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Stimulants vs. Nonstimulants: Understanding ADHD Medications

ADHD medications generally belong to one of two broad classes: stimulant or nonstimulant. Learn the important differences, in this video.

As many as 1 in 10 U.S. children now has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Luckily, there are safe, effective treatments.

The best ADHD treatment strategies are multimodal ones — combinations of several different, complementary approaches that work together to reduce symptoms. For many people, this ideal combination includes nutritional changes, exercise, meditation, and/or medications.

Experts know, from years of research and many studies, that medications are effective. They improve the core symptoms of ADHD — impulsivity, hyperarousal, and distractibility.

But how do you know which medication is right for you? Start by watching this video.

Stimulants vs. Nonstimulants: Understanding ADHD Medications

ADHD medications generally belong to one of two broad classes: stimulant or nonstimulant.

Stimulants include brand names like Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin, and Concerta. Non-stimulants include Strattera and Intuniv, among others. So what are the important differences?

1. Stimulants

The stimulant class of medication is typically prescribed first because it works for 70-80% of children with ADHD.

Stimulants increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels between the brain’s synapses. They work as soon as they cross the blood-brain barrier, which takes 45 to 60 minutes. The result? Reduced hyperactivity, distractibility, and/or impulsivity.

The FDA has approved 29 stimulant medications. All of them use one of only two molecules: methylphenidate or amphetamine.

The best choice hinges on an individual’s biochemistry. Even family members may experience different results with the same medication.

2. Nonstimulants

For 20-30% of people with ADHD, stimulants do not work. They move on to try one of these FDA-approved nonstimulants:

  • Atomoxetine
  • Clonidine
  • Guanfacine

It often takes five to seven days to assess the full benefits of a nonstimulant medication.

Sustained focus, improved mood, greater attention to detail, better memory, better sleep, and reduced impulsivity are all signs the treatment is working.

How do you choose the best option?

“Just as nothing predicts in advance which molecule will be best for a given child, it turns out that nothing predicts the dose of medication either: not weight, height, gender, ethnicity, or the severity of symptoms,” says ADHD specialist William Dodson, M.D. The answer: experimentation and patience.

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  1. Hi,
    My son taking metadate at kindergarten, it worked well
    For some time, then his doctor switched him to Concerta
    Which lasted longer for 12 hours. After almost two years
    Of stimulants, my son started having sleeping problems,
    So the dr started him on Strattera. It has been a few
    Days on this non stimulant drug, but it feels like he is
    Not taking anything. He is back to being hyper, impulsive
    But his appetite is much better than before. I wonder
    If it was a mistake taking him off stimulants?

  2. Hi. I’m having so many issues with my teen son taking meds for ADHD. The pediatrican prescribed 3 stimulants that caused him chest palpitations and severe anxiety. I decided to try guafaceine but that’s not doing anything. He can’t sleep, so compulsive and his memory and focus is escalated.

    I’m feeling like I should seek a Psychiatrist instead of pediatrician for meds at this point. I’m not going to keep spending $ on all these different meds and he have all these negative side effects.
    I met a mom who found the perfect medication fit after doing genetic testing. I’ve had that for myself with my depression/anxiety and I’ve found the correct meds for me that way so I’m looking into that for my son.

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