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The Risks of Modafinil Abuse

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At some point in time, you’ve had to fight off sleep. You had to drive through the night, you had to work on a project, or you had a thesis to write. We’ve all been there. Some people use coffee to stave off fatigue, while others turn to prescription medication. One of the most popular meds is sold in the United States as Provigil, but it is also known by the generic name of modafinil.1

While modafinil seems like the wonder drug that might solve the “not being enough hours in the day” problem, the truth is that it is a very powerful drug with a high chance of being misused. It is an effective medication, but before you take it, you should be fully aware of the risks.

What Is Modafinil?

In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration approved modafinil for treating narcolepsy. It is also prescribed for patients with shift work disorder (insomnia that arises when work hours overlap with normal sleeping hours) 2 and obstructive sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep, which results in drowsiness during the day).3

TIME magazine gave a brief summary of the drug, saying that its success with treating sleep disorders in patients led doctors to prescribe it off-label to those with ADHD and symptoms of schizophrenia.4The growing popularity of the drug has led to its use for non-medicinal purposes.

An April 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at the growing use of modafinil outside of its established boundaries found that off-label use of modafinil increased 15 times in seven year period of the study (compared to an on-label increment of just three times). Doctors prescribed modafinil to an astonishing 89 percent of patients who did not have on-label diagnoses.5

In the Journal of Environmental Health and Toxicology, Dongsoo Kim reported that modafinil could be prescribed to cancer patients to combat chemotherapy-induced fatigue or to soldiers who need to exercise constant mental alertness for long hours.6

New York magazine reported the drug as a “street drug of choice for young entrepreneurs who work two jobs and desperately need more energy to keep going. In the article, one such entrepreneur took modafinil and experienced these side effects:

  • Mild head rush
  • Increased concentration
  • Increased sense of awareness
  • Anti-anxiety

He also took fewer breaks and worked faster, longer and better. Another Kim interviewed would take modafinil to get by on six hours of sleep a night and still work on weekends. The drug made intense focus and concentration so much of a norm that missing even one single dose caused an anxiety attack. The young entrepreneur who eventually gave up using it.

Other observed withdrawal effects of modafinil include:

  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Shortness of breath
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Is Modafinil Is Dangerous?

In the Journal of American Medical Association,Dr. Nora D. Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said that modafinil has the same effect on the dopamine centers of the brain as cocaine, methamphetamines and amphetamines.

This suggests that modafinil is as addictive as those substances because it forcibly triggers the brain to release a neurotransmitter (dopamine) that is normally associated with feelings of pleasure. Under natural circumstances, the brain reabsorbs dopamine after a period of time, but powerful drugs (like cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.) make the brain continually pump out dopamine.

Dr. Volkow is the co-author of a March 2008 study published in JAMA, which says, in part, that modafinil “significantly increases dopamine in the human brain.” And the fact that it continues to be used for reasons beyond its prescribed intent poses a danger for addiction in at-risk individuals.9

RxList lists it as a reinforcing drug.10 Once the body and mind get accustomed to the presence of modafinil in the system, cutting off the supply results in typical withdrawal symptoms. To alleviate these symptoms, users seek out more of the drug, sometimes going to great lengths to secure their next dose.

Furthermore, the index says that modafinil causes psychoactive and euphoric effects in its users. This will impact a user’s moods, perceptions, thoughts and emotions, much like other stimulants such as coffee, nicotine, khat and mephedrone.

Other Uses of Modafinil

The question of modafinil’s effects and addictiveness prompted The Guardian to ask whether the drug was safe in the long term.11 As success stories from the business world spread, more and more students are turning to modafinil to keep them awake and alert for longer periods of time, and for the boost to short-term memory that the drug can provide.

Barbara Sahakian, a professor at the University of Cambridge, cautioned that while business executives generally use modafinil on specific occasions, students are prone to keep using modafinil as its effects wear off. This completely disrupts their natural, and necessary, sleep patterns. Long-term users reported feeling “neither asleep nor awake,” similar to those associated with long-term cocaine use. Sahakian also posited that students take modafinil for some basic reasons: academic excellence, competition, recreation and peer pressure.12

“This is drug abuse,” the Secretary of State for Health in the United Kingdom told Sky News of the rising trend among students to use modafinil.


What Should I Do if I Have a Problem With Modafinil?

Modafinil can be a very alluring drug. It doesn’t have the stigma of other notorious stimulants. If it helps us think clearer, get by on less sleep and work longer, harder and better then what could possibly be wrong with it? Unfortunately, quite a bit.

If the drug coaxes you to keep taking it, even beyond its initial uses, then you may have an addiction. If you are afraid that this is where you are (or that this is the situation of someone you know), call us today.

Our admissions coordinators are available to answer your questions over the phone or schedule an appointment to talk to a counselor about this powerful drug and its effect on your life. Once enrolled in care, we will work with you to develop a unique treatment plan that addresses your specific needs. Please contact us today at our 24-hour, toll-free helpline, 760.548.4032, to find out more about the risks of modafinil abuse and how you can be free of them.


1 "Modafinil" 6 June 2017. Web. Accessed 7 June 2017.

2 Shift Work Sleep Disorder. WebMD. 2015. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017.

3 Mayo Clinic Staff. "Obstructive sleep apnea" Web. Accessed 1 June 2017.

4 Kluger, Jeffrey. "Safety Concerns Raised over Popular Wakefulness Drug" TIME. 17 March 2009. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017.

5 Penaloza, Renee A., Sarkar, Urmimala and Claman, David M. "Trends in On-label and Off-label Modafinil Use in a Nationally Representative Sample" JAMA. 22 April 2015. Web. Accessed 2 June 2017.

6 Kim, Dongoo. "Practical Use and Risk of Modafinil, a Novel Waking Drug Environmental Health and Toxicology" 22 February 2012. Web. Accessed. 2 June 2017.

7 Kolker, Robert. "The Real Limitless Drug Isn’t Just for Lifehackers Anymore" New York. 31 March 2013. Web. Accessed. 1 June 2017.

8 "Provigil (Modafinil) Withdrawal Symptoms: Does It Have Any?" NP. Web. Accessed. 1 June 2017.

9 Volkow, Nora D., et al. "Effects of Modafinil on Dopamine and Dopamine Transporters in the Male Human Brain: Clinical Implications" JAMA. NCBI. 18 March 2009. Web. Accessed. 1 June 2017.

10 "Provigil." RxList. January 2015. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017.

11 David Cox. "Is modafinil safe in the long term?" The Guardian. 31 May 2013. Web. Accessed. 1 June 2017.

12 "'Smart Drug' Modafinil Risks Student Health" Sky News. 27 September 2013. Web. Accessed 1 June 2017.