Methamphetamine (meth or crystal meth) is considered one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Why is it so addictive?  To really understand the addictive power of crystal meth, it is helpful to understand the drug and how it works on the human brain and body.

What does Crystal Meth do?

Methamphetamine is a stimulant that creates incredibly positive, euphoric, pleasurable, alert feelings over a prolonged period of time (several hours). The user often feels that everything around them is interesting, exciting and wonderful (including the user). Users often feel overly self confident and less self-conscious than when they are in a sober state.

Crystal Meth creates a stimulant action by acting on nerves that secrete biogenic amines.  The main effects of crystal meth involve these amines:

  • Histamine is a neurotransmitter (neurotransmitters are chemicals that pass information from one brain cell to another) that mediates arousal and attention
  • Serotonin is a central nervous system (brain and spinal chord) neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood, sleep, appetite, and sexuality
  • Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is a neurotransmitter involved in sleep and wakefulness and attention; it is also a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands
  • Epinephrine (adrenaline) is another adrenal stress hormone and a neurotransmitter that stimulates the “fight or flight” response
  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in motivation, reward, addiction, reinforcement

When used, meth causes the body and brain to be flooded with these amines.  Because methamphetamine blocks the body’s ability to take in these biogenic amines, the amines stay in the body.  Normally, these amines are only used as an immediate trigger and then they are either stored or broken down.  This is the reason that meth lasts so long in the body.

In the heart, noradrenaline stimulates the heart to beat faster and stronger, increasing pulse and blood pressure. Body temperature and metabolism increases.  In the brain, the amines increase alertness, concentration, and energy.  They decrease appetite for food and increase sex drive.  They can also increase paranoia, cause hallucinations and lead to a fascination or compulsion with repetitively performing a specific task.

Meth Mouth is the commonly used name for the deterioration of the teeth and gums from meth use.  The chemicals in meth are very caustic and acidic.  In addition, methamphetamine causes the mouth to become very dry.  Normally, saliva protects teeth and gums from acids, but with decreased salvia, the acid attacks tooth enamel.  Furthermore, users often grind or clench their teeth, which weakens or wears down the teeth.

Crystal meth increases impulsiveness and impairs judgment.  It also heightens the user's desire for sex. For many users compulsive sexual behaviors occur. With the mixture of euphoric/pleasurable feelings and a false sense of self-confidence, this usually leads users to believe that  sex is better on meth. This creates a big problem when users try to stop using because they believe they won’t ever be able to enjoy sex again.

Meth Use

The stages of meth use are often stated to be:

  • The Rush – The initial surge of adrenaline and other amines into the body.  This tends to last about 20-30 minutes.
  • The High – The user feels aggressive, capable, wonderful.  This lasts for several hours.
  • Tweaking – The user may have gone on a binge and used meth for several days, but eventually the drug no longer produces any high because your body's natural supply has run out.  At this point users are said to be tweaking.  The user feels very empty and craves the drug.  They feel a loss of identity.  Intense itching is common:  the user feels as if there are bugs crawling under the skin. The user is often unable to sleep and yet feels exhausted.  Hallucinations are vivid.  The person may be hostile to self or others.
  • The Crash – The user may sleep for several days as the body shuts down to recover.
  • Withdrawal can happen slowly over several months.  (In addition to the more immediate withdrawals during tweaking and crashing, longer term withdrawal also occurs.)  The user becomes depressed, lacks energy and is unable to feel pleasure. The user craves meth and believes (incorrectly) that the only way to experience anything positive or even normal is by using meth.

Effects of Meth Abuse

It is often stated that the lows from a drug are in proportion to its highs.  Meth is no exception.  Meth users may feel wonderful for a time, but there is a price to be paid as the body tries to get back to a reasonable “normal”.

Because the body has been flooded with the amines, it believes it no longer needs to create them.  So it drastically decreases or even ceases to produce the amines naturally. The decrease in amine production lasts much longer than the time meth stays in the body. The longer and more intensely someone has used meth, the more the body’s ability to create the natural amines is affected.

Meth causes the body to release more than 10 times the normal levels of dopamine.  So users feel an incredible euphoria.  But the body believes that far too much dopamine exists, so it cuts production.  Because the body no longer produces its typical levels of dopamine, the lower levels of dopamine lead to feelings of sadness, unhappiness, and depression.    Epinephrine and norepinephrine cause the blood vessels to constrict.  Over time, blood ceases to flow to certain areas of the body.  This leads to lower levels of healing and skin tightening or pulling back (such as the gums pulling away from the teeth).

Meth also affects memory and coordination.  Studies have shown that meth may continue to affect the brain for over a year after last use.  Damage to blood vessels in the brain can lead to strokes.

Heart damage can occur after repeated meth use. Meth artificially stimulates and stresses the heart, permanent damage can result.  In addition, high blood pressure is common among former meth users.

So Why Is Meth So Addictive?

Methamphetamine produces a prolonged sense of well-being and energy.  Many meth users want to feel the initial high they first felt using meth and so reuse meth again, and again.  Also, in contrast to the high it produces, it also produces incredible lows, involving severe depression, fatigue, paranoia and irritability. Finally, because of its impact on the brain, meth causes intense craving for using more meth.  Many early meth users begin to use meth more often as they “chase” the first high they felt using meth.  (This is not attainable because the body adjusts to this initial high, and so it is very unlikely a user approaches the initial feelings attained on first use.)  After repeated uses, many users continue to use meth to avoid the psychological and physical pain caused during meth withdrawal, in effect fighting off the lows.  Finally, the cravings caused by meth use often pull former users back into using even after months or years of sobriety.  These three factors