My body experiment: life without Adderall

Adair Vilella, 35, is an account executive at Equinox Century City in Los Angeles, a certified holistic nutritionist, and a health coach. She started taking Adderall after being diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager. Little did she know it would lead to 13 years of addiction. Eight years into recovery, she has a lot of clarity. This is her story.

Vilella (right) is pictured with her mom, Deborah; brother, Reid (middle); and sister, Amanda (left).

The Start of Adderall

I grew up in an active family (my dad swam the English Channel) so from a young age, I loved working out and played soccer, tennis, and basketball. I was very creative and passionate.

Everything changed shortly after I started taking Adderall at 15 years old.

I dealt with frequent digestion and immune issues as a child and when I got to high school, I had trouble paying attention. A lot of kids my age were getting tested for ADD and ADHD around this time, and my parents thought it would be a good idea if I did, too. I took a six-hour test and was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall.

I started taking 20 milligrams twice a day. The drug had a positive impact on my digestion and I was doing better in school and sports. I also talked a lot more. Looking back, people probably thought I was obnoxious, but at the time I felt like I could do anything. My confidence went through the roof. My friends started calling me Adairall. I was a different person when I was on it.

I basically felt like Superwoman. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long.

The Side Effects

After about six months, I began having adverse reactions to the drug. My body built a tolerance to it and I needed more of it to get the same effects. When I was on it, I’d feel amazing. A few hours later, I’d start to crash, my body’s serotonin levels would drop, and I’d feel like crap. I was moody and shaky and would get tremors, heart palpitations, and cold hands and feet. The drug caused a terrible pattern of extreme highs and lows.

Meanwhile, I developed a perfectionist mindset in all areas of life. Because I was studying so hard throughout the week, I got addicted to cigarettes and turned to alcohol on the weekends to destress. A lot of my friends took Adderall as well, and we’d all get together to study, drink a lot of caffeine, and use nicotine to help the high.

I lost my passion for fitness, and my diet suffered. I started skipping meals regularly (the drug suppresses your appetite). I’d snack here and there or eat half a sandwich for lunch, and once my dose wore off around dinnertime all I wanted was carbs and sugar, anything to help my dopamine levels rise again. I was binge-eating things like burritos, sushi, smoothies, and pizza on the weekends.

I wasn’t ready to get off the drug. I remember thinking I’d never be able to do my job, train, and socialize without it.

Adair Vilella

Despite the unhealthy behaviors, I didn’t gain any weight. I didn’t know how this would affect my body image later in life. Whenever I considered getting off it in my 20s, I worried I’d lose my slim figure.

All of these side effects continued throughout college, and I also developed insomnia due to taking Adderall later in the day. Most doctors recommend you abstain after 3 p.m., but I had class all day and had to study at night. Then I’d be so wired that I needed sleeping pills to get any rest.

After college, I took a job teaching high school Spanish. Since I still had all this extra energy from Adderall, I put it toward training for a triathlon. My body became inflamed as a result of both the workouts and the drug, and I retained a lot of water weight during this time.

I also got leaky gut syndrome, which is when holes penetrate the lining in the gut and everything you eat goes into your bloodstream. I’d feel puffy, inflamed, and congested when I ate dairy, and also got severe brain fog from eating gluten. I was exhausted all the time, which could have been a sign of adrenal fatigue, a possible side effect of Adderall. I felt depressed, sad, and alone.

Is Adderall only for teens?
No. The prevalence of adult attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is around five percent of the population, says Justin Mager, MD, a San Francisco-based internist and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. He estimates that they, along with another three to five percent of adults, use stimulants like Adderall to some extent.
What are some signs that someone might have ADHD?
Poor time management skills, trouble multitasking, restlessness, impulsiveness, and lack of focus, to name a few. That said, “the diagnosis of ADHD is incomplete in itself,” Mager says. “In every case of patients I’ve worked with who have received the diagnosis, they all have the ability to focus for prolonged periods without medication if and when they’re interested in what they’re doing.”
What are my options if I'm diagnosed with ADHD?
The obvious (or easiest) answer, if your doctor says it’s the best course of action for you, is to get a prescription for Adderall or a similar stimulant like Ritalin or Concerta. But there are medication-free ways to manage the diagnosis. You should ask yourself, What can I do to learn how to feel calmer and more attentive? Once you answer this question, think of how you can cultivate an environment that supports and encourages a more relaxed state of being. Exercising and learning how to unwind are both great ways to help you focus, he says.
If I start taking Adderall, how can I have a healthy relationship with the drug?
Commit yourself to the healthiest lifestyle possible; use only the minimal, effective dose that allows you to function; and take breaks from use, especially on the weekends, Mager says.

Sidebar by Michelle Malia
The Beginning of the End

Because of all these side effects, I decided to see an acupuncturist in 2008. She connected the dots between my Adderall addiction and overall health issues, but I wasn’t ready to cut it out of my life. I remember thinking I’d never be able to do my job, train, and socialize without it. (I was both addicted to Adderall and physically and mentally dependent on it.)

