Drug Abuse and the Effects on the Body

Drug abuse can have a multitude of negative health effects on the human body. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, drug abuse can be a factor in the development of a host of serious physical illnesses, including:

  • Cancer
  • Kidney damage
  • The contraction of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Lung disease
  • Musculoskeletal damage
  • Liver damage
  • Complications in pregnancy[1]

Substance abuse can also have a deleterious impact on the brain. However, the frequent co-appearance of addiction and another mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia, should not be taken to mean that drugs cause mental illness.[2] As NIDA explains, there are at least three possible scenarios to explain the relationship between substance abuse and other mental health disorders. One possibility is that drug abuse can trigger the emergence of symptoms of a separate mental health disorder. Another possibility is that a mental health disorder can influence a person to self-medicate with illicit drugs. A third possibility is that the drug abuse and mental health disorder are each an expression of a traumatic personal experience, genes, or deficits in the brain.[3] Though it may be challenging to conclusively determine if there is a causal link between substance abuse and mental illness, it is helpful to understand that one can exacerbate the other and both require treatment.

There is an abundance of research available that discusses the various negative effects that drugs can have on the brain and body. In this article, the discussion focuses on some of the more extreme examples of what can happen to the body and/or mind as a result of substance abuse. To clearly illuminate the examples provided, a specific drug is paired with a particular health outcome and a firsthand story is provided if it offers greater insight.

Jump To:

Meth and the Brain Reward System
Synthetic Drugs Can Cause Cancer
Liver Failure
Sleep Medication & Strange Behaviors

Heroin-Induced Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms

parkinson disease symptoms caused by bad batch of synthetic heroin

The story begins in 1982. George Carillo, a heroin user, admitted himself to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. His body was bent over and contorted, and he could not speak. All of his muscles appeared frozen. The hospital’s chief neurologist examined Carillo and was baffled. Carillo presented with the symptoms of a person who had Parkinson’s disease for at least a decade, but at 42 years of age, Carillo was too young for that diagnosis. As it turned out, Carillo was having a severe reaction to a very dangerous batch of synthetic heroin that had been released into the community.[4]

The chief neurologist, with the help of colleagues and the news media, was able to locate six additional victims. Toxicology tests of the heroin revealed the presence of a chemical known as MPTP. Research showed that when the MPTP reached the brains of the people who had taken the bad heroin, it affected an area known as the substantia nigra. Similar to what Parkinson’s disease does to the substantia nigra, MPTP depleted 80 percent or more of the cells in this area. As a result, the heroin users had become frozen, or statue-like.[5]

A follow-up in 2014 on the status of six of the MPTP victims, published by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, filled in the story. Carillo and five other of the group were sent to Lund, Sweden, for an experimental brain surgery. Although the surgery provided some relief, not all of the brain damage could be reversed. Four of this group had passed away as of the foundation’s follow-up. Medical researchers recognize the devastation MPTP caused to this group but recognize the lasting impact their experience had on research into Parkinson’s disease. Tipped off by the MPTP victims’ experience, researchers were able to use MPTP in studies to advance their understanding of the origins of Parkinson’s disease and possible treatments.[6]

The remarkable case of the MPTP victims offers insight into the serious risks individuals who use heroin take each time they use this drug. Before heroin reaches the street, dealers can cut any number of different chemicals into it. The MPTP case only highlights this possibility. But cutting poisons into heroin is not the only risk. Consider the story behind the heroin overdose of legendary singer Janis Joplin in 1970. The heroin that Joplin consumed was in the range of 40-50 percent pure.[7] That dose would lead to a fatality in nearly anyone. Joplin had little chance of survival and reportedly succumbed to the heroin injection almost immediately. The many dangers inherent in heroin use has led Medical Daily to ranked this drug as the fifth most-deadly in existence.[8]

Methamphetamine Devastates the Brain’s Reward System

The physical side effects of methamphetamine (meth) are well publicized in part because it is easy for the media to latch onto and sensationalize the devastated appearance of individuals in the grip of meth addiction.

