0 sources cited

How Do Stimulants Work? What Are Psychostimulants Uses?

Last Updated: March 25, 2024

Authored by Isaak Stotts, LP

Reviewed by David Levin

Many people think of stimulants as drugs of abuse, but stimulant medical use is quite common. It is important that people know what stimulants are used for, as this can help them better understand these drugs. Here is a discussion on why people use stimulants for medical purposes.

Stimulants And Medical Use

Stimulants have long been used by the medical community for the treatment of various conditions. While they are not the oldest, amphetamines are the most enduring and have been used since the 1920s. CNS stimulants can have a profound effect on various conditions, freeing people from needless suffering.

At the same time, even the use of legal stimulants can be problematic. Whenever a user has a condition that can be treated by uppers use, it is best to look into alternatives first. With that said, they can prove helpful in treating numerous conditions.

FDA-approved treatment can address:

  • ADHD
  • Narcolepsy
  • Exogenous obesity
  • Obstructive sleep apnea

However, stimulants use is not always restricted to conditions approved for treatment by the FDA. Off-label uses include:

  • Depression
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Fatigue

Stimulants For Depression

The idea of using uppers to treat depression makes sense on its surface when thinking about stimulants vs. depressants. Uppers are the opposite of depressants, so it stands to reason that they would be able to counteract the effects of the disease. However, the use of psychostimulants for depression is not cleared by the FDA. This is with good reason. Studies have been unable to prove their effectiveness, and depressed individuals are more prone to drug abuse.

The exception to this comes with treatment-resistant depression. People with this type of depression fail to respond positively to traditional medications and therapies. However, stimulants for treatment-resistant depression have shown some promise. When used with other therapies, they have been demonstrated to have benefits. Still, this is not without its controversies.

stimulants for anxiety and depression

Stimulants For Anxiety

One of the most common reasons for people to illegally self-medicate with uppers is to relieve anxiety. Given this, it makes sense that doctors would look into it for treating anxiety in a therapeutic setting. This assumption is backed up by research, finding that stimulating drug use does reduce the likelihood of anxiety occurring. What is not clear is if the risk of addiction and abuse is outweighed by the potential benefits. Stimulants and anxiety treatment might be the right combination for some.

Stimulants And Bipolar Disorder

The use of stimulants with bipolar disorder treatment is controversial. Studies have indicated that in some adult patients, it has its benefits. However, it is important to consider the two components of the disorder: depression and mania. In treating depression, uppers might work. But they could make the mania aspect more severe. As such, extreme caution should be exercised.

Stimulants For Weight Loss

Stimulants are used in many weight-loss supplements. This is not surprising given weight loss is one of the FDA-approved uses. However, the FDA only approves this use in patients over a specific threshold. In people who are not obese or morbidly obese, the use poses greater risks than the benefits, and weight loss stimulant use should be avoided.

stimulants for sleep

Stimulants For Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy treatment is among the FDA-approved uses of uppers. These medications are extremely effective at managing this condition by increasing alertness through dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Why people use psychostimulants for this condition comes down to their ability to address it and the negative effects of living with narcolepsy. Ultimately, narcolepsy is so debilitating that most patients will see the risk of uppers use as being more tolerable than the condition itself.

Stimulants For Fatigue

A logical medical use for stimulating substances is for the treatment of fatigue. Despite the logic of this, it is not approved at this time. Doctors still prescribe them for fatigue—specifically for that caused by MS and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Stimulants For MS Fatigue

Multiple sclerosis is a condition that causes a variety of symptoms, one of the most notable of which is severe and persistent fatigue. Stimulants are used to treat MS fatigue. This may not be the case for long use, as research has found it to be less effective than placebos. While further studies are needed, it is advisable for doctors to consider alternatives for their patients.

Stimulants For Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

It is common to prescribe stimulants for chronic fatigue. Although not approved by the FDA, the majority of medications for this condition are, in fact, are stimulating by their nature. Ultimately, they can manage the symptoms to a degree, but they do not cure the condition.

ways to take stimulants

How Are Stimulants Taken?

Stimulating substances can be taken in a variety of ways. In most cases, they are consumed as stimulant pills and swallowed. Generally speaking, medical use is restricted to the oral route unless a patient needs an injection in a medical setting.

What Do Stimulants Do?

How stimulants work is not the same across the board. Different drugs will have varying psychostimulants mechanisms of action. For someone to know exactly how their medication is interacting with their body, they will need to look up its unique mechanism of action. However, most work in a pretty similar manner.

What Do Stimulants Do To The Central Nervous System?

The central nervous system is responsible for regulating most everything in the body, from the heartbeat to breathing to sweating. When this system is stimulated, so are the associated bodily processes. This means that as the CNS becomes excited, users will have an elevated heart rate, increased breathing, and a general sense of greater alertness. While psychostimulants are used to treat conditions that can benefit from this, these effects are also what makes the use of them so dangerous.

How Do Stimulants Affect The Brain?

Once the body processes the drug, it begins interacting with the brain. How stimulants affect the brain depends but is fairly consistent. As a result of this interaction, certain chemicals are increased. Most commonly, these are dopamine and norepinephrine. However, some uppers may also increase serotonin levels.

When Use Becomes Dangerous

While there are many medical uses of CNS stimulating drugs, they can easily be abused. If someone is misusing these substances, they need to seek help. Drug rehab centers offer the help needed to get clean and live a better life.

Page Sources

  1. Castro-Marrero J, Sáez-Francàs N, Santillo D, Alegre J. Treatment and management of chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis: all roads lead to Rome. British Journal of Pharmacology. 2017;174(5):345–369. doi:10.1111/bph.13702. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5301046/.
  2. Wingo AP, Ghaemi SN. Frequency of stimulant treatment and of stimulant-associated mania/hypomania in bipolar disorder patients. Psychopharmacol Bull. 2008; 41(4): 37-47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19015628.
  3. Coughlin CG, Cohen SC, Mulqueen JM, Ferracioli-Oda E, Stuckelman ZD, Bloch MH. Meta-Analysis: Reduced Risk of Anxiety with Psychostimulant Treatment in Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. 2015; 25(8): 611-7. doi: 10.1089/cap.2015.0075. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26402485.
  4. Malhi GS, Byrow Y, Bassett D, Boyce P, Hopwood M, Lyndon W, Mulder R, Porter R, Singh A, Murray G. Stimulants for depression: On the up and up? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2016; 50(3): 203-7. doi: 10.1177/0004867416634208. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26906078.

Published on: October 25th, 2019

Updated on: March 25th, 2024

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.

Medically Reviewed by

David Levin


Leave a comment

Before you go...

Download our comprehensive eBook now for insights, strategies, and real-life stories to guide your journey to recovery.