Substance abusers rarely stop to think about the damage they’re doing to their bodies. Their main concern is that they get the high they’re looking for. They’re in it for the short-term euphoria, and they’re not concerned about the long-term problems. Whether you have a drug or alcohol addiction, please know that there are consequences. Some of them may even be devastating for your health. There are several drugs that can leave lifelong scars that you can never recover from. We’d like to take a few moments and go over some of the different organs that are affected by addiction. You may be surprised by what you learn.
How Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Brain
It seems fitting to start with the human brain. This is the most complicated and complex organ in the human body. It is the center of all human activity. People use their brains to do everything, from voluntary actions to involuntary actions. The brain regulates the body’s everyday functions, allows for communication, and so much more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that alcohol and drugs affect the brain. They do so by changing areas that are critical for basic and even life-sustaining actions. The different areas of the brain that are impacted by substance abuse include: The Brain Stem: This part of the brain controls heart rate, sleeping and breathing. These are all basic functions that are necessary for life. The Cerebral Cortex: This area controls our senses, how we think, and how we make decisions. It is this section that helps people solve problems. The Limbic System: Pleasure is experienced as a result of this section of the brain. Pleasurable feelings are what motivate people to repeat certain behaviors, including abusing drugs or alcohol.
Communication Within the Human Brain
There are billions of nerve cells, or neurons, within the human brain. These neurons are responsible for sending messages back and forth. They also send messages to the spinal cord and all of the nerves within the body. Nerves are responsible for controlling and regulating everything we think, feel and do. The process itself is really quite intricate. It involves:
- One neuron receives a message from another, and then passes that message along to yet, another neuron.
- Neurotransmitters are responsible for carrying the message between each neuron.
- Neurotransmitter will attach to receptors on the neurons.
- Once they are in the right place, the neurotransmitter will then send the appropriate message.
- Transporters will then recycle each neurotransmitter and return it to its originating neuron.
- This effectively shuts off the signal between neurons after the message has been sent.
The Breakdown of Communication
In healthy brains, communication works very well. However, when drugs or alcohol are introduced, that process begins to break down. Normally healthy neurons and brain circuits are negatively impacted by substances of abuse. When this occurs, the brain will attempt to compensate for the change. This results in cognitive impairment. Another issue is found in the production of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that the brain produces on its own. In someone with normal dopamine levels, that person experiences pleasure in a number of ways. Some include eating a good meal, spending time with family and friends, and sex. Drugs and alcohol cause dopamine levels to escalate in the brain. It has to adjust for these new levels, and as a result, it grows accustomed to the new normal. When the individual tries to quit, or isn’t able to use, dopamine levels will dip. This can result in poor moods, depression and other negative symptoms. It is a good sign that an addiction has occurred.
How Substance Abuse Affects the Liver
The liver is a crucial organ that is located in the upper right side of the abdomen. Most of it is found behind the rib cage. An adult’s liver weighs about three pounds and is responsible for many functions within the body.
- It aids in the digestion of dietary fat by secreting bile into the intestine.
- It helps to purify the blood by changing harmful chemicals into safe ones.
- It removes harmful chemicals from the blood
- It produces albumin, which carries other molecules through the blood
- It produces the proteins that aid in proper blood clotting
The use of drugs and alcohol can have a substantial impact on the liver. Over time, chronic use can lead to significant liver damage. Some of this may not be reversible. Examples of drugs that can affect the liver include:
- DXM Cough Syrup
- Anabolic Steroids
- Inhalant Drugs
Drug Induced Liver Disease
There are many ways in which drugs and alcohol can cause liver disease to occur. Some substances may directly injure the liver, while others are made into chemicals that can injure it. Some examples of drug induced liver diseases include:
- Fulminant Hepatitis
- Blood Clots (within liver veins)
Typically, when someone is suffering from a liver disease, they will experience certain symptoms. Some common ones include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin/eyes)
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Abdominal pain
- A general feeling of weakness in the body
If drug or alcohol use is not stopped, and a liver disease is suspected, liver failure is possible. Once a liver fails, this is a life threatening condition. Some people may be eligible for a liver transplant. However, this is not always a possibility.
The Kidneys on Alcohol and Drugs
The kidneys are two organs that are located on the back of the body. Their job is to filter out the blood that gets pumped through the body. As a result, urine is created. Urine is made up of extra fluid and bodily waste. After it is formed in the kidneys, to moves to the bladder. This is where it is stored until it is excreted. The bladder and kidneys work very closely with each other. In healthy individuals, they will prevent waste and fluid buildup in the body. They also stabilize electrolytes and help to prevent dehydration. When someone is using drugs or alcohol, those substances are also put through this filtration process. There are a lot of drugs that can negatively impact the kidneys. These include:
- Prescription Medications
- Inhalant Drugs
Over time, unless drug use is stopped, kidney damage can result.
