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Long-term Effects of Addiction on the Body and Mind

Illustration representing the effects of addiction on the body.
The effects of addiction on the body range from psychological to physical.

One of the most commonly cited reasons for abusing drugs or alcohol is that it makes us feel good. Unfortunately, this is also what leads many of us to become addicted as our brains “re-wire” themselves in response to the presence of the addictive substance. Over time, the effects of addiction may cause serious physical and psychological health problems that worsen throughout a person’s dependency. In this article, you’ll learn how addiction affects the brain and the body and why it could cause irreversible damage if left untreated.

How Does Addiction Affect the Body?

The Raleigh House Responds: The long-term effects of drug addiction on the body include serious, possibly fatal health problems like heart disease, kidney failure, lung damage, liver failure and more.

Physical Effects of Addiction on Your Body

Illustration representing the effects of addiction on the body.
Over time, the effects of addiction can cause serious health problems like heart disease, liver failure and kidney damage.
  • Kidney Failure: Kidneys filter our blood for waste and help us release or retain water. Long-term drug addiction can take a serious toll on them. For people addicted to crystal meth, heroin and others, kidney failure is not uncommon.
  • Liver Failure: Alcoholics aren’t the only addicts who should be concerned about liver damage and failure. Prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin can also damage the liver when habitually abused over the years.
  • Heart Disease/Failure: The class of drugs known as stimulants, which includes cocaine, is known to cause serious damage to the heart. The longer a cocaine addict goes untreated for addiction, the more severe the damage.
  • Lung Damage: Many addicts smoke their drugs to feel the effects. As we all know by now, smoking anything causes long-term damage to our lungs, and increases our risk of cancer.

Psychological Effects of Addiction on Your Mind

  • Anxiety: Because addicts rely on drugs to feel good or to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, they will typically feel anxious or restless while waiting for their next dose. This anxiety makes it impossible to stay focused and could cause problems at work, at home or within relationships. Fortunately, drug-related anxiety often lessens as treatment progresses.
  • Depression: Depression and other mental health problems are widely known to be risk factors for addiction to drugs and alcohol. And, people who have underlying mental health conditions often find that addiction only makes them worse. But, even people with no prior history of clinical depression may find themselves struggling with the condition as a direct result of addiction. Drugs may make us feel good for a short amount of time, but after the effects wear off, we are often left feeling worse than before. Combined with feelings of guilt or shame related to the addiction, it’s easy for a clinically-diagnosable case of depression to develop.
  • Paranoia: Many people report strong feelings of paranoia while actively addicted to drugs like cocaine or marijuana. Paranoia is characterized as a persistent, unshakable sense that everyone is out to get us. Sometimes paranoia is completely irrational, but for people struggling with addiction, the illegality of buying and using illicit substances makes the feeling even more intense.

How Addiction Changes the Structure of Your Brain

3D model representing the effects of addiction on the brain
Drug addiction changes how the brain responds to dopamine.

Drug addiction works by chemically altering the brain’s structure so that it becomes programmed to depend on a substance of abuse. As addiction progresses, the brain demands increasing amounts of this substance, and users may soon find that they must prioritize their drug use above all else. In basic terms, this process explains why some people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. But, what’s really going on with addiction and the brain? Let’s explore.

Addiction, Dopamine and Your Brain

Understanding how drug and alcohol addiction works is easy if you know a little bit about how the brain responds to pleasure. Certain activities or events cause a chemical called dopamine to be released in the brain. These activities include things like chowing down on our favorite foods, exercising, playing video games or even earning a big promotion at work. Basically, anything that brings us pleasure or makes us feel good triggers the release of dopamine. As far as our brains are concerned, the activity itself doesn’t matter.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The Raleigh House Responds: The long-term effects of drug addiction on the brain include psychological disorders like clinical depression and anxiety as well as changes to the way it produces and responds to the neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Addiction is harmful, but what causes it?

Now you know the long-term effects addiction has on the body and mind. But what causes it in the first place?

Why Do People Get Addicted to Drugs?

Drinking alcohol or using recreational drugs also causes the brain to release dopamine. But, unlike the dopamine release that comes with exercising, drugs trigger a supercharged, near-immediate rush of dopamine that the brain quickly latches onto and remembers. In a relatively short time, our brains actually “re-wire” themselves to classify the substance as something it needs, like food or water. This is why drug addiction is so difficult to treat, and why it’s not simply a choice.

What Makes Some Drugs More Addictive than Others?

When it comes to addiction, some drugs are more addictive than others. For example, drugs like heroin and nicotine are both highly addictive, while drugs like MDMA (ecstasy, Molly) are comparatively less addictive.* So, what makes one drug more addictive than another? Basically, it comes down to three factors:

1. How quickly the drug promotes dopamine release
2. How much dopamine the drug triggers to be released
3. How reliably the drug causes the release of dopamine

*Note: While MDMA is less addictive than other drugs, it is still possible to develop an addiction.

Changing Public Perception of Addiction

Many people mistakenly believe that drug addiction is a choice or that it indicates a lack of willpower on behalf of the victim. Not only is this belief simply inaccurate, it’s also dangerous because it marginalizes and stigmatizes individuals who legitimately need help.

With the right treatment, people who are struggling with drug addiction can – and do – get better. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without hard work; but it does happen. And, when it happens, the damage to our minds and bodies gradually starts to heal.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, we are here to help.

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