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What Are CNS Stimulants?

By Britt Archer
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Healthy individuals might not give a second thought to their brain and spinal cord, but these organs together make up the central nervous system. The central nervous system is responsible for sending messages, via electrical signals or chemicals, throughout the entire body. CNS stimulants, or central nervous system stimulants, “excite,”or speed up and increase the transmission of these signals.

CNS stimulants enter the body and are absorbed by receptors in the brain. The stimulants then trigger the release of certain chemicals such as serotonin, norepinephrine or acetylcholine into the body via the blood. Some central nervous system stimulants act as antagonists, blocking other chemicals within the body to increase the action of others. Caffeine, for example, blocks adenosine receptors from absorbing the chemical, increasing the circulation of that chemical within the body, causing the person who ingested it to feel more awake and alert.

CNS stimulant drugs are used by doctors to treat a variety of ailments. Illnesses that cause the central nervous system to slow down, such as narcolepsy or depression, are sometimes treated using CNS stimulants. People with asthma or those who are obese are also sometimes treated using this class of drugs. Some, but not all, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication drugs are central nervous system stimulants.

Using a central nervous system medication to treat a condition such as ADHD may appear counterintuitive — those without ADHD feel less focused, but those with ADHD report the opposite. Scientists aren't sure why CNS stimulants have this effect on ADHD sufferers. There is no cure for ADHD, but the condition can be managed with central nervous system stimulants as well as other therapeutic measures.

Side effects of CNS stimulants include but are not limited to erratic heartbeat or a quickened pulse, lack of appetite, rapid weight loss and insomnia. Central nervous system medications can also promote a feeling of irritation, restlessness and a loss of focus or concentration, as well as hyperactivity. If a patient experiences chest pain, dizziness, extreme and sudden fatigue, fever, hives, seizure or uncontrolled movements while taking drugs of this class, he seek emergency medical treatment immediately.

When used under a doctor's supervision, CNS stimulant medication can be a safe, effective way to manage certain disorders. When used improperly, CNS stimulants can become addictive. Due to the awake, alert feelings they promote, drugs that affect the central nervous system have a high potential for abuse. Therefore, it is important to speak to a doctor about the best course of treatment and any related concerns.

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Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Oct 05, 2012

I am prone to developing CNS stimulants' side effects when taking medication. I used to take ephedrine as a nasal decongestant, and though it worked great, it sped up my heart and made me feel like something was wrong.

My heart actually started skipping beats and having an erratic rhythm while I was taking ephedrine. It kept me awake at night, and this troubled me, because I had wanted the decongestant in order to breathe more easily so I could get some sleep.

I had to stop taking it. Even though it was the only thing that worked to unclog my sinuses, I couldn't escape the feeling that I might have a heart attack or pass out.

By shell4life — On Oct 04, 2012

In my opinion, caffeine is the best of the natural CNS stimulants available. You can determine how much you get just by drinking a smaller or larger cup of coffee, and you don't have to take a pill in order to receive it.

One cup of coffee does it for me in the mornings. It makes me alert enough to drive to work, and it washes away the haze of my dreams.

I know people who drink two or three cups a day, but I could not handle that. I once had two cups, and I started getting shaky and nervous.

By giddion — On Oct 04, 2012

@feasting – I thought the same thing. However, my husband is taking a prescription stimulant for his ADHD, and it is working wonders.

I guess that since he is naturally stimulated already, the medication has the opposite effect on him. He calms down a lot, and he can actually complete one task before moving on to another, which is something he never could do before.

The medication also keeps him from being quite so hyper. He can listen to me when I talk without interrupting or drifting off in a thought pattern of his own, and he performs better at work, too.

By feasting — On Oct 03, 2012

That's so weird that CNS stimulation works for ADHD patients! I have met several people with this disorder who are not taking any medication, and they are already very stimulated naturally. They are flitting about and bouncing off the walls.

I just can't imagine a person like this taking a stimulant of any kind! It seems like this would make them speed up so much that it would kill them.

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