More and more people are taking stimulant drugs like amphetamine (brand name Adderall) to help them focus and get stuff done. Doctors are prescribing it for kids with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), college students are taking it to get through exam time, and people are popping it to keep up with the pressures of the workplace.
Adderall improves attention, boosts focus, and leads to better productivity. It does this by raising the amount of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in your prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain associated with concentration.  Focus and productivity are all good things. That’s why Adderall is so popular among successful and high-functioning people.
But like any drug, Adderall comes with some potentially serious side effects (more on those below). A recent study found that certain ADHD medications, including Adderall, can cause psychosis in teens and young adults.
The good news is, you don’t need to rely on Adderall to perform at your best. There are safer alternatives to switch your brain on and get the laser focus you’re looking for. Read on for my own experience with Adderall, side effects, and things you can do to improve concentration, without the drugs.
And remember, work with your doctor and don’t go off your medication unless he or she says it’s OK.
Adderall side effects
Doctors typically prescribe Adderall for ADHD, as well as narcolepsy (extreme sleepiness during the day). But Adderall can have some not-so-great side effects. These include:
- Poor sleep
- Aggressive behavior
- High blood pressure and stroke
My personal experience with Adderall
Here’s the deal: It’s OK to want Adderall. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Adderall actually works. I know this, because I tried it. When I was going to business school, I couldn’t focus. I was exhausted all the time, I was moody, forgetful, and my attention was all over the map.
I was desperate, so I got something called a nuclear imaging test, which tells you which parts of your brain is using energy. And what do you know — the scan showed that my prefrontal cortex was creating almost zero energy. Every time I tried to focus and pay attention, the area of my brain that was supposed to help me do it showed little signs of life. Brain health expert Dr. Daniel Amen told me, “Dave, this is the brain scan of someone who’s on street drugs living under a bridge.”
It was something of a relief to get the news. My inability to focus wasn’t because I was lazy or not trying hard enough. My brain simply wasn’t working as it should. I was put on Adderall at first, a low dose for six weeks. It helped my attention, but it made me want to hide in a closet. So I switched to modafinil, a prescription drug, so I could finish my MBA at Wharton while still working a full-time job. I took modafinil for eight years and it completely changed my life. I can’t recommend it for you — you’ll need to ask your doctor about it. Read more about my experience taking modafinil here.
Now I rely more on the habits and supplements I recommend in this article to give my brain the energy it needs.
Boost your mitochondria
Think of your mitochondria as the battery packs of all the cells in your body. Mitochondria make energy, and they determine how your body, and your brain, feel at any given moment. Your brain has an especially large amount of mitochondria, and it uses more energy than any other organ in your body. When you don’t have enough mitochondria, and the ones that you do have are weak, your energy drops and your brain power tanks. So the stronger your mitochondria, the more energy your brain has to focus, giving you what you need to barrel through that office spreadsheet. Learn all the ways to support and strengthen your mitochondria here.
Do an elimination diet
Food allergies and intolerances don’t just manifest as physical symptoms. They can cause anxiety, depression, and numerous other things that impact your ability to focus. Gluten, grains, and dairy are common triggers. An elimination diet helps you identify the foods that are impacting your performance and making you feel like crap. Using the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap as your guide, eat only from the green zone for three weeks. The foods in this zone are the one’s least likely to cause an allergic reaction in most people. Learn more about how to do an elimination diet here.
Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting — when you eat all your daily calories during a specific period of time — can switch on your brain and clear away any mental cobwebs. Studies show that restricting your food intake improves learning and memory. Get started with this beginners guide to intermittent fasting.
Do a digital detox
I’m all for technology. It makes our lives more efficient, and it can be fun. But the digital world, and especially social media, can also be highly addictive. Endlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed, and jumping from one app to another, is doing your attention span zero favors. Your productivity suffers when you’re distracted by endless notifications and beeps. Even a short break from technology can power up your brain and help it recharge. Learn why a digital detox is a good idea, and how to do one.
A bad night’s sleep makes concentrating really tough. Sleep deprivation lowers your reaction time and your memory and attention span take a hit. When you sleep deeply, however, your brain resets and consolidates all the information it picked up during the day. It also flushes out cellular waste and repairs damaged neurons. Your ability to learn goes up, and your brain processes information 50 percent faster. Get 7 science-backed sleep hacks to help you sleep better, starting tonight.
Try binaural beats
You may have heard of binaural beats, a type of sound therapy that changes the frequency of your brainwaves, improving focus and boosting memory. You put on headphones, and listen to two sounds with different frequencies, one in your left ear, and one in your right. Your brain responds by producing a third frequency, which is equal to the difference of the other two frequencies. That’s the binaural beat, and you can use it to induce certain states of mind. For example, you can listen to a delta binaural beats session to hack your way to better sleep. For focus, listen to a binaural beats session in the gamma range. Learn more here about binaural beats, and how to use this technique for stronger focus.
Natural supplements to boost attention and focus
Nootropics (aka smart drugs) can be a powerful tool to kick your brain into high gear. I started using nootropics in the late 1990s, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. The thing is, some nootropics carry more risks than others. Adderall is actually considered a nootropic, but it’s potentially more harmful to your health than some other nootropics, like the adaptogen bacopa, for instance. Learn here about the most common nootropics, and which one is the best fit for you.
An adaptogen rooted in Ayurvedic medicine, mucuna pruriens is loaded with L-dopa, the precursor to dopamine. It’s similar to Adderall in that way — both ensure you have more dopamine in your system, which increases focus, learning, and reaction time. Pick a high-quality supplement and take 200 – 500 mg a day, 4 – 5 days a week. Learn more about mucuna pruriens here.
Brain Octane Oil
If you drink Bulletproof Coffee, then you’re already familiar with Brain Octane Oil, a purified form of saturated fatty acids called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) from 100% coconut oil. Brain Octane boosts your brain power within minutes. Your body quickly converts Brain Octane into ketones, which your brain can use for an instant dose of energy. Add BOO to your coffee, drizzle it over sushi, or use it in your salad dressings.
If you have trouble with focusing and learning, up your intake of choline. Your body makes choline, but you need to get it from outside sources, like supplements and egg yolks, to meet your needs. Choline is the building block of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that plays a key role in problem-solving and mental processing. When you have enough choline, you’re better able to pay attention and focus. Learn more about choline and dosage recommendations here.
Stress is bad news for concentration. When you’re stressed, your mind jumps erratically from one thought to the next, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand. L-theanine — a natural component of tea leaves — calms your mind and eases mental stress. For even more brain power, pair L-theanine with coffee. Together, they improve memory and help you focus for longer. You can drink green tea, which has moderate amounts of L-theanine. For a more powerful punch, take 200 mg of a L-theanine supplement with your Bulletproof Coffee.
Read next: How to Rewire Your Brain for Focus and Calm
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