As the Public Broadcast System (PBS) Frontline series notes, meth abuse can cause the following damage to the body:

  • Acne, scabs, sores that take a long time to heal, a lackluster appearance to the skin, and a loss of skin elasticity (These effects relate to constricted blood flow due to meth abuse.)
  • Tooth decay and a loss of teeth
  • An appearance of malnutrition or an emaciated look
  • Eyes that have a vacant look[9]

methamphetamine damages the brain and body functions

At the neurological level, meth is particularly dangerous because it causes the release of an excessive amount of dopamine in the brain (even compared to other potent drugs). This is really the main mechanism underlying most all of the negative health effects related to meth abuse. As an individual repeatedly abuses meth, the dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward system are continually damaged. As a result, meth abuse leads to severe memory impairment, decreased cognitive functioning, poor motor coordination, and a tendency to engage in violent behaviors. Some may also experience psychotic symptoms, including delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. Meth abuse is also associated with a phenomenon known as skin picking; a person on meth may have the sensation of insects crawling under their skin and pick at the body for relief.[10]

As meth is known to be a seriously damaging drug, it is no surprise that it carries even more negative health effects such as:

  • Lowered immunity or a reduced ability to stave off infections and viruses
  • Liver damage
  • Convulsions
  • An extreme increase in temperature that can lead to brain damage
  • Stroke
  • Death[11]

Although meth is one of the most devastating drugs on the street, recovery is always possible. Although recovering individuals may experience some permanent brain damage, they can still live fulfilling lives. Carren Clem has long been in recovery from meth and shares her inspirational story with WebMD.[12] Clem was the child of a Montana narcotics cop, but her father’s profession, and the drug education she received from him, did little to stop her from falling into drug abuse in her early teens and eventually becoming addicted to meth. Within the first week of meth use, as is common due to this drug’s potency, Clem became addicted. After the first hit of meth, Clem felt like a “superwoman” but soon she felt helpless and tried to commit suicide. When Clem survived her suicide attempt, she found the motivation to get help from a local youth pastor and her family. Clem entered rehab for meth abuse and completed the program.

Clem is now sober, married, and a mother. Her former meth abuse has impaired her brain’s ability to handle stress, and she does still experience intense cravings for the drug. But Clem keeps herself focused on healthy living by working at a fitness center and dedicating her free time to the Montana Meth Project. The organization is dedicated to helping youth understand the dangers of meth and to realize that no one is immune from becoming addicted to meth. The devastating impact meth had on Clem now provides her with the motivation to help others avoid slipping into abuse of this drug.[13] Clem’s story demonstrates that while meth can have a long-term negative impact on a person’s brain, it cannot damage the will to recover and help others.

Synthetic Drugs Can Cause Cancer

Synthetic drugs have turned an already precarious drug market into a Wild West of sorts. New synthetic drugs are constantly emerging and their chemical makeup is always changing. Synthetic drugs are created from man-made chemicals in illicit drug laboratories.[14]

Also known as designer drugs, some of the most well-known synthetic drugs are:

  • Synthetic cannabis (K2 or Spice)
  • Methamphetamine
  • Ecstasy
  • LSD
  • Synthetic stimulants (bath salts)
  • N-bomb[15]

Between 2009 and 2014, an estimated 200-300 new synthetic drugs were discovered in the US, most of them having been made in China. Even more drugs have infiltrated the European market. In the past decade, more than 650 kinds of synthetic drugs have been identified. The chemicals within these synthetic drugs have not all been identified. There are, therefore, no clinical trials on the effects of each of these drugs, which make them an unknown threat to the human body and mind.

