We treat addiction of all kinds at Alpine Recovery Lodge. One of the most addictive drugs we see clients using is methamphetamine.
Methamphetamine abuse and addiction are big problems in the United States. As a highly addictive drug, methamphetamine use can lead to addiction, unpleasant side effects, and a significant risk of overdose and death.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, methamphetamine use accounted for approximately 100,000 emergency room visits in 2011. As of 2012, they note that over 1.2 million people were abusing methamphetamine.
People who use meth may not think beyond the present moment and the high they get from using. However, for those in recovery or contemplating rehab, as well as for the people who love them, it’s important to know what the potential long-term of effects of methamphetamine use are.
With that in mind, let’s look at four of the most serious long-term effects of methamphetamine use. What does meth do to your body?
#1: Cognitive Damage
One of the most damaging long-term effects that methamphetamine has on your body is that it impacts your body’s production of dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with the pleasure center of the brain. People who use methamphetamine experience a surge of dopamine production up to four times the normal amount.
The repeated exposure to abnormally high levels of dopamine actually destroys the dopamine receptors in the brain. That’s part of why methamphetamine is addictive. First, the body craves the dopamine rush associated with using, encouraging people to use again.
After a while, the body loses its ability to recognize dopamine because the receptors get flooded and overwhelmed. The result is that users fail to get the same rush that they got when they first started using. The disappointment and craving for dopamine’s effects may lead them to use more methamphetamine in search of that high.
The long-term effect is that people who use methamphetamine habitually have difficulty experiencing pleasure. This feeling, known as dysphoria, is very common among meth addicts.
Likewise, people who abuse meth may also experience symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease. They include:
- Loss of memory
- Impaired judgment
- Deterioration of motor skills and coordination
While there is some evidence to suggest that some patients may be able to regrow their dopamine receptors over time, in many cases, the damage may be permanent.
The dysphoria associated with methamphetamine abuse also contributes to the difficulty people have in breaking their addiction to the drug. For obvious reasons, the body and brain both crave the rush of dopamine that comes with using methamphetamine.
The desire to experience that rush can lead even people with very strong willpower and determination to use methamphetamine again despite their best intentions.
The risk of permanent brain damage is serious. The effect that methamphetamine has on the brain is profound and potentially life-changing.
#2: Behavioral Changes
Considering that brain chemistry plays a significant role in human behavior, it’s perhaps not very surprising that prolonged methamphetamine use can lead to behavioral changes, some of which are severe and dramatic.
One of the most common behavioral changes involves sexual promiscuity. There have been numerous studies looking at the sexual behavior of heterosexual and homosexual men and women that indicate that meth use lowers inhibition.
One study from 2003 examined the sexual behavior of a group of heterosexual adults with an average age of 36 years. What it found is that, on average, the men participated in a very high number of sexual acts with multiple partners in the two-month period of the study. Here are some statistics:
- The average participant in the study engaged in 21.5 incidents of unprotected vaginal sex, 6.3 incidents of unprotected anal sex, and 41.7 incidents of unprotected oral sex.
- The average number of partners the participants’ had was 9.4.
The takeaway from this study and others like it is that methamphetamine use lowers inhibitions and leads to an increased frequency of high-risk sexual behavior. In turn, such behavior may increase the risk of being exposed to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Another behavioral issue that has been confirmed in methamphetamine users is an increase in anger and aggression. A 2011 study compared a group of regular methamphetamine users who were not in treatment with a control group.
What it found is that the study group self-reported significantly higher feelings of aggression and anger than the control group did.
Likewise, the study group showed a decreased ability to process emotions when compared to the control group. One of the hypotheses of the researchers was that methamphetamine use affected the amygdala, but that was not supported by the results.
The one mitigating factor is that people with a poor ability to process emotions may also be more likely to seek out mood-elevating drugs than people who have a strong ability to process emotions.
The human body consists of a number of interlinked systems, all of which work together to help us maintain good health. When something negatively impacts one system, it can affect others.
Such is the case with methamphetamine use and the human immune system. Under normal circumstances, the immune system is what protects the human body from diseases and infections.
