It’s easy for people who abuse drugs or alcohol to make excuses about why they don’t get clean and sober. After all, we’re only ready to get clean, you know, when we’re ready to get clean. Period. Knowing the potential long-term effects of excessive drinking and using, however, can have a profound influence on the final decision.
There are various ways that excessive drinking and drug use can impact the brain over the long-term. One of the more obvious is when someone overdoses, and we’re specifically referring to drugs here. Alcohol overdose is typically referred to as alcohol poisoning.
People tend to have a general idea of what an overdose is, but let’s just get the basic definition out of the way. An overdose happens when the body is overwhelmed by a toxic amount of one or more drugs. So, it’s essentially a dangerous dose of a drug. And because everyone responds differently to various levels of drugs in the system, an overdose is going to look different for everyone as well.
Overdoses can be accidental or they can be intentional. Accidental overdoses usually happen when a child or an adult with reduced cognitive abilities (e.g., senior citizens or adults with special needs) ingest too much medication, or medication that wasn’t meant for them. Accidental overdoses can also occur when people are using recreationally. It usually happens in situations where those who are abusing the drug need more of the substance than they originally did in order to achieve the same high as before. Intentional overdoses, on the other hand, happen when someone knowingly overdoses (e.g., suicide).
Okay, so now that we know what an overdose is (and that overdoses are bad), what exactly are its long-term effects on the brain? Let’s look at how various types of overdoses impact users:
We’re talking heroin, of course, but also the synthetic prescription drugs like oxycontin, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, vicodin, and similar. Synthetic opioids are the most deceptively dangerous because they’re actually prescribed by doctors. While many addicts knowingly abuse synthetics, patients who are prescribed these drugs for pain can sometimes become addicted after-the-fact. This is one of the many reasons why their availability and accessibility is a major contributor to the growing opioid epidemic.
Opioids work by attaching themselves to opioid receptors found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and other organs in the body. When this happens, the opioids alter the way the brain and the body perceive pain. They also slow down the essential nervous system functions like heart rate and breathing while producing feelings of euphoria. So, in short, they slow down the nervous system to the point where the body can actually forget to breathe. This causes a lack of oxygen to the brain and yes, this is very bad.
Without oxygen, the brain can become hypoxic very quickly. A hypoxic brain injury means that the brain isn’t receiving adequate oxygen. Furthermore, an anoxic brain injury is when the brain receives no oxygen whatsoever. 3-5 minutes of oxygen deprivation is all it takes for permanent brain damage to occur.
When someone overdoses, if they’re not reversed with naloxone immediately, irreversible damage to the brain can and does happen. This can vary in severity, as everyone reacts differently, but there are some common effects of overdose-related brain damage. These include: loss of memory, severe retardation, hearing or vision impairment, inability to communicate, read, or write, and loss of coordination, among other things.
Someone who has overdosed might be left with slightly impaired cognitive abilities, or they might wind up in a permanently vegetative state. In extreme cases, an opioid overdose can result in an irreversible coma or even death.
Drugs such as methamphetamines (also referred to as “speed”, “ice”, “meth”, “crystal”, etc.) and cocaine (or “coke”) have a direct impact on dopamine and its receptors in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for making us feel good and it plays an essential role in pleasure and motivation. Stimulants reduce its uptake, hence the extreme euphoric effect drugs like meth and coke can have.
Over time, however, these cells can be severely damaged or can even die off which results in a symptom called anhedonia. Anhedonia is the diminished ability or lack of ability to feel any kind of pleasure if the drug isn’t used and because it’s caused by the actual death of cells, it can last long after use of the drug is stopped. The result of anhedonia can be severe depression, self-destructive behavior and suicidal thoughts. Over time, however, the dopamine receptors can repair themselves and return to some normal function, but this isn’t possible without continued abstinence.
Stimulants affect the central nervous system and overdoses can absolutely be fatal. When stimulants are taken, breathing is accelerated (via the central nervous system) which increases blood pressure, body temperature, and the heart rate. Done in excess, any combination of these variables can contribute to seizures, strokes, heart attacks and, in extreme cases, death.
Finally, since alcohol is, in fact, a drug, it needs a mention. Most people are aware that excessive alcohol consumption over time can have a devastating effect on the liver. It can also impact the heart, the pancreas, and cause other bodily organs to stop functioning properly. Not to mention the fact that alcohol is commonly linked to things like domestic violence, fatal drunk driving accidents, destructive behavior, and the list goes on.
What’s not as commonly discussed, however, is the fact that alcohol abuse can cause thiamine deficiency, and this is actually quite serious. Thiamine is one of the B vitamins that the body doesn’t produce on its own, but it’s required by all tissues in the body including the heart, liver, and brain. Therefore, it needs to be ingested somehow, but alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to absorb this essential vitamin which then can cause a deficiency.
Thiamine deficiency can lead to a crippling and potentially fatal neurological disorder that paralyzes the nerves, causes mental confusion and an inability to coordinate muscle movement. It can also damage brain cells to the point of debilitating dementia. This disorder is commonly referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome – a combination of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis as described by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.
While many people don’t consider alcohol to be as dangerous as other drugs, it happens to be the most deadly. It’s also the most easily accessible drug on the market as well as the most socially acceptable, and it’s the third leading cause of death in the United States. It kills more people than every other drug combined.
It goes without saying that excessive drug use and alcohol abuse are bad but knowing their impact on the body can drive the point home even further. Drugs and alcohol are also not easy to give up for those who suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or drug addiction.
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