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Adderall vs Modafinil: How are they different?

Authored by Granite Recovery Centers    Reviewed by James Gamache    Last Updated: August 28th, 2021


James Gamache Medical Reviewer
Jim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and Licensed Masters Level Addictions Counselor (MLADC). He has been working in the field of mental health/addiction treatment since 1995. Jim earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Springfield College in 2000, and a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University in 2002. In 2002 Jim was hired by the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester holding the position of Clinical Case Manager. From 2004-2019, Jim was employed at WestBridge Inc. During his time at WestBridge, Jim held the following positions; Clinician, Team Leader, Director, & Chief Operations Officer. In 2019 Jim transitioned employment to GateHouse Treatment Center as the Clinical Director for 10 months. In October of 2020 Jim transitioned to Granite Recovery Centers and is currently serving as the Senior VP of Clinical Services and Quality Assurance.

When people think about prescription stimulants, they most likely imagine Adderall. Adderall is the most well-known prescription stimulant, but it is not the only one. Modafinil is another commonly prescribed drug with stimulant effects. Though both of these medications can affect people in similar ways, they are not identical. To understand the differences between Adderall and Modafinil, carefully consider all of the drugs’ effects.

What Are Adderall and Modafinil?

Both Adderall and Modafinil are prescription drugs. Modafinil is sold under many names, including Provigil, Alertec, and Modavigil. Likewise, Adderall is sold under multiple names, such as Adderall XR and Mydayis. Neither medication is available over the counter, but you can obtain it from a pharmacy if your doctor gives you a prescription. Both of these medications have stimulant-like qualities that can promote focus. Despite these basic similarities, there are quite a few differences between the two.

At a glance, the big difference between the two is that Modafinil is milder. Modafinil has stimulant-like properties, but it is not officially classified as a stimulant. It does not cause quite as much alertness as Adderall, and it has less potential for addiction. Furthermore, Modafinil tends to have fewer physical side effects than Adderall. These drugs tend to function differently because they impact the brain in separate ways.

Common Uses of Adderall and Modafinil

Adderall is a stimulant that tends to make people feel focused, alert and attentive. In higher doses, Adderall can also lead to euphoria and hallucinations. The drug is often prescribed for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Among patients with ADHD, Adderall helps reduce symptoms like hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. Patients who take it as directed report that they can better handle multistep tasks, organize their lives, and take in information. In addition to treating ADHD, Adderall is also used to treat narcolepsy. The drug’s ability to improve wakefulness can help those who struggle with falling asleep during the day.

Modafinil is primarily prescribed to help with sleep disorders. It helps improve alertness and makes it harder for people to fall asleep at inconvenient times. Modafinil is used for narcolepsy, just like Adderall. It also helps with shift work sleep disorder and sleep apnea. For patients with sleep apnea, Modafinil does not directly treat the apnea. Instead, it helps with the excessive daytime sleepiness that some patients may face.

How Do Adderall and Modafinil Work?

The big difference between Adderall and Modafinil is that Adderall is a direct stimulant while Modafinil is not. Essentially, when you take Adderall, your body absorbs more norepinephrine and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are responsible for alertness, focus, and an improved mood, so you feel these strong effects when taking Adderall. Another unique thing about Adderall’s mechanism is that it is very long-lasting. Unlike some other stimulants, Adderall stays in your system and works for four to six hours. There are even some extended-release formulas for Adderall that cause it to keep working for up to 12 hours.

Meanwhile, Modafinil does not directly stimulate the brain. Researchers still are not aware of the exact mechanism behind Modafinil’s effects. However, they have found that it does not cause the body to produce more stimulant neurotransmitters. Instead, Modafinil is a reuptake inhibitor. It prevents the body from removing dopamine, so naturally produced dopamine compounds remain in the brain for longer amounts of time. This is a very long-lasting mechanism, so take the substance can feel modafinil’s effects for around 10 to 15 hours.

Side Effects for Adderall and Modafinil

Adderall can cause an extensive range of side effects. Many people who take the medication struggle with dry mouth, stomach pain, nausea, dizziness, headache, diarrhea, fever, weight loss, loss of appetite, or anxiety. Some people who take Adderall may find that it decreases their sex drive, causes dizziness, results in hair loss, and increases their blood pressure or heart rate. Especially when a person takes a higher dose of Adderall than normal, they can end up dealing with panic attacks, paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations.

Modafinil may have slightly fewer side effects, but that does not mean the drug is entirely without side effects. The most common side effects are headaches, nausea, dizziness, and nervousness. Technically, one side effect of Modafinil is trouble sleeping, but since most people taking it struggle with excessive daytime sleepiness, this may not be a problem for some. Modafinil may also cause some rare side effects like irregular heartbeat, agitation, depression, or hallucinations. Overall, the main issue with Modafinil is that it increases heart rate and blood pressure, which can be a problem for those with a history of heart problems.

Do Adderall or Modafinil Interact Poorly With Other Substances?

Both Adderall and Modafinil interact poorly with alcohol. The stimulant nature of the medications can compete with the depressant effects of alcohol, masking signs of drinking too much without actually preventing the problem. Ultimately, this can lead to alcohol overdoses, heart problems, and aggressive behavior.