However, the bodies of people who use methamphetamine regularly are less and less able to defend themselves from disease. They are more prone to getting viruses and infections than the general population.
The effects can be even more serious, as there is also an increased risk of heart disease and other serious issues. The liver is also at risk of serious damage as the body’s main detoxification organ.
One study from 2002 looked at two groups of mice, one infected with a retrovirus and one not infected. What if found is that, in both groups, there were significant effects on the immune system of the mice.
For example, the growth of tumors was greatly accelerated once methamphetamine was supplied. Likewise, there was a decrease of Vitamin E in the body, and an increase in liver damage.
A 2008 study on mice looked specifically at the effects of methamphetamine use on the body’s production of leukocytes, which are white blood cells, an integral part of the body’s immune response.
What the study found was that, beginning with the first injection of methamphetamine, subjects’ levels of leukocyte production dropped. In other words, the effects were immediate. The mice that received injections had a demonstrably reduced ability to protect themselves from disease and infection.
Looking at these two studies in light of the above information about sexual promiscuity, it’s easy to see why many people who use methamphetamine also end up with HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Reduced inhibitions, combined with a lowered ability of the body to resist infections, make it remarkably easy for people who use methamphetamine to become infected.
#4: Physical Appearance
Thus far, we have focused on the internal changes and behavioral changes that can result from methamphetamine use. Now it’s time to talk about the visible effects of methamphetamine use.
One of the most common hallmarks of methamphetamine abuse is deterioration of the user’s physical appearance.
Let’s start with the teeth. People who use methamphetamine on an ongoing basis often end up with a condition known as “meth mouth,” which is characterized by serious tooth decay.
There are multiple factors that contribute to meth mouth:
- Methamphetamine abuse dries out the salivary glands. Saliva keeps the mouth lubricated and helps keep bacteria at bay.
- Regular methamphetamine use also causes blood vessels in the body, including those in the mouth, to shrink. The teeth and gums need a steady supply of blood and oxygen to stay healthy. Without it, they decay.
- Methamphetamine is made with hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive substance. When people smoke meth, the acid comes into contact with their teeth and erodes the enamel.
- People who use methamphetamine often crave sweets, and that – combined with inattention to dental hygiene – can accelerate the rate of tooth decay.
The prevalence of severe dental damage among methamphetamine users is high. In 2005, an NPR report revealed that dental costs in the State of Minnesota’s prison system had doubled due to meth mouth.
The constriction of blood vessels can lead to significant skin problems too. People who use methamphetamine are likely to see any or all of the following:
- Increased outbreaks of acne
- Slow healing of sores
- Yellowing of the skin
- Drying out of the skin
- A loss of elasticity in the skin
The result is that many people who use methamphetamine end up looking years, or even decades, older than they are. Their skin loses its elasticity, and even relatively young people can end up looking old and haggard after prolonged meth use.
There are many ways that meth use can negatively impact the appearance, but one of the most dangerous is that methamphetamines are often used for weight loss. On the surface, weight loss might seem like a good thing – but losing weight with methamphetamines is very risky.
The fact is that methamphetamine suppresses the appetite, and for many people, the notion of using it to lose weight is attractive. CBS News did a report with one methamphetamine addict who reported that she lost between 15 and 20 pounds in her first week of using the drug.
The issue, of course, is that methamphetamine is highly addictive and nobody can predict how his or her body will react to it. Many people who end up addicted started using meth as a way to lose weight.
The dangers are even more pernicious than that implies. The body needs a certain amount of fat to be healthy. Subcutaneous fat protects the body and bones from injury. Losing too much weight can be very hazardous to your health.
Likewise, not eating – or eating mostly sweets and junk food, as is the case with some methamphetamine addicts – can lead to vitamin deficiencies and even malnutrition.
There is no question that using methamphetamine is dangerous. It’s highly addictive, and it can cause serious damage to your body in a variety of ways – all of which have long-term implications for your health and well-being.
Because of its highly addictive nature and physical and mental effects, people often have a hard time breaking methamphetamine addiction without significant assistance. At Alpine Recovery Lodge, we can help.