The Impact of Drugs on Your Body

When you take a drug, whether by swallowing, injecting, or inhaling, it quickly finds its way into your bloodstream and into various parts of your body including your brain. The “high” you feel occurs because the drugs are impacting the way your body functions.

Even casual use of certain drugs can lead to serious medical problems. Here’s a sampling to give you a sense of some of the effects on the body:

Cocaine – disturbances in heart rhythm, heart attacks, chest pain, respiratory failure, stroke, seizures, headaches, nausea, and abdominal pain.

Ecstasy/MDMA – anxiety, restlessness, sadness, irritability, nausea, chills, sweating, involuntary jaw clenching and teeth grinding, muscle cramping, rise in body temperature (hyperthermia), high blood pressure, and heart and kidney failure.

Methamphetamine – anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances, violent behavior, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions, stroke, and brain damage.

Heroin – nausea, vomiting, poor mental functioning, bacterial infections, collapsed veins, infection of heart lining and valves, arthritis, and increased risk for infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C.

Inhalants (including solvents, aerosol sprays, and gases) – drowsiness, lightheadedness, agitation, loss of sensation, unconsciousness, nausea, vomiting, headache, increased heart rate, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression.

Nicotine – increased risk for cancer, leukemia, cataracts, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, stroke, heart attack, vascular disease, and aneurysm.

Marijuana – impaired memory, coordination, attention, and judgment, compromised immune function, increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack, bronchitis, emphysema, and certain cancers.

Over time, your body can become physically dependent on a particular substance. As you use more drugs, your body begins to tolerate more of the substance and you have to take more and more to get the same high. Accidental overdose becomes a significant health risk, as you never know how much of a substance your body can withstand. Prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs (like DXM) carry many of the same risks to the human body as street drugs, and can be equally addictive.

After a while, drugs stop producing the euphoric effect altogether and you need to consume large quantities of the drug just to feel normal. Before you know it, you’ve become addicted.

The short-term high of street drugs, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and alcohol can lead to serious long-term health effects such as brain damage, mental illness, liver and kidney problems, insomnia, depression, hallucinations, nerve damage, paranoia, stroke, respiratory failure, seizures, and death.

Often, people who are physically addicted to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes will experience withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly stop using the drug. Depending on the amount and type of drugs used, genetic predispositions, and other factors, withdrawal symptoms may include nausea, headaches, agitation, sweating, vomiting, insomnia, tremors, anxiety, diarrhea, heart palpitations, and others. In many cases, withdrawal has to be medically supervised to prevent serious medical complications.

Your Brain on Drugs

To understand what drugs do to your brain, just take a few moments to observe Ozzy Osbourne, former lead singer of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath. His poor memory and permanently slurred speech are obvious signs of sustained drug abuse. At the height of his drug addiction, Osbourne admitted to shooting his family’s 17 cats, becoming physically violent toward his wife, and being fired from his band.

Over time, drugs change the way the brain works. Drugs like nicotine, cocaine, and marijuana affect the brain’s limbic, or “reward” system. They cause feelings of pleasure or euphoria because they start a reaction of electrical charges in the brain’s receptors, causing neurons to release large amounts of “feel good” neurotransmitters like dopamine. These neurotransmitters then drive you to seek those experiences over and over again.

As drugs make their way to the brain, they can alter the user’s sense of time, concentration, reaction time, and coordination. Other side effects can include rapid heartbeat, dilation or narrowing of blood vessels (which can lead to heart failure), elevated blood pressure, brain swelling, brain hemorrhage, paranoia, hallucinations, chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Inhalants, which are popular with younger teens, contain chemicals that break down the brain’s myelin, the protective cover that surrounds many of the nerve cells. When myelin breaks down, nerve cells struggle to transmit messages, resulting in impaired memory and function. If the brain can’t accurately send messages to the heart, the heart may stop pumping blood through the body, causing sudden death.

Hallucinogens, such as MDMA (Ecstasy), PCP, and LSD, damage nerve fibers of neurons that contain the neurotransmitter serotonin, which controls mood, sleep, and heart rate. When damaged serotonin neurons re-grow their fibers, they form new, altered patterns that may cause changes in mood, learning, or memory. Recent studies have shown that using Ecstasy and other forms of methamphetamine can lead to the same type of brain changes, cell loss, and protein fluctuations in the brain that occur after a person endures a traumatic brain injury.

With all drug use, what starts as an unnaturally intense and pleasurable high can quickly become a physical dependency. Even after just one use, the brain starts changing as a result of the unnatural flood of neurotransmitters. Because some drugs are toxic to the brain, and because neurons sense more than enough dopamine, dopamine receptors begin to die off. This means you will no longer get high from the same amount of drugs because your brain is shutting down its ability to feel good (in other words, you’re developing a tolerance). People at this stage report feeling lifeless, hopeless, and depressed. They use large amounts of drugs just to feel normal again, as drugs become a basic necessity just like food, water, and sleep.

In addition to inflicting physical harm on the circuits of your brain, drugs can limit your ability to set limits or make healthy decisions, your awareness of your environment, and your ability to realize when you are in danger. For example, teenage drinkers are more likely to get involved in dangerous situations, such as driving under the influence or having unprotected sex. Substance abuse can also lead to legal problems, poor performance at school or dropping out, loss of friends, and problems at home.

The human body is incredibly resilient, but it can only handle so much abuse. Drugs and alcohol can be toxic to the body and can, in some cases, do permanent damage. Despite what many teens believe, there is no guaranteed safe amount of drugs or alcohol the body can withstand.