Effects of Meth on the Brain and Body
The Impact of Meth
Methamphetamine (AKA Meth) is an extremely addictive stimulant drug, often categorized with other “uppers” like amphetamine or cocaine. Meth has a unique effect on the brain and body than the drugs it is sometimes compared to. While 50% of cocaine is removed from the body 1 hour after use, it takes 12 hours for our bodies to remove 50% of methamphetamine (DrugAbuse.gov). Meth is also compared to amphetamine, its “parent drug” that is used more often as an ingredient in medications like bronchial inhalers or ADHD medication. The difference between the two is that in the same given dose, methamphetamine is absorbed more within the brain, giving it a powerful effect as a mind-altering substance. Once this drug is absorbed by the brain, it is more difficult to undo the damage it causes and can lead to long-lasting effects that alter our brain’s own natural chemical balance and our bodies.
Along with over-the-counter medication, common meth ingredients include: Lye (used in soap and bio-fuel), red phosphorous (ingredient used in matches and fireworks), lithium (obtained from batteries), brake fluid and Drano, the corrosive drain cleaner (Narconon). This is not a drug that has a “pure” form, and the clear white crystal form it takes is actually a cornucopia of harmful chemicals. Meth has the greatest effect on our brain’s dopamine release. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved in reward, motivation, motor function and pleasure. When meth is used, dopamine flows unnaturally fast and in excess, leaving less left for us to produce naturally. This can cause long-term damage of nerve cells. Think of the human brain as a bank, using dopamine as a currency for pleasurable situations (for example: a hug, a funny joke, hearing good news). When a normally happy feeling occurs, a healthy brain pays out a budgeted amount of dopamine that results in happy feelings. Meth essentially causes a bank robbery, and this heist is for your brain’s dopamine supply. Your brain needs a longer time to fix the damage done from this, such as recovering the reserved dopamine and repairing nerves like a broken security system.
While the brain undergoes chaos from its dopamine imbalance, meth users experience physical and psychological side effects on the surface. Short-term use can result in hyperthermia (raised body temperature) and an irregular heartbeat. Long-term abuse of meth leads to an increased tolerance and an inability to experience pleasure from anything other than the drug (caused by an absence of dopamine). Anxiety, insomnia and mood changes are very common from long-term abuse as well. “Long-term” use does not have to mean years and years of abuse. It can be a binge over the course of a few days or repeated use over several weeks. Many drug users see stimulants as a type of drug that won’t result in a painful withdrawal compared to heroin, for example. While this may often be the case for a drug like cocaine, which leaves the body quickly, methamphetamine withdrawal has a different kind of consequence. Withdrawing from meth can lead to a full onset of psychosis, hallucinations and paranoia along with body aches and increased appetite.
The aftermath of meth abuse can lead to serious structural changes in the brain, resulting in impaired memory function and verbal learning. It takes years to reverse this and sometimes cannot be undone. Abusers of this drug also have an increased chance of stroke and even Parkinson’s disease. Meth is known for causing drastic weight loss, but this often comes along with tooth decay and tooth loss from grinding teeth, dry mouth and malnutrition. Users often have sores or scabs on their skin from excessive picking, sometimes as a result of hallucinations. Meth damages tissues and blood vessels, which our body needs to repair itself (PBS). This is why we often see meth abusers with facial scars or unhealed sores.
Another destructive result of meth use is an increased chance of contracting diseases including Hepatitis B, C and HIV. This happens from injecting the drug with shared needles that are contaminated. Many drug users believe this would never happen to them, thinking, “I would never do that, I’m not that type of user.” But under the influence, judgment becomes drastically impaired and in desperate times of craving, addicts violate their own boundaries and exceptions. Meth users are also more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases. Many users experience an intense increased sexual desire as an effect of the drug, leading to risky behavior like unprotected sex. Users can maintain sexual stamina for extended periods of time while high and can stay awake for days at a time. This opens up the possibility for very risky situations to happen over a long span of time. Studies over the past decade show a direct relationship between meth use and increased chances of contracting STDs, especially HIV (ScienceDaily).
When meth is removed from the body’s system, addicts can begin to reverse the damage caused by this drug. Under professional care, experts can monitor the damage done to an addict’s brain and recommend short or long-term care such as psychiatric counseling and medication. Recovery is possible when addicts want to stop using and are surrounded with sufficient support. Treatment including a detox, rehabilitation and sober living helps to prevent relapse and offers medical support required from a destructive drug like meth. If necessary, dual-diagnosis programs are available for those suffering psychological effects that meth causes.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.