L-theanine and vinpocetine, Huperzine-A is an exceptional synergist with other natural nootropics, particularly caffeine and L-tyrosine.

CAFFEINE

Last but not least as an alternative to Adderall is the familiar stimulant caffeine. In nature, caffeine is most abundant in cocoa beans, coffee beans, and various tea leaves.

On the molecular level, caffeine (chemically known as 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) is an alkaline, organic substance derived from xanthine — a biologically important purine base found in many bodily tissues and fluids. Methylxanthines like caffeine and theobromine serve as stimulators of the CNS and heart (similar to the effects of Adderall).

However, caffeine stimulates the CNS by antagonizing adenosine receptors, a mechanism distinct from amphetamine [21]. Caffeine also works by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase (ACE) and phosphodiesterase (PDE) enzymes, thereby inducing changes in cellular metabolism [22].

PDE enzymes act to degrade key cellular messengers, namely cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). Caffeine effectively blocks the actions of PDE enzymes, causing cAMP and cGMP levels to increase and enabling neurons to transmit signals more efficiently.

Since caffeine also inhibits ACE, acetylcholine (an excitatory neurotransmitter involved in cognitive function and memory) levels rise; the result is a rapid increase in focus, concentration, and motivation. Given that huperzine-A acts on the same enzyme, caffeine and Huperzia serrata may have additive effects.

But be cautious about taking too much caffeine, especially late at night, as it can interfere with sleep and cause side effects like jitters, rapid heartbeat, and restlessness. For earlier in the day, though, caffeine is a great natural Adderall alternative.

USING NOOTROPICS AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO ADDERALL

There’s no disputing the cognitive benefits of Adderall; however, it remains an imprudent option in the long run for people without ADHD due to the side effects and potential health ramifications (and the fact that it’s a controlled substance in many countries).

Thankfully, the nootropics discussed above are natural Adderall alternatives that can help you focus and be more productive. Best of all, their side effects are rare and nowhere near as harsh.

As a trial alternative to Adderall, start with a nootropic supplement containing a clinical dose of CDP-choline, L-tyrosine, caffeine, L-theanine, and huperzine-A, like Transparent Labs MindSeries Nootropic. If you want a little more of a “kick” to get you going, try adding one serving of Transparent Labs Stim Booster for more intense nootropic benefits.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving them a shot and seeing how you respond.




Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC

Author

Elliot holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota, as well as being a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC). He is currently pursuing a Master's of Science in Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University. Elliot began freelance writing circa 2012 and has since written 100s of articles and several eBooks pertaining to nutritional science, dietary supplements, exercise physiology, and health/wellness. Being a “science whiz,” he has a passion for helping people understand how nutrients (and other chemicals) and exercise work on a cellular and molecular level so they can make smarter choices about what they put in, and do with, their bodies. When Elliot is not busy writing or studying, you can find him pumping iron, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or perusing nutraceutical research.



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