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The side effects and other problems created by ADHD medications can be significant. In February 2007 the FDA issued warnings about side effects related to ADHD drugs, which included warnings about growth stunting and psychosis, as well as other mental health disorders. The next few sections discuss the most common (and most concerning) of these side effects.

Common side effects from ADHD medication

The most common side-effects of ADHD stimulants include things like…

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Dizziness
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Slowing of growth or stunted growth in children

ADHD medications and stunted growth in children

ADHD medications can decrease appetite and cause a growth delay, especially during the first year of use. So a child who was growing 2 inches per year may only grow one. It’s important to note that at one time these medications were marketed as weight loss drugs. And while weight loss may seem like a wonderful thing, in children it can interrupt their development.

There is a debate on just how problematic this growth stunting in children is and whether or not it’s permanent. Some research has suggested that while children often show growth suppression on drugs, they tend to catch up later in adolescence once off the stimulants. (Riddle, Kastelic & Frosch, 2001) Of course, this requires them to actually quit the medication. Other scientists, however, have argued that these stunted growth rates are permanent and that children taking ADHD medication never catch up to that of their peers. (Higgins, 2009)

There’s also yet a third possibility. One 2014 study of 163,820 children between the ages of 3 and 18 found that kids who were taking stimulants to treat ADHD had slower rates of growth from early childhood through the middle years when compared to peers. However, when they rebounded on this growth later, it came with a higher risk of becoming obese as adults – a correlation also found in other studies. (Alfano, 2015B) This phenomenon is consistent with obesity research – any type of semi-starvation early in life can reset a child’s metabolism lower, which means they burn through calories slower and are more likely to be obese in a food-rich environment. ADHD drugs essentially induce this period of semi-starvation, and thus may indirectly contribute to obesity once a child grows older.

Deadly side effects of ADHD drugs

Just like illegal amphetamines, ADHD drugs come with potentially deadly side effects. These can include sudden death cardiac events. A 2005 report detailing about a dozen deaths from sudden cardiac arrest in young Adderall users sparked fears of heart health in those taking these medications. (Corbett-Dooren & Winslow, 2011)

Cylert is so toxic that it requires constant monitoring of liver functioning in users. According to the manufacturer’s own warning label: “Because of its association with life-threatening hepatic failure, Cylert should not ordinarily be considered a first line of drug therapy for ADHD.” (Rief, 1998)

The behavioral effects of ADHD medication

I did better at school when I was on it, but it made me a zombie. You become obsessive. Dexedrine, Adderall. It’s like any other drug. It’s like coke, or crystal meth. …I would go through wild bouts of depression, horrible comedowns. I understand why kids kill themselves. I absolutely do.
You feel soul-less. I’d never do it to my child.”
– Actor Channing Tatum, who was put on drugs after being diagnosed with ADHD (Cohen, 2013, p. 71)

The stimulants prescribed for ADHD can really mess with a child’s moods and emotions, resulting in erratic behavior and sometimes a severely unhappy child. When kids are on the medication, they don’t feel like themselves. They can be lethargic, numb, or just plain wierded out. They exist in an altered state.

Then there’s the come-down. ADHD drugs frequently cause mood swings or irritability as the medication wears off, just as alcoholics or heroin addicts are often more irritable when off the drugs than on them. As Sandra Rief, M.A., writes, “Many children experience aggressive, emotional or impulsive behavior when the medication’s effects wear off. When the next prescribed dose is not given on time or is given late, these children are found crying, fighting, or otherwise ‘in trouble’ on the playground or cafeteria.” (Rief, 1998, p. 41)

These mood swings can sometimes be minimized by physicians altering the dose and by keeping to a regular schedule, but there’s no way to eliminate them completely. Even if you stick to a steady medication schedule, because these pills inevitably build to a peak and then subside within their allotted time before a new dose is given, it’s never a completely even ride. Perhaps more importantly, this extreme behavior is merely an outward manifestation of what’s going on in your child’s brain.

The toll taken by ADHD medications is evident in the fact that nearly 60% of parents whose children are on these drugs say they regularly give their kids “medication vacations” in which they allowed them to skip their meds, usually on weekends and school holidays. Fathers were more likely to give breaks from the meds than the moms were, with 76% of fathers giving their sons and 53% giving their daughters a break from medication, compared to 30% of mothers. Fathers were more apt to skip a son’s meds (likely because they’re more apt to see ADHD as a response to boys being boys), whereas mothers didn’t show any gender preference in allowing their children to skip. (Lutkis, 8-6-2013)

Long-term behavioral changes
These mood imbalances can really impact a child’s psychology, as the earlier quote by Channing Tatum attests to. The altered neurochemistry produced by the drugs can also lead to permanent changes in a child’s personality, and many times it leaves a child with all new problems to contend with. Speaking of “pep” pills such as Ritalin and amphetamines, David D. Burns notes, “When given chronically, the drugs can produce an aggressive, violent, paranoid reaction resembling schizophrenia.” (Burns, 1980, p. 392) He was giving this caution before such drugs became a widely used behavioral treatment targeted at children.

When given over extended periods of time, changes in a child’s mood regulating system might become permanent. At least 3 studies using animals have suggested that exposure to methylphenidate during childhood may alter mood in the long run, which could increase the risk of depression and anxiety in adulthood. (Higgins, 2009)

Some kids taking these drugs will develop tics in the form of facial grimaces, sniffling, coughing, snorting, or other vocal sounds. Experts say these habits typically go away if the meds are stopped. (Rief, 1998) Yet in some cases they may become permanent. Not only can they be induced by a destruction of brain cells caused by the drugs (similar to what happens in PANDAS), but if the meds are taken for a long time, it can carve out a pathway for these tics in your child’s neurocircuitry, so that they stay with your child like a tattoo even once they quit the medication.

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