In the 1950s, methamphetamine was prescribed to help patients shed a few pounds. It was considered somewhat of a miracle drug, able to make the user more aware, more focused and more confident, all while melting that excess fat away. But like all “miracle drugs” the truth was a little darker and considerably more disturbing. Meth was found to be addictive and dangerous, which led to it being outlawed and forced underground. On the black market, meth thrived. It fueled the criminal underbelly of the United States and it gradually began to tear at the very fabric of US society. Over the years, thanks to its extreme symptoms, its high addiction rates and the ease at which it is produced, no drug has done more damage to the United States than meth. So, just what are those symptoms, and what does this drug do to the body? In other words, how big of a mistake did those 1950s doctors make when they prescribed this drug and what are addicts doing to their bodies and their minds every time they use it?
What Meth Does to Your Brain
The methamphetamine “feel-good factor” comes via the release of dopamine. This natural compound is a neurotransmitter, which means it transmits signals between the neurons of the brain. When you feel pleasure, whether by eating a tasty sweet, playing your favorite game or talking to your favorite friend, it’s because the dopamine receptors have been activated. We crave these feelings and want to repeat them. As a result, we may want to eat more sweet foods or indulge in more fun hobbies. This is why drugs like meth are so addictive. They trigger a rush of dopamine, causing a flood of pleasure to rush through the receptors of the brain. This intense rush of dopamine is something that the brain is unable to simulate naturally and the euphoria this causes is what draws users to meth. This unnatural rush of dopamine can cause an increase in other brain chemicals, including adrenaline. As a result, the heart is forced to work harder, blood pressure is increased and the risk of heart attacks and strokes increase with it.
Other common side effects include:
- Irritability: Often described a feeling of constantly being “on-edge”, this is caused by the rush of brain chemicals and the resulting imbalance. This is also why users tend to feel anxious, angry and paranoid. And the more they use, the more damage will be done to that delicate chemical balance and the worse those problems will become.
- Aggressiveness: Feelings of aggression can lead to violent confrontations. As well as the aforementioned imbalance, this can be caused by a decrease in inhibitions, and an increase in delusional behavior, with the user feeling invulnerable.
- Apathy: When the brain experiences such heightened and instant pleasure, it begins to stop deriving pleasure from other things. A a result, meth addicts may not feel pleasure when they eat, play and do other things they once enjoyed.
- Insomnia: With so many chemicals rushing though the brain and body, it is constantly in a heightened state and is unable to shut down.
- Death: Risk of heart attacks and strokes increase. This is because the body is constantly running at its limitations. Imagine running a marathon for several days straight, now imagine someone who is not an athlete putting their body through the same stress and you can begin to understand just why cardiac diseases are so common.
- Skin Problems: The stereotypical image of a meth addict is someone with bad skin and bad hair. And unlike many common stereotypes, this one is actually true. The main issues are caused by a constriction of the blood vessels, which cuts off the flow of blood to the body. Not only can this cause acne and other conditions, but it stops the body from healing as it usually would.
- “Meth Mouth”: Long-term uses can also develop problems with their gums and teeth. This is caused by a number of factors. Firstly, meth stops the salivary glands from working, which means there is not enough saliva to neutralize the acid in the mouth. This excess acid creates cavities and other problems, which is magnified by the grinding of teeth and the lack of oral hygiene common in heavy users.
What Are The Long-Term Effects of Meth Abuse?
The effects differ depending on whether you are a moderate user (between 1 to 2 times a week) or a heavy user (multiple times a week):
- Moderate User: As well as the increased risk of death and other serious problems, moderate use can cause an increase in agitation, anger, sweating, and teeth grinding. It can also cause damage to the kidneys and liver. Users who inject the drug also suffer from enlarged blood vessels and skin abscesses, which are most commonly associated with heroin addiction.
- Heavy User: Along with the symptoms described above, heavy users are at risk of developing serious heart and blood problems, as well as liver damage. Like all drugs, meth quickly builds up a tolerance, which means that users need more and more to get the same feeling. Eventually, that feeling will be difficult to attain and the addict’s main goal will be to stop withdrawal symptoms. This is why many addicts find themselves in a cycle of sickness and why they use just to “feel normal”.
- Dose: It’s difficult for a first-time user to regulate their dose, especially as it’s not always easy to tell how strong the drug is. Above a certain dose, meth is essentially a poison, and can kill. And the lethal dose can differ from drug to drug and person to person.
- Preexisting Conditions: Users with preexisting heart conditions are putting themselves at risk by using heavy stimulants like meth. And because many heart problems go undiagnosed in the young, these issues may not always known to the user.
- Improper Care: As with all stimulant drugs, meth can make the user feel like they are able to dance the night away and that they don’t need to drink. As a result, serious problems can result from exhaustion and dehydration.
- Other Substances: When mixed with other substances, including alcohol, the risk and the side effects increase. First time users may think that they can safely enjoy a drink or a smoke, but they may be putting their bodies under undue stress by doing so.
How Long Does Meth Remain in Your System?There are a number of factors that can alter the length of time that meth will remain in your system. These include the frequency of use, the dose and functionality of the kidneys and liver (these organs flush the drug out of the system and if they are not functioning at maximum efficiency then it will linger for longer). This can mean that occasional users are able to flush the drug out of their systems quicker, while long-term users require more and more time to eradicate all traces of it from their bodies.
Testing MethodsThe method of testing also plays a big role. A positive test in a saliva sample will be returned if the drug has been used in the last ten minutes, but it may take up to 3 days for a negative result to show. If a urine sample is taken, a positive result will show hours after use, but a negative result may take several days. Hair samples, on the other hand, can test positive for up to 3 months, but they may not be able to detect whether the user has consumed the drug within the last week.
Because of these timeframes, saliva tests are often used to determine whether or not a person is using at that time (a test which may be useful for law enforcement and healthcare professionals) while hair samples and/or urine samples are taken to determine if someone is a long-time user.
Once methamphetamine is consumed, it will enter the bloodstream, with some of it being converted to amphetamine. It is at its highest concentration in the body between 2.6 and 3.6 hours. Within a matter of hours (the average half-life is 10.1 hours), the liver and kidneys will begin to eradicate it from the body, and all traces of it are usually gone within 15 hours.
Not all meth makes it to the bloodstream, as a large portion of each individual dose will be passed out instantly. This is why urine tests are so effective at detecting current and recent use, and why hair samples, which contain traces of previous body chemistry, are effective for anything beyond that.
Just because the drug is no longer in the bloodstream it does not mean its effects will cease. It has already begun to alter the brain chemistry by that point, causing everything from irritability to an increase in heart rate. This is a drug that causes a greater rush of dopamine than any other (even more than cocaine and heroin) and that’s something that the body just doesn’t recover from that quickly.
ConclusionAs you can see, meth is far from the miracle drug that it was once hailed as. There is still a place for this drug in the world of legal medications. But when used recreationally, in large doses and in an environment that is not carefully monitored, the problems it causes can do irreparable damage. A huge mistake was made when this drug was legalized, and while that mistake was quickly rectified, it has had a lasting impact on US society.
The rates of meth addiction are increasing, as is the rates of abuse and social decline caused by this drug. The first step to curing this epidemic is acknowledging the damage being done and being more aware of the dangers this drug can cause. After that, it’s up to the addicts themselves—as well as their families and their therapists—to stamp out misuse and to stop this destructive disease in its tracks.