Research has been conducted on at least some of the chemical compounds found in synthetic cannabinoids. Researchers found that the digestive system and respiratory organs were particularly vulnerable to damage by these chemicals. The damage also extends to the user’s DNA. Once the chromosomes within the DNA are damaged, the risk of cancer increases. Researchers were careful to note their concern that individuals who use synthetic cannabinoids have no information about its many dangers. These drugs are not likely organically occurring marijuana. Consumer confusion could prove especially dangerous. The researchers warned that there is a high risk of overdose associated with these designer drugs.[16]

Due to the multitude of chemicals used to created synthetic drugs, it seems that science will always lag behind the reality of what designer drugs are in the street. This fact alone can be the starting point of public education. Since research already suggests that synthetic cannabinoids can lead to cancer, there is no telling what other deleterious health effects these drugs may have.

synthetic drugs that can cause cancer

A Mother Recalls Her Son’s Liver Failure

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids publishes firsthand accounts of drug abuse and fatalities in order to educate the public on the negative impact of drugs.

A mother recounts the story of her son John’s addiction to Vicodin.[17] John drank alcohol and smoked marijuana every day of his teenage years. His substance abuse decreased in his 20s when he took on a lot of hours at his job. But then he had a severe fall and was prescribed Vicodin, a prescription opioid. John began heavily abusing Vicodin. The addiction was apparently going on for 3-4 years, but John’s mother never knew the extent of it, even though he moved back into the family home after his work accident.

As John’s mother recalls, one day her son was doubled over in pain. He was not able to hold down food. She learned from John’s employer that he had somehow lost his ability to read and write. At the hospital, the doctors advised John and his mother that he had pancreatitis, which was causing his liver to fail. Although John was slated for a liver transplant, he passed away at the hospital after going into cardiac arrest. John’s mother was shocked; she didn’t think John had been abusing opioids to the point where these medications would cause his liver to stop functioning. John’s mother later found a journal in which John kept a tally of his daily drug intake; John was taking 30-40 Vicodin a day, which were bought on the

street. According to doctors, the acetaminophen in the Vicodin had caused the liver failure and also damaged every one of John’s vital organs.[18]

John’s story underscores the overt and hidden dangers of prescription opioid abuse. While acetaminophen is sold in over-the-counter formulations and is a stock medicine cabinet item, a superabundance of this medication can destroy the liver and other organs. The negative health consequences associated with opioids are wider spanning than the public may think at first blush. Research reveals that opioid abuse is closely associated with respiratory depression (slowed breathing), which can lead to a fatality.[19]

But short of a fatality, slowed breathing can cause a condition known as hypoxia, a deprivation of oxygen to the brain. Hypoxia has been linked to coma and brain damage.[20] Although prescription opioids are legally manufactured and do not present the risk of poisoning of other drugs, such as heroin, they fall into one of the most dangerous classes of drugs in existence. These drugs have caused a host of negative effects in the brain and body, which is especially alarming in view of the fact that America is currently steeped in a prescription drug epidemic.

Sleep Medication and Strange Sleep Behaviors

strange sleep behaviors caused by some medications

Prescription sleep medications, such as Ambien, are known to cause abnormal behaviors, such as sleep walking, driving, and talking.[21] The drug can also induce sleep eating, which is more dangerous than it seems at first. Individuals who take prescription sleep medications typically do not learn about their sleep behaviors until after the fact; it is generally inadvisable to wake a person from a sleep state, although it may be necessary to do so to avoid a disaster.

For those individuals who experience sleep eating, the signs include refrigerators left open, missing food, finding food in one’s bed or bedroom, an oven or stove burners left on overnight, or dramatic weight gain. These side effects can occur with regular use or abuse of prescription sleep medications. The stories of abuse, however, illuminate the many complexities and dangers inherent in taking prescription sleep medications.

Professional writer Laurie Sandell shares her story of Ambien addiction with Today Health.[22] Sandell was an extreme insomniac, and it was interfering with every facet of her life, including her livelihood. When Sandell began to take Ambien, she immediately dove into addictive behaviors; she doctor shopped to get multiple prescriptions, combined the pills with alcohol, and took an excessive amount. As Sandell’s abuse progressed, she found herself passing out in candlelit baths, experienced extreme weight loss (she went down to 98 pounds), had panic attacks, and felt uncharacteristic social anxiety. Sandell found her way to rehab and recovered.[23] But Sandell’s experience begs the question: Why do some prescription sleep medications cause abnormal behaviors?     

