You may have already figured out that alcohol and drugs target the pleasure centers in your brain. Through direct or indirect stimulation, the substances that trigger addiction cause an ample release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for reward-seeking behavior.
With repeated use, the overstimulation of these pleasure centers cause changes in brain function. To offset the dopamine overload; your brain produces less dopamine, less of the hormone that allows you to feel pleasure. Eventually, you need to continue to use your substance of choice just to feel normal.
These regulatory processes, the adjustments your body makes to function under the influence of drugs, medications, or alcohol, are not limited to the functioning of your brain. Nearly every essential process in your body is recalibrated to offset their disruptive forces. These are the processes that fuel addiction.
The Neurological Consequences of Substance Abuse
Chemical addiction is a serious medical condition that will only progress if untreated. Chemical dependency takes a significant toll on your body and your brain. Some of the effects are temporary; others could be permanent. Consider the following neurological consequences of long-term drug use:
- Changes in brain chemistry that allow your memories to trigger reflexive cravings
- Dysregulation of the neurotransmitters affecting your moods and emotion
- Impairing learning ability and cognitive function
- Changing the way your brain is “wired,” increasing connections in some areas of your brain while decreasing the number of connections in other areas
- Destroying brain cells. Many of the substances that trigger addiction are toxic to healthy cells. Once brain cells die, the damage is permanent
Alcohol abuse and drug addiction also changes the way your brain interprets previously established healthy behaviors. Many of the experiences you once enjoyed, like eating, exercising, and maintaining meaningful relationships become less satisfying. You may also notice that feelings of stress, anxiety, and impending danger often run in overdrive.
Wearing the Signs of Chemical Dependency
Many people struggling with drug or alcohol abuse mistakenly believe that they are quite adept at hiding their substance abuse problem. Most who believe they are masters of deception are fooling themselves. Dermatologists are often among the first medical professionals to suspect identify drug abuse.
Your skin is a direct reflection of the effects of chemical addiction on your body. While most drug use will cause skin to take on an unhealthy appearance, some substances are known to cause specific skin issues. Just a few of the common skin issues caused by substance abuse include:
- Skin Infections – Substance abuse disrupts immune system function increasing your susceptibility to staph and fungal infections. When immune system impairment is combined with intravenous drug use infections can spread rapidly.
- Skin Ulcers and Mouth Sores – Painful lesions can have many potential causes. Some sores and ulcers are triggered by impaired immune function while others can be caused by pipe burns, dehydration, dry mouth, or sexually transmitted diseases.
- Skin Breakouts – Chemical dependency increases cortisol production which triggers inflammation. This stress response is a common cause of acne. Chemical dependency can also cause those addicted to neglect their skin and trigger flares in those with eczema or psoriasis. The skin picking associated with meth use can aggravate breakouts and cause permanent scars.
- Vascular Damage – Many IV drugs are vasodilators; they cause blood vessels to relax and expand, but then contract quickly causing spasms. These vasospasms interfere with circulation, increasing the risk of skin infections, swelling, blood clots, and chronic venous insufficiency.
- Accelerated Skin Aging – The use of stimulants increases stress hormones causing a decrease in collagen and elastin production. The loss of these support structures can cause crepey skin, jowls, drooping eyelids, wrinkles, and deepening skin folds. When combined with weight loss and malnutrition, the effects are even more pronounced.
The chemical imbalances caused by drug use, particularly the use of methamphetamine, can also cause a physical sensation similar to having bugs crawling on, or below the surface of your skin. Those affected commonly respond by scratching or picking their skin. The resulting irritation can cause skin injury. Since drug use can interfere with healthy circulation, the resulting skin injuries could heal slowly, if at all, and result in permanent scarring.
The Internal Consequences of Addiction
While the effects of chemical dependency are often visible on the outside, on the surface of your skin, most of the physical damage caused by drug use occurs beneath the surface. The longer the drug use continues, the greater the risk of serious health consequences. Just a few of the many potential consequences of drug misuse and abuse include:
- Heart Disease – Drug misuse can cause heart disease and even sudden death. Recreational drug users often find that drug use has increased their blood pressure, compromised arterial health, and thickened the wall of their heart. The effects on the cardiovascular system are cumulative.
- Liver Damage – Your liver is a multifunctional organ, it breaks down old blood cells, processes fat, and converts protein to amino acids. The overuse of prescriptions, opioids, and heroin can have a detrimental effect on your liver. If you combine their use with alcohol, the damage is potentially more severe.
- Renal Disease – Your kidneys regulate the amount of water in your body, filter waste, and regulate key nutrients. Every substance that enters your body is filtered through your kidneys. Some of the many chemicals people become dependent on, including opioids, are toxic to these vital organs. When kidneys fail, long-term dialysis is necessary to filter contaminants from the bloodstream.
- Hormonal Disruption – Your endocrine system regulates nearly 20 hormones necessary for your health and wellbeing. It’s your endocrine system that regulates your reproductive hormones, sexual function, thyroid function, sleep cycles, and more. The hormones regulated by your endocrine system also regulate your moods and emotional responses. Chemical dependency can cause endocrine system disruption. With treatment for chemical dependency, many the effects of hormonal imbalances are reversible.
The Emotional Impact of Living with Substance Abuse
Substance abuse disorders are complex. While some people initially turn to drugs or alcohol to numb pre-existing emotional pain, they soon find that the pleasant effects are short lived. Changes in the status of your mental health can intensify as your psychological and physical dependency on drugs and alcohol increase. Those living with untreated chemical abuse disorders are also at an increased risk of engaging in aggressive or risky behavior, mood swings, paranoia, and psychosis. Many also find themselves withdrawing from relationships that were once deemed valuable.
The changes in brain chemistry may cause you to feel emotionally distanced from others, causing intense feelings of loneliness and isolation, depression, and anxiety. If you are living with drug addiction, you may also recognize some of the following emotional consequences:
The guilt a person feels for not being able to stop using is often overwhelming, as is the guilt for causing stress and heartache for family and friends. Guild erodes a person’s self-esteem and may make it more difficult to decide to seek professional help for addiction.
Vulnerability and Helplessness
Many addicts feel powerless against their addiction. These feelings of helplessness can have a negative impact on self-esteem. The reduction in self-esteem may cause those affected to avoid seeking treatment for their disorder.
Much of the anger associated with substance abuse is self-directed, but those living with chemical dependency may also lash out in anger when confronted with the reality of their addiction.
In addition to the physical and emotional consequences of chemical addiction, job loss, relationship struggles, legal burdens, and financial problems resulting from substance abuse can take their toll on anyone living with an untreated substance abuse disorder.
It’s important to understand that drug addiction disorders can be overcome, your health can be restored.