Adderall interacts badly with many medications. It should not be taken alongside MAO inhibitors, serotonergic drugs, CYP2D6 inhibitors, proton pump inhibitors, or tricyclic antidepressants. Modafinil interacts poorly with hormonal birth control. It can reduce the effectiveness of birth control due to its inhibitory effect. It may also interact badly with warfarin, CYP2C19 substrates, MAO inhibitors, and CYP3A4/5 substrates.

Potential for Abuse of Medications

In general, Adderall is far more likely to be abused than Modafinil. Adderall is actually the most widely abused prescription stimulant, especially on college campuses. There are several reasons that people are more likely to use Adderall without a prescription or use Adderall in ways not recommended by their doctor. First of all, Adderall is widely available. Since it is so frequently prescribed, it is easy for people to obtain it from friends with a prescription or a dealer. Due to its rarity, Modafinil is less easy to get unless you have a legitimate prescription for the medication.

Another reason Modafinil has less potential for abuse is that its effects are not as pronounced. Modafinil does cause alertness, so some people may misuse it when they want to stay awake. However, since the drug does not improve focus or cognition, it is not commonly abused as a study or work aid.

People often abuse Adderall due to the rush of euphoria from taking a large dose of the drug. Modafinil does have some slight euphoric properties, but it does not immediately flood the brain with neurotransmitters in the same way that Adderall does. This means there is little incentive to abuse Modafinil.

Are You Likely to Get Addicted to Adderall or Modafinil?

Due to its wide availability and more potent effects, Adderall already tends to have a high potential for abuse. Something else to think about is whether the drugs cause physical dependence. If a person is likely to become physically dependent on a drug, they may continue to misuse it for long periods and eventually develop an addiction.

Adderall tends to have a very high risk for addiction because it is easy to become dependent on the drug. When you regularly take Adderall, your brain becomes used to high levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. When Adderall usage stops suddenly, you may feel physically ill. Withdrawal symptoms for Adderall can include sleepiness, anxiety, depression, irritability, and mental confusion. It also causes extreme cravings, making it very hard to stop using the drug without assistance from a drug rehab program.

Meanwhile, Modafinil dependence is rare. There have only been a few cases ever recorded of a person who has an addiction to Modafinil. This typically happens when a person takes exceptionally high doses, such as roughly 12 times the average amount, for extremely long periods. Modafinil withdrawal does cause some cravings, but it is mostly just characterized by fatigue and depression. Ultimately, it may be possible to be addicted to Modafinil, but almost no one who uses the drug will develop a substance use disorder.

Legal Status of Adderall and Modafinil

Due to their different effects, Adderall and Modafinil do not have the same legal status. They are both controlled substances allowed only in cases with a prescription, but they are treated slightly differently. Modafinil is a Schedule IV Controlled Substance, and Adderall is a Schedule II Controlled Substance.

From a legal perspective, this means that Adderall is considered to be a dangerous drug with a high potential for abuse. It is regarded as a controlled substance, and possessing it without a prescription may lead to various legal charges. Schedule IV drugs like Modafinil are deemed to be far less dangerous. They are classified as drugs with a low potential to be either physically or psychologically addictive. Being caught with a Schedule IV drug can still result in legal charges, but potential jail time and fines are usually much lower.

How Do You Decide Between Adderall and Modafinil?

If you are considering taking either Adderall or Modafinil, there are a few things to consider. First, you will need to think about your current health situation. If you have ADHD, Adderall may be more effective than Modafinil. However, if you have a sleep disorder, either drug can be a useful option. In many cases, Modafinil may be better tolerated by your system. Many patients find that they have fewer side effects when taking Modafinil. If you struggle with substance use problems, Modafinil is often considered safer.

Deciding between Adderall and Modafinil is not something you will need to do by yourself. Instead, your doctor should be able to carefully consider your situation and help you find the proper medication for your needs. If you have already taken one of these drugs before and found that it did not work for you, you can talk to your doctor about switching to the alternative option.

Treat Stimulant Use Disorders at Granite Recovery Centers

Ultimately, both Adderall and Modafinil are drugs that may end up causing substance use problems. While Adderall is typically far more addictive, Modafinil can also cause issues for some. It is essential to seek help whenever you are misusing prescription drugs. Ignoring the problem can damage your health and make your addiction worse. If you or a loved one is dealing with a stimulant use disorder, Granite Recovery Centers can help.

Granite Recovery Centers is a full-service rehab center located in peaceful New England. Our rehab offers detox, residential rehab, and intensive outpatient rehab, so you can find the treatment schedule that suits your lifestyle. All of our programs provide a full range of evidence-based clinical psychotherapy. Our compassionate, licensed counselors can help you explore potential addiction triggers and discover healthier ways of coping with stress. To learn more about your treatment options at Granite Recovery Centers, contact us today. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.

At Granite Recovery Centers, we want to provide accurate information about health and addiction so that our readers can make informed decisions.

We have credentialed medical doctors & clinicians who specialize in addiction treatment review the information on our website before it is published. We use credible sources such as government websites and journal articles when citing statistics or other medically related topics.