Ambien, as well as the branded drugs Lunesta and Sonata, are classified as selective gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medications. These drugs are a newer generation of sleep medications. They are considered selective because they target a particular type of GABA receptor in the brain – the one believed to promote sleep.[24] When a person abuses a selective GABA medication, like Ambien, there is an overabundance of GABA in the brain and then a crash. Stated simply, GABA regulation is off-balance in the brain, which in turn causes partial arousal. When a person is partially aroused, they have the capacity to partially awaken but cannot achieve a fully awake state.

But Ambien and similar medications can have additional negative side effects, such as future memory loss and a potential increased risk of cancer. Research and patient reports reveal the risk of anterograde amnesia. This form of amnesia prevents a person from being able to recall future plans or events. This occurs, in part, because there are many GABA receptors in the hippocampus area in the brain. The hippocampus region is responsible for much of the processing of memory retention.[25]

The association of Ambien with the risk of cancer stems from a research studies, such as one that reviewed 10,529 individuals who were using sleep medications (many were taking Ambien). The clinical trial compared the 10,529 sleeping pills users to 23,676 people who were free of such pills. The research study concluded that individuals who took at least 18 sleeping pills annually were 35 percent more likely to develop cancer over the duration of the trial.[26] The way that sleep medications impact the brain and body demonstrates the need to exercise caution when using these drugs and to get help if addiction occurs.

A review of how different drugs impact the brain and body underscores that drug abuse is an inherently dangerous behavior. When discussing addiction, it seems natural to talk about all of its side effects. However, it is critical to bear in mind that the most universal side effect of drug use is addiction. Stated broadly, when a person consumes a habit-forming drug, such as a prescription opioid, the body typically develops a physical dependence over time. Provided that one is under a doctor’s care, physical dependence is an acceptable medical state. However, when individuals abuse drugs, they can slide into a psychological addiction to the drug.[27] At this point, many negative effects can occur in the brain and the rest of the body. In addition, the individual will display addiction-related behaviors that can include stealing to pay for the drug.

Yet it is important to keep in focus that however destructive drug addiction can be, the recovery process can help to heal the damage to a person’s health and personal life. Drugs may be poisonous to individual wellbeing and overall social good, but treatment can provide the antidote that leads to lasting recovery.

study shows those who take 18 sleeping pills a year are more likely to develop cancer


[1] “Medical Consequences of Substance Abuse.” (December 2012). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[2] “Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses.” (September 2010). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wallis, C. (June 24, 2001). “Surprising Clue to Parkinson’s.” TIME. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Palfreman, J. (March 20, 2014). “Author Reflects on Impact of “The Case of the Frozen Addicts” as 2nd Edition Released.” Michael J. Fox Foundation. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[7] Mastropolo, F. (October 4, 2015). “45 Years Ago: Janis Joplin Dies.” Ultimate Classic Rock. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[8] Bushak, L. (October 26, 2015). “The Top 10 Deadliest Street Drugs: They’ll Destroy Your Vital Organs and Rot Your Flesh.” Medical Daily. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[9] “How Meth Destroys the Body.” (n.d.). PBS Frontline. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Clem, C. (May 28, 2010). “Conquering Meth Addiction: Carren Clem’s Story.” WebMD. Accessed May 16, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “What is a Synthetic Drug?” (n.d.). Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Nobody knew how bad John’s addiction was, until it was too late.” (n.d.). Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Prescription Drug Abuse.” (November 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Ambien Sleep Walking Turned Me into a Midnight Binge Eater.” (n.d.). Health. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[22] Sandell, L. (March 17, 2008). “Confessions of a Sleeping-Pill Junkie.” Today Health. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Sleeping Pills: What You Need to Know.” (n.d.). WebMD. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[25] “Ambien Side Effects.” (n.d.). Drug Dangers. Accessed May 15, 2016.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Addiction Versus Dependence.” (January 2007). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed May 15, 2016.

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