Heart Problems and Addiction
The heart is at the center of your circulatory system. It is responsible for transporting nutrients and oxygen throughout your body. It also regulates your body temperature and protects you from infection. The heart is what keeps you alive. All substances can and do effect the heart in various ways. These can range from having an irregular heart rate to having a heart attack. Drugs that are injected can affect the heart indirectly. They can result in collapsed veins and bacterial infections. Some of the drugs that can affect the heart include:
- Prescription Stimulants
- Synthetic Cannabinoids
Signs of a Heart Problem if You’re Abusing Alcohol or Drugs
There are several signs that could indicate you have a heart problem if you’re a substance abuser. These include:
- Rapid changes in your body temperature
- Changes in your heart rate
- Blood pressure fluctuations
- Stomach pain
- Chronic headaches
While the risk of a heart attack may be the biggest threat, addicts may also be at risk of a stroke. According to the American Heart Association, cocaine has been called the “perfect heart attack drug.” However, that does not make other drugs less dangerous. In 2011, it was involved in more than 40% of illegal drug-related ER visits.
Your Respiratory System as an Addict
The respiratory system’s job is to provide the blood with oxygen. The blood then delivers it to the rest of the body. This only occurs through breathing, which involves inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. Serious problems can result when the respiratory system is impacted in any way. Chronic drug use can lead to a host of breathing problems. Some of the drugs that can cause this include:
- Inhalant drugs
- Prescription Opioids
- Cannabis (marijuana)
Respiratory Illnesses Caused by Substance Abuse
The lungs can be seriously injured because of drug use. This can occur whether drugs are smoked, vaporized or snorted. Some of the conditions that can result include:
- Emphysema (COPD)
- Chronic bronchitis
- Lung cancer
- Respiratory failure
For some of these conditions, reversing them is possible. For example, asthma can often be reversed as long as drug use stops. Other conditions (such as lung cancer and COPD) need treatment, and could end up becoming fatal.
Drug and Alcohol Addiction and the Digestive System
The digestive system is often referred to as the gastrointestinal system, or the GI tract. It is made up of the mouth, stomach, intestines and esophagus. Its job is to break down, digest and get rid of food. However, the GI tract can be traumatized as a result of using large amounts of drugs and alcohol. The effects of substances on this vital system can be long-lasting. Some can even be irreversible. Some of the drugs that can impact the digestive system include:
- Prescription opioids
- MDMA (Ecstasy)
Signs of Gastrointestinal Problems for a Substance Abuser
Fortunately, someone who abuses substances may see signs long before any permanent damage has been done. Some of the more common signs of a problem include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Blood in the stool
- Chronic dehydration
- Painful stomach cramps
These can all be symptoms of a number of conditions. They could be signs of an ulcer, bowel decay, acid reflux and other problems.
Can Substance Abuse Impact Your Immune System?
The immune system is responsible for keeping you healthy. When you have a strong immune system, you’re much more prepared to ward off sickness. Most of your body’s bacteria (both good and bad) reside in your intestines. When the good bacteria is threatened, the bad bacteria may take over. This can result in sickness and diseases. All substances can affect your immune system. However, alcohol may have the most profound effect. Excess alcohol intake can lead to immune deficiency, which can make you more susceptible to diseases.
Diseases You May be More Susceptible To
If you are an alcoholic, your body is less able to fend off certain diseases. You may get sick more often, and you may require more antibiotics than people who aren’t alcoholics. You also run a greater risk of getting various illnesses when you’re exposed to them. Examples may include:
- Hepatitis C
- Hepatitis B
- Urinary Tract Infections
- Bacterial Peritonitis
Reversing Organ Damage After Recovery from Addiction
Perhaps you’ve taken the proper steps to recover from your addiction. You’ve gotten the right kind of treatment and you’ve stopped using substances altogether. You should be congratulated, if that’s the case. It takes some people years to get to this point. However, even though you’re in recovery from your addiction, you want to address your physical concerns. You are absolutely right to be concerned. Keep in mind that while some health conditions cannot be reversed, some of them can. In fact, in time, it may be as though you never experienced them at all. There are some steps you should take to ensure that you’re as well as possible, going forward. You should:
- Take time to see your medical doctor – He or she is your best defense against a disease or illness caused by your addiction. Follow all of the instructions you’re given. Take all of your medications, and see all recommended specialists.
- Stay on a healthy diet – During your drug or alcohol rehab, you probably learned a lot about eating healthy. Stay on track with your diet. If you need to see a nutritionist, make sure you do.
- Drink plenty of water – Your water intake is just as important as your food intake. Keeping yourself well hydrated will assist you in improving your health.
- Take care of your mental health – Your physical health and your mental health are strongly connected with each other. When your mind is healthy, your physical health will improve as well.
- Avoid relapsing – The best way to remain healthy is to never use drugs or alcohol again. Find good support groups that can help you stay on the right path with your recovery.
Healing is an Ongoing Journey
Remember, the healing path you’ve chosen is an ongoing one. It’s also one that you must protect. It may seem as though you’d never be tempted to use again. However, you’d be surprised how quickly that can change. Resolve right now to stay healthy and avoid drugs and alcohol. Attend all of your appointments and participate in your support groups. This is the best way to remain in recovery.