The human body can take a lot of abuse. We can survive severe physical trauma, from falling several meters to taking a bullet. We can overcome terrifying diseases, force cancers into remission, and heal snapped bones. A healthy body is always on the defensive, tackling environmental dangers, weaker viruses, and bacteria.
But when we willingly feed our bodies poison, we make them inherently weaker. At first, our appearance will start to go – and with time, our organs give up on us. While a single hit won’t kill you, entering the realm of addiction will break your body down. Knowing how drugs affect the body can help you identify physical symptoms and the signs of addiction in yourself or loved ones.
Let’s start with the core organ in addiction: the human brain.
What Drugs Do to The Brain
When drugs enter the bloodstream, their intended destination is the brain. Once there, a drug binds itself to your brain’s cells, manipulating the way you feel. To be more specific, all addictive drugs affect the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter integral to the brain’s “reward system”. The brain naturally releases dopamine when you do certain things, like eat, exercise, or have sex. Part of the physical symptoms of addiction revolve around the extensive and “unnatural” release of dopamine in the brain through drugs, or the amplification of existing dopamine and serotonin.
Continuously taking drugs leads to physical dependence – when your body begins to develop withdrawal and physical symptoms whenever you try and stop and staying sober for lengths of time presents you with growing cravings.
Physical Symptoms of Your Body on Drugs
Drugs affect the human body in different ways, causing different types of organ damage through overuse. Due to the way drugs are metabolized, kidney and liver damage is common, as is malnutrition due to a poor lifestyle and diet while addicted. There are a few other similarities in physical symptoms across different kinds of substance abuse, including:
- Headaches, nausea, and flu-like symptoms during abstinence/sobriety.
- Flushed skin and broken capillaries, indigestion, sores and wounds, throat pain.
- Lack of appetite and trouble with hygiene and orderliness.
Other non physical symptoms that commonly manifest socially include trouble keeping a conversation, mood swings, rash decision making and anxiety. Drug usage affects a person’s behavior and thinking not only by causing damage, but by shifting focus from other sources of motivation towards the irresistible lure of another high.
Because of this, addiction also causes severe cravings. Once the body gets used to the effects of a drug, it begins to normalize that state – and push you to get more. These cravings can be as powerful as hunger or thirst, although they are fundamentally different from the urge to fulfill basic needs.
How Addiction is Defined Physically
Aside from making you happy, drugs typically have other side effects. Alcohol, for example, mimics several different neurotransmitters and affects your cognition, memory, and motor control. Opioids, on the other hand, are pain-numbing. Spun into a positive light, alcohol can potentially reduce anxiety while opioids can lessen physical hurt.
Yet central to addiction is the addictiveness of a drug – and to understand that, we need to look at how addiction is defined. Without a strict definition, an addiction to alcohol or cigarettes might be considered similar to an internet or sugar addiction. While some people do show signs of being compulsively and truly addicted to consuming sugar, or surfing online, despite serious negative consequences including deteriorating health, these are wholly different from a physical dependence on an addictive drug.
The main factor here is the speed at which drugs can turn someone from a casual user into an addicted user. Addiction is the inability to stop taking a drug, despite negative consequences, marked by powerful cravings, physical symptoms and, often, a rising tolerance leading to larger and larger doses. Physical symptoms and mental symptoms – such as diminished cognitive ability, psychosis, changes in behavior and fidgeting – indicate an addiction, but to be diagnosed as addicted, a person must be demonstratively incapable of simply stopping themselves from using.
If you use a drug often but can stop at any time and control your intake completely, then you are not addicted. You could still be putting yourself and your mind in harms way due to a potentially excessive consumption of harmful substances, but addiction is defined not by the damage done by the drug, but by the inability to stop using it.
It is never recommended to take addictive drugs, unless specifically necessitated by a medical professional. Taking drugs recreationally or for the sake of physical or academic performance is dangerous and can ruin your future. No prize or achievement is worth a lifelong fight against an enemy as insidious and powerful as addiction.
In cases of physical dependence, the body becomes used to a regular intake of drugs. Stopping in turn causes the body to react violently, with mild to severe physical symptoms. Some drugs, like alcohol and benzodiazepine, can even cause fatal withdrawal symptoms.
Healing After Recovery
In a way, addiction is no different from many other diseases, affecting us mentally and physically – and like other diseases, it takes time, patience, and personalized medical advice to properly and fully recover.
While some damage is arguably more difficult to heal – like brain damage caused by excessive drinking – a healthier lifestyle during sobriety can help you reverse a lot of damage to the brain in the first year and reach peak improvement at about 5-7 years of complete abstinence.
Damage to other organs – especially the liver – can heal much faster. The liver is one of the fastest regenerating organs in the body, due to its crucial role in digestion and detoxification. The heart is also severely affected by alcohol overuse, as people struggling with alcoholism tend to develop problems including hypertension and heart disease.
Different drugs mean different challenges. A heroin overdose can cause permanent damage (and even paralysis) due to oxygen deprivation. Cocaine can leave lasting damage in the heart, due to overstimulation. Methamphetamine, aside from wrecking your appetite, will severely damage your teeth and can cause skin sores.
Physical issues are one part of the problem. As a brain disease, addiction manifests itself not just in the body, but in a person’s behavior and thoughts. Deteriorating physically is one thing, but the battle in the mind of an addict can be even more devastating.