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What Are Uppers? Cocaine, Amphetamines, and Methamphetamine

The Uppers: Cocaine, Amphetamines, and Methamphetamine

Uppers are central nervous system stimulants that temporarily increase mental or physical function or both. The word “uppers” is a colloquial term for stimulants that make you alert and enhance locomotion. Amphetamines, one type of “uppers,” are widely used as prescription medication and commonly prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamine, all uppers, produce wide ranging effects by enhancing the activity of the central and peripheral nervous system. Effects vary according to the type of substance. While some can reduce anxiety and elevate moods, others lead to euphoria. At the same time, these can also cause anxiety and other psychological disorders, conditions that they are meant to treat. The primary effect of uppers is due to the interference they create with levels of neurotransmitters that carry signals from and to the brain.


Cocaine is an alkaloid obtained from the leaves of the cocoa plant. Generally, it is a stimulant and suppresses appetite and specifically, works as an inhibitor of reuptake of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. It also inhibits reuptake of norepinephrine, a precursor of epinephrine, which is a hormone as well as a neurotransmitter. After discovery, cocaine was initially used to “make the coward brave” and “render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” It was only in the early twentieth century that its addictive properties became known.

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant of the nervous system and its effect lasts from 15-30 minutes to an hour. With prolonged use it can cause itching, abnormally rapid heartbeat, hallucinations and paranoid delusions. Heart pain and even heart attack risks are greatly increased (according to a study on cocaine by the American Heart Association, the risk of heart attack in the first hour after using cocaine is 24 times the normal level). Chronic intake eventually leads to lack of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. After the initial euphoria, it causes abnormal depression and discontentment.


Amphetamines are a class of drugs used as stimulants in the treatment of ADHD, depression, and narcolepsy. Amphetamines are known to increase wakefulness and focus along with decreasing fatigue and appetite. Apart from this, amphetamines also cause distorted sensations, dilated pupils, flushing, restlessness, headache, erectile dysfunction and uncontrollable movements. Chronic use or high dosage may also lead to convulsions, itchy skin, pallor and acne.

Like other stimulants, amphetamines are also used recreationally and as performance enhancers. Recreational users call amphetamines pep-up pills, speed or crank. In younger people it is known to lead to memory impairment and increased risk of heart attack. Although overdose of amphetamines is rarely fatal, it may lead to chest pain, psychosis and hypertension.

Abuse of amphetamines leads to increased tolerance, which means the amount of drug needed to create the same effect increases over time. Withdrawal can be difficult. It is a dangerous cycle and users may resort to taking other drugs such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates and even heroin to stay calm.


It may surprise you to learn that there is no difference between amphetamines and methamphetamine except that the latter is water soluble or mixed with methanol (the term for this is methylated). That translates into quicker absorption. Eventually, once it is inside the body, it breaks up into amphetamine. It is also highly addictive and methamphetamine addiction is much more difficult to treat than many other kinds. Post withdrawal cravings often require antidepressants such as bupropion and aripiprazole but work with very little success.

Reckless use of any medication, more so stimulants, is not advisable and they should only be taken under strict medical supervision.

Learn more by visiting our urine drug test page.