What is a Stimulant and How Does it Work?


Stimulants are a class of substances that produce the result of increased alertness, energy, or mood by changing the flow of neurotransmitters in our brain cells. Stimulants have been used for thousands of years and are deeply ingrained in our society. The first use of stimulants was recorded by the Chinese using green, white and black teas in Chinese medicine to improve cognition and make people feel more alert. The same goes for the Aztecs in Mexico using chocolate and the prevalent use of coffee beans along the trade routes of the Middle East. Each of them having a history of use that dates back for thousands of years.

It wasn’t until later that Europeans and Americans discovered these natural stimulating plants. In early 1800, the first coffee shop was opened in England kicking off a world wide craze for coffee. In the mid 19th century, crafters would make soda drinks from ginger, or sassafras or the caffeine containing kola nut plant. These tonics were believed to be healthy energizers and popularity quickly rose, leading to explosive growth in caffeine consumption.

Current Status of Stimulants

In the early 1900’s there were a couple lawsuits against the caffeine manufacturers and distributors in the US where the government sought to ban caffeine. The judges were in favor of the caffeine companies so no ban was made, but it marked the beginning of the opposition against the use of psychoactive ingredients in our food and supplementation. As new stimulants are brought into our awareness, the US seeks to place them in appropriate categories based on the individual stimulant’s effects and side effects. There are many categories of stimulants.

Stimulant Types

Caffeine Containing Stimulants

Coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, guarana extract, and chocolate all are widely available foods and beverages and mainly contain caffeine. There have been many accidents involving caffeine over the years, however, very few times was the cause by caffeine alone. Therefore it has been deemed safe for general consumption by our government and available for even children to consume.  

Prescription Stimulants

However some stimulants such as adderall or modafinil (chemically synthesized compounds) have been placed as a controlled substance and only available to those who are in dire need by proof of a prescription from their doctor.


Then there is nicotine which is found in tobacco, historically used by the native Americans and discovered by Spanish settlers, which gives people clarity of thought, relaxation, and increased confidence and is a controlled substance deemed safe for people over the age of 18. Nicotine is also found in all nightshade plants.

Illegal Stimulants

Then, even more hardcore are the illegal stimulants such as methamphetamine, PCP, LSD, and a long series of later discovered research chemicals. These have been known to cause more severe side effects or an increased likelihood of addiction, so their use has been made illegal.

Herbal Stimulants

Besides the herbal caffeine sources such as coffee, tea, kola, and guarana, there are a number of other naturally stimulating herbs that do not contain caffeine. Some of those are garcinia cambogia, citrus aurantium, yohime, kratom, kanna, dagga, forskolin, huperzine A, rhodiola rosea, and St. John’s Wort.

Nootropic Stimulants

As well there are a number of nootropic stimulants. To be considered a nootropic, the stimulant must improve brain function without long term side effects. Some examples of these are tianeptine, sulbutiamine, methylene blue, pycnogenol, sunifram, adrafinil or racetams such as piracetam or phenylpiracetam. These have been shown to have more long term benefits than they do side effects, however some of them will develop a tolerance very quickly as most supplements do.


The last one is a bonus which is marijuana. Most people would not think that marijuana is a stimulant being that it seems to have the exact opposite effect. However, the plant contains many different chemicals that produce effects, most of them having sedative properties, but a couple of them being stimulatory. The few that are stimulatory are known as THC. There is delta-9-THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), delta-8-THC and THCV (tetrahydrocannbivarin). These are known to increase dopamine and serotonin levels making each of these 3 cannabinoids stimulatory. They are also psychoactive and are the cause of the “high” effect that cannabis gives people.

