Are legal study drugs as safe as you think?

On I-95 at mile marker 135.2 in the County of Stafford, motorists can expect potential delays due to a disabled vehicle. The north right shoulder is closed.

As substances that are rising in popularity, study drugs are becoming essentials for students worldwide. In 2006 it was estimated that around 4% of teens and adults abuse study drugs such as Modafinil and Adderall. Since then, the ability to order drugs online has made gaining access easier.

In a world of easy access, are study drugs doing more harm than good? Before you give them a try, it’s worth understanding the risks.

How do study drugs work?

No two study drugs work in the same way. However, there are some similarities. For the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll look at the two most popular medications: Modafinil and Ritalin.


Modafinil wasn’t originally intended for use as a study drug. Instead, it aids people with narcolepsy in staying awake. Its exact mechanisms aren’t clear. However, it’s believed it improves mechanisms by affecting certain neurotransmitters. It stimulates dopamine production, which is central to enhancing concentration.

Unlike many study drugs, Modafinil has an exceptionally long half-life. Its half-life lasts as long as 10 hours, so it may remain in your system for days after. Some of its notable side effects include anxiety and insomnia. Rather than boosting energy levels, it works alongside a good night’s sleep to promote wakefulness and concentration. As such, it can’t replace effective sleeping.


Ritalin isn’t prescribed as a study drug, as its original use was for treating ADHD. However, thanks to its ability to boost norepinephrine levels, users find they encounter a boost of energy shortly after taking it.

While Ritalin may temporarily make up for a lost night’s sleep, it can induce feelings of anxiety and increase blood pressure. Its energy-boosting effects also make it highly addictive.

Are there any harms in using study drugs?

Although it isn’t unusual for doctors to prescribe certain drugs off license, it’s dangerous to take this process into your own hands. The mental health side effects of using both Modafinil and Ritalin can become quite profound. When taken at uncontrolled levels, Modafinil can (potentially) induce manic thoughts. Most notably there have been worrying cases of Modafinil-induced psychosis.

Chief among illegal study drugs, Ritalin is also notorious for causing psychiatric side effects. It’s partially been normalized by the Hollywood-perpetrated image of parents taking their children’s Ritalin in secret to strike a normal work-life balance. In reality, overuse of the drug can lead to the same psychiatric and physical side effects as cocaine abuse.

What are the alternatives?

It’s worth acknowledging that there are no decent studies into student motivations for taking study drugs. Most anecdotal cases seem to cite cramming in more study hours. Whether this is due to poor planning or obligations elsewhere, it’s not likely to prove effective in the long term.

Naturally, many people will find themselves in a situation where there aren’t enough hours in the day. When this happens, taking the following steps is more beneficial than using study drugs:

  • Prioritise sleep; Whether this means sleeping at night or topping up with naps, getting enough slumber will boost your concentration.
  • Use caffeine; Like Modafinil and Ritalin, caffeine will boost dopamine levels – with a shorter half-life and fewer side effects.
  • Take regular breaks; After a little while, cramming will reduce your ability to retain information.
  • Use stress reduction techniques; Exercise boosts norepinephrine, so try and add it to your morning routine.

And if study drugs do look like an enticing option, get a prescription from a doctor. Don’t risk buying them online.


About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.