But it was the first step toward recovery. After that appointment, I changed my diet, eating only vegetarian foods for 30 days to make digestion easier for my body. (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for everyone, but at the time, that’s what I thought would work best for me.) That was the first time I realized how much food can affect your health, and how much Adderall was affecting me.

After the 30-day veggie-heavy diet reset, I ended up going vegan for four years to help heal my gut. My digestion was so torn up, I needed this reset. Meat is important to help strengthen your adrenals and heal leaky gut, so looking back, I would have focused on adding more bone broths and L-glutamine rich foods. However, this was not a common issue 10 years ago that doctors knew how to treat.

I continued going to acupuncture for three years to focus on improving my digestion and strengthening my immune system. My acupuncturist inserted needles in certain pressure points related to my liver, kidney, digestion, adrenals, and immune system.

Left: After being Adderall-free for one week, Vilella eats her first meal post-detox in Woodside, California. “I was ready to restart my life,” she says. Right: Further into her recovery, Vilella learns how to do cardio without stressing her adrenals at a track in Carmel, California.

Instead of giving up Adderall, I continued to focus on changing my routine in other ways. I went gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free to reduce inflammation. I also gave up alcohol, drank more water, cut back on cardio (since it was too stressful on my adrenals), started strength training, and took up yoga and meditation.

I started noticing positive changes in my energy levels, so later in 2008 I began to reduce my Adderall dose until I cut it in half, to an average of 10 milligrams a day. Cleaning up my diet before I lowered my dose was crucial, and made the transition process easier.

It was tough living in Charleston, South Carolina, where most of the food is fried and social activities center around partying and drinking. People thought I was a crazy health freak and I lost a lot of friends. Meanwhile, I was still addicted to Adderall despite reducing my intake. I wondered how I would ever get off it completely.

The Turning Point

In June of 2010, I went to California to visit a friend. During the flight I realized I forgot my meds and the idea of spending two weeks without my prescription sent me into a panic. It felt like a moment of truth. I thought to myself: I have to get off of it once and for all. I knew California would be the best healing ground.

I turned my obsession with California into my reality. I quit my job and explored up and down the coast, living out of a single suitcase. I was drawn to the energy and loved how healthy the lifestyle was. At the end of the summer, I made the decision to permanently relocate to California, apply for nutrition school, and restart my life.

I moved to Carmel, a sleepy, picturesque beach town, and started going to school to become a certified holistic nutritionist in January of 2011. I also started working toward my yoga and personal trainer certifications. I began to wean off the drug slowly until I reduced my dose to five milligrams per day. But I didn’t stop taking Adderall completely until right before I went on a detox retreat with my school in August.

Part of the experience involved a week-long bone broth and juice cleanse for my kidneys and liver. Right there, in the middle of the California woods, I promised myself that I would never take Adderall again. It was time to discover the real Adair.

Right there, in the middle of the California woods, I promised myself that I would never take Adderall again.

Adair Vilella

While pursuing her yoga certification, Vilella practices on the beach in Big Sur, California, in 2012.

Transitioning to Life Without Meds

After 13 years of addiction, I finally stopped taking Adderall. I wanted to make sure I was supporting my adrenal system in the process. If you don’t, you can crash from adrenal fatigue. It’s a condition that causes you to feel like you have a fog over your head, making it difficult to function—let alone be active or energized.

I turned to naturopathic doctors to help. They recommended amino acid supplements to get my neurotransmitters firing again and heal my gut lining. (L-glutamine in particular helped with this.) I also took a handful of adaptogenic herbs to balance and restore my adrenals. My favorite is Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health, which has a mix of ashwagandha, holy basil, rhodiola, and Schisandra herbs. These two aspects of my healing process were life-changing.

Focusing on mind-body exercise during my transition period was also crucial. I devoted my energy to yoga, strength training, and meditation.

Where I Am Now

Overcoming my addiction taught me how important it is to stay in tune with my body. On Adderall, I went full force ahead at all times. I felt numb to my own emotions and blocked off from the rest of the world.

Now that I’m off the drug, I can really listen to what my body needs and wants. I married a wonderful European who truly taught me the meaning of living a balanced lifestyle. I exercise for enjoyment rather than as punishment for weekend binge-eating and my relationship with food is much more healthy. Cardio is back in the picture, in the form of weekly cycling classes and one-mile swims. I enjoy treats when the time is right and I don’t panic about gaining weight or feeling awful the next day. I view food as a way to feed and nourish my cells, muscles, brain, and soul. To put it simply, I love and nurture myself, which helps me give back to others.

One year into recovery, Vilella skydives over Santa Cruz, California, to celebrate her newfound freedom.

I want anyone who’s struggling to know that there’s a healthier, happier life waiting for you on the other side.

Adair Villela

I’ve been off Adderall now for eight years and my goal is to help educate others about autoimmune issues, adrenal fatigue, addiction, and recovery. If you’re dealing with addiction, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Talking to experienced doctors and nutritionists about how to get your body and brain back on track is important for recovery.

Giving up Adderall was scary, but I want anyone who’s struggling to know that there’s a healthier, happier life waiting for you on the other side.

Talk to your doctor, visit AmericanAddictionCenters.org, or contact their around-the-clock treatment consultants if you're struggling with addiction.

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