Why are Stimulants Important

There are many benefits with stimulants as well as many possible downsides. But with that said, they are very useful tools that have helped mankind accomplish great feats nonetheless. Stimulants have allowed people to turn irritable days into enjoyable and productive days, to return from depression or other chronic mental disorders, to enhance the quality of their sexuality, to excel at sports and academics, to improve their mood and overall well-being, and according to some studies, even extend people’s life.[1] All in all, stimulants have many uses and give people a sense of satisfaction when consuming them that makes their use far from disappearing any time soon. In fact, 83% of adults in the United States drink coffee regularly.[2] It can be said that living a life without the use of stimulants would actually be a rarity in modern society as their place for many is quite useful, impactful and necessary.

Moral Issues with Stimulants

In terms of morality, it is quite debatable as to whether we as humanity should only consume the vitamins we need to survive, or if we should use stimulants and other herbs to help us perform and heal beyond our normal capabilities. From a naturalist perspective we should be using our mind to harness our own internal energy for our daily activities and from a general perspective, we should use whatever tools we have available to help us live a better life and accomplish the things we want to in our lifetimes. There really is no right answer, as until we reach a unanimous agreement, it really comes down to the beliefs of the individual.

Who Uses Stimulants

Stimulants are perfect for people looking to perform their best in sports competitions (where they are legal), in business and mentally demanding careers, scholastic and personal studies, people looking to quickly learn languages, online video gamers competing with other players, programmers or artists to enhance the quality of their work, people who go to parties and are looking for superior confidence, connection, and mental dominance or even elderly folks looking to think accurately and quickly as if they were young.

How Stimulants Work

Stimulants work by altering the flow of neurotransmitters that pass between neurons in the brain. The stimulant substance binds to a receptor site that controls neurotransmitter flow such as the adenosine receptors, HT receptors, NMDA receptors or villanoid receptors to cause some physiological chain reaction that leads to increased levels of neurotransmitters at the neuron junctions. Based on how much of each neurotransmitter is present, varying degrees and behaviors of the electrical signals will be passed through the brain and nervous system. There are 3 ways in which neurotransmitters are increased:

  1. Shift more of the neurotransmitters from the body of the cell to the synapse
  2. Block the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter into the synapse
  3. Reverse the flow of the neurotransmitter from the synapse

The Downsides

Here are all the possible complications that can arise short term:

  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Nausea
  • Hallucinations, hyperexcitability, irritability
  • Panic and psychosis
  • Convulsions, seizures and death from high doses

In the long term:

  • At extremely high doses, permanent damage to blood vessels of heart and brain
  • Liver, kidney and lung damage
  • Destruction of tissues in nose if sniffed
  • Respiratory (breathing) problems if smoked
  • Infectious diseases and abscesses if injected
  • Malnutrition, weight loss
  • Disorientation, apathy, confused exhaustion
  • Strong psychological dependence
  • Psychosis
  • Depression
  • Damage to the brain including strokes and possibly epilepsy

Most people will experience very little to none of the side effects mentioned above when taking more popular and safe stimulants, however, at higher doses, stimulants can be significantly more dangerous than they seem for the masses.


Stimulants are a very useful and beneficial tool that we can use to perform our best and thrive. However, they come with a risk of potentially dangerous effects and have the potential to cause more harm than good. There are many stimulants out there in the world. It comes down to the person understanding how each one works and more importantly how it makes them feel, and how it can be used to enhance one’s life. Stimulants should be taken with caution. With any stimulant that we have not used before, or have not used in a while, it is wise to take a microdose (~1/10 recommended), then proceed to a quarter dose, then a half dose and a whole dose after that assuming that one consistently feels positive effects with each dose. If you don’t feel as good as you would hope, or even feel a nasty side effect, it could be that your physiology doesn’t work well with the stimulant, and can actually be more dangerous to you than most. People when being smart and safe about their stimulant consumption will slowly test each stimulant first and avoid anything that produces a negative effect.
As a nootropic, stimulants such as racetams, adrafinil, combined with safe plant extracts and caffeine containing plant can be super healthy for your body, promote healthy brain function, and give you the energy and the confidence you need to accomplish your goals. Check out the Nootropics University to learn more about how each stimulant can benefit you.