Worldwide, millions of individuals use drugs or consume alcohol each day. This use can vary anywhere between a glass of wine or two during dinner to a line of cocaine to experience increased energy and euphoria. Unfortunately, abuse of substances such as these can eventually develop into an addiction, causing the mind and body to function in unhealthy ways.
The following is a list of a few of the most commonly abused substances and how they affect the brain and body when consumed.
Despite being legal and widely accepted for use in many countries, many studies have found that alcohol is actually the most potentially fatal substance on the planet—even more so than meth, heroin, or cocaine. Over three million deaths each year are related to alcohol abuse.
Alcohol use initially increases levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain, inducing effects that make people feel happy and less stressed out, and even satisfied. For this reason, many people falsely believe that alcohol is a stimulant. However, it is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and a potentially powerful one in excessive doses.
In fact, despite the short burst of elated mood, slowed cognition, and a depressed breathing and heart rate manifest within a short time after consumption. The liver can only process about one standard drink of alcohol per hour—this drink can be one shot of liquor, 12 oz. of beer, or 5 oz. of wine. Drinking alcohol faster than this amount of time can quickly and dangerously increase one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), leading to moderate-severe impairments in motor skills and cognitive functioning.
In those who drink excessively over a prolonged period, up to 90 percent will develop fatty liver disease, resulting in fatigue, weight gain, and chronic pain. Also, frequent use can damage the links between brain neurons, affecting the ability to process information. Alcohol consumption also lowers inhibitions and can produce feelings of fearlessness, leading to risky and impulsive sexual encounters, auto accidents, physical assaults, and injury.
And, as with any intoxicant, there is always the risk of dependence and addiction. When dependence develops, the brain has grown accustomed to alcohol’s persistent presence and can therefore not function correctly without it. This state results in uncomfortable and sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. It contributes to addiction development, which is also characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite adverse consequences.
Opioids are analgesics or painkillers that include prescription medication such as OxyContin, Vicodin, fentanyl, and the illicit street drug heroin. Opioids also have properties that mirror a CNS depressant, and in excessive doses, can lead to respiratory arrest and death. They attach to certain brain receptors and alter pain perception.
Opioids also decrease the amount of GABA in the brain, which, as a result, increases the amount of dopamine. Almost all opioids have an extremely high potential for dependence and addiction. Constipation and other gastrointestinal problems are also common complaints among opioid users.
An individual can completely stop breathing during an overdose, causing permanent brain damage, coma, and death. This effect may be accompanied by choking or gurgling sounds (aka a “death rattle”) and bluish skin on the lips and fingers (cyanosis). Acute opioid intoxication is considered to be a life-threatening emergency. If you suspect a person you know is experiencing an overdose, please call 911 immediately.
All opioids can potentially have these effects, although each symptom’s presence and severity depend on the drug itself, the amount used, and the administration method. Effects typically last between 4-12 hours.
Cocaine is a potent CNS stimulant that boosts dopamine and serotonin’s neurochemicals, resulting in brief but nonetheless elated feelings of well-being, confidence, and energy. Over time, these feelings may subside and make way for irritability, anxiety, and paranoia.
Because cocaine’s high is so short-lasting (usually less than a half-hour), people frequently use it in binges to avoid the unwanted comedown after the high begins to subside. Cocaine begins affecting the brain within mere moments, causing a significant heart rate and blood pressure increase.
Snorting cocaine routinely can cause frequent nosebleeds and the formation of holes in parts of the nose, often the septum. Smoking cocaine can irritate the lungs, sometimes leading to irreversible lung damage. Injecting cocaine can result in damaged veins and the contraction of blood-borne diseases such as HIV when needles are shared.
Cocaine also constricts arteries, which can result in a heart attack. Cocaine is highly addictive, and using it in a binge-like fashion (which is common) may contribute to its addictive potential.
4. Methamphetamine (Meth)
Like cocaine, meth is an addictive stimulant that may prove hazardous to a user’s physical and emotional well-being. It is most often smoked in the form of crystal meth but can also be injected, snorted, or swallowed. Crystal meth comes in a form that resembles small crystals or glass shards that are whitish or light blue. Meth use induces feelings of euphoria in users, a common reason why people report using the drug.
The effects of meth can differ somewhat, depending on how the drug was administered. Initially, the user will feel like they have improved concentration and may feel euphoria and experience a large burst of energy, also known as a “rush.” This effect is short-lived, but other sought-after effects of meth, such as increased energy and elevated mood, can last for hours.
While these desirable feelings are being experienced, however, the central nervous system works overtime to produce dopamine and other neurotransmitters to stabilize mood. Moreover, meth use interferes with these chemicals, and studies have shown that an individual’s temperament and behavior can be altered dramatically when under meth’s influence.
Other adverse effects of meth use include elevated heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, agitation, paranoia, and strange, erratic, or repetitive behavior. Like cocaine, users often engage in meth binges for days at a time to delay the undesirable feelings of coming down.
MDMA (ecstasy) is a synthetic “club” or “party” drug that has both stimulating and hallucinogenic properties. There is scant evidence that ecstasy has potential for physical dependence, but it can be habit-forming, and in rare instances, death can occur, primarily due to overheating or dehydration.
Ecstasy increases dopamine and serotonin and levels, causing users to feel elated, more sociable, and have an increased amount of empathy towards others. It also enhances sensory perceptions and can induce mild hallucinations. Effects usually last between 3-8 hours.
Getting Professional Help for Addiction
All of the intoxicating mentioned above produce an excessive influx of dopamine in the brain, resulting in addiction. Most healthcare professionals now consider addiction to be a chronic disease (and not a moral failure) that is most effectively treated using a combination of behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, group support, mindfulness therapy, and other therapeutic modalities.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer treatment programs with these services in partial hospitalization and outpatient formats. Our compassionate addiction specialists are dedicated to providing those we treat with the resources, tools, and support they need to recover and break free from the grips of addiction indefinitely.