To most people, it’s clear that drug use is a bad thing both for society and for individuals. But while many people draw clear connections between drug use and criminality, there’s a lack of knowledge on the physical and psychological effects of drug use, the higher risk for addiction among the mentally ill, and the success of modern-day addiction treatments.
After a person becomes addicted to a drug, breaking the addiction can be a serious challenge. Drugs impact the brain, the heart, the kidneys, the liver, and the mind. It’s the first and last in that list that are hit the hardest, with long-term repercussions and consequences on mental health and cognition.
Depending on how a drug is consumed, long-term drug use can lead to deterioration in other parts of the body as well. It’s clear that drug use, both in the short-term and in the long-term, will impact your health. But while some of these effects will be permanent, many are reversible. The sooner an addict seeks help, the more likely they are to save themselves from the long-term implications of a failing body.
Your Brain on Drugs
Decades ago, a TV spot showed a teenager frying an egg, explaining that ‘this is your brain on drugs’. It was meant to be a quick way to catch the attention of millions of young adults in the audience, quite simply showing that drug use fries your brain.
The ad was subject to about as much parody and scrutiny as any other poorly explained analogy. It ended with a rhetorical statement: “any questions?” Yet the truth is that there were many questions, and many felt they weren’t being answered.
Drug don’t cause your brain to cook in a pan, but they do change the way you perceive the world and react to your own natural instincts and thoughts. All drugs are similar in shape and function to many of the chemicals we already produce in our own brain, the chemicals we use to trigger certain reactions, from being hungry to getting excited. When these foreign chemicals bind with our neurons, a reaction occurs wherein the brain is overstimulated with what can be described as a ‘supernormal stimuli’.
We’ve evolved to react to things in certain ways, and an overstimulation of any given natural trigger is going to invoke an exaggerated reaction. This is more apparent in junk food than anything else – we crave sugar and fat because they’re so rare, and that is why foods that consist almost entirely out of these two ingredients are so incredibly delicious to us, despite the fact that they would never exist in the wild.
Drugs elicit something similar in the brain, causing a ‘high’ and prompting a major shift in the way the brain processes other neurochemicals. Over time, the brain begins to get used to the stimulus it receives from drugs, and other pleasures take a backseat. This triggers a process known as ‘drug dependence’, wherein we rely on the drugs we take to feel normal, and simply quitting leads to withdrawal symptoms.
It’s this simple mechanism of ‘training your brain’ to get used to the extreme effects of drug use that kickstarts a long series of serious consequences to a person’s physical and psychological health.
Drug Use Side-Effects
Drug toxicity differs from drug to drug, with some being far more toxic than others. Nearly all substances can cause an overdose, with minute exceptions and some unlikely candidates. For example, it is difficult to overdose on benzodiazepines alone, and many individuals simply fall asleep after accidental ingestion of one too many. But in conjunction with other drugs, or taken in extreme quantities, the likelihood of an overdose skyrockets. Meanwhile, drugs like alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous to the human body, not only due to their acute toxicity, but due to their carcinogenic nature.
Different drugs come with different side effects, owing to their toxicity, the way the brain processes them, as well as how they are consumed. Drugs that are injected are more likely to cause complications with injection sites, ranging from wounds and infections to more dangerous issues, such as necrosis (decaying tissue). Insufflation can cause damage to the nasal cavity as well as a person’s sense of smell and can cause infrequent nose bleeding.
Excess drug use prior to overdose can still cause harm to the organs, particularly the heart, brain, and liver, increasing a person’s likelihood of a stroke, heart attack, or liver cirrhosis. Kidney damage is also frequent among long-term drug users, due the kidneys’ roles in the endocrine system. Because drug use frequently pushes the body to produce dopamine and drive certain hormones and neurotransmitters through the roof, drug users may be more prone to problems with the adrenal gland, as well as being more prone to illnesses related to high levels of stress (due to elevated cortisol levels, both in stimulant users as well as depressant users).
Drug Use and Mental Illness
Aside from the damage dealt to the organs, brain, and overall body, drug use can also severely affect a person’s mind. The research tells us that individuals who already struggle with mental health issues are more prone to developing an addiction in the future, for a number of reasons including diminished reasoning, self-medication, lowered inhibition, and more. Individuals struggling with depression and/or anxiety may be more open to suggestion and manipulation or may start using as a way to numb emotional pain. However, there is also an inverse effect wherein drug use exacerbates or even triggers the development of certain mental health problems.
Some drugs are associated with the development of psychosis, or the false perception. This can include visual hallucinations as well as believing certain things to be true despite clear contradictions in thinking (paranoia, and more). Long-term drug use can also lead to extreme fluctuations in mood and motivation, mimicking symptoms of mania and depression, as well as anxiety.
Changes in sleep and diet can further exacerbate existing issues by leaving the body tired and malnourished. This is also expressed through other physical changes, such as sudden weight loss or weight gain, tremors, poor hygiene, and poor skin health, all of which can have a detrimental effect on an addict’s sense of self. The added pressure due to legal problems, loss of friends, and societal stigma can further drive someone into a dark corner, making them less likely to seek help, and more likely to develop more severe depressive symptoms.
Inhibition, Addiction, and Risk-Taking
Aside from the direct effects of drug use on the brain and body, there are certain consequences that are related to the side-effects of long-term drug use, most notably the decrease in inhibition and the diminished cognition that follows the long-term use of many popular drugs, including ecstasy, alcohol, and various stimulants.
These drugs often increase sexual desire, decrease critical thinking, and can lead to dangerous situations such as unprotected sex with strangers (massively increasing the likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy), reckless driving, violent behavior, and more.
Some drugs are more likely to lead to certain scenarios than others. For example, alcohol popularly decreases inhibition, but it also increases sexual dysfunction in men. A study of drug use and sexual desire in nightclubs showed that alcohol and cocaine were common, among women and men respectively, with ecstasy being used for general enjoyment rather than sexual activity, and cannabis being avoided due to its relaxing effects.
Drugs are complex, and each drug affects an individual in different ways. Yet nearly all addictive drugs come with their own set of negative consequences, from diminished intelligence among long-term cannabis users to serious cancer risks in alcoholics and heart damage in cocaine users.