What are Stimulants?

A stimulant is a drug which speeds up the central nervous system to increase neural activity in the brain. Examples include amphetamines, cocaine and crack, caffeine, nicotine and ecstasy. Stimulant drugs tend to make people feel more alert and focused and are sometimes called ‘uppers’.

Stimulants raise blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration and reduce the desire to eat. After the effects wear off people may feel tired, hungry and depressed, this is sometimes called a ‘comedown’.

Historically, stimulant drugs like ephedrine were used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems as well as obesity, insomnia and certain neurological disorders. Amphetamines were also used throughout the Second World War to increase the alertness and focus of soldiers – see our page on amphetamines for more about their history.

During the 1960s, as their potential for abuse and addiction became apparent, authorities began to control stimulants like amphetamines and their medical use was restricted. Now, stimulants are only used for a small number of medical conditions such as ADHD, narcolepsy, and occasionally depression. The mild stimulant caffeine, however, remains one of our most popular drugs; being found in tea, coffee and chocolate.

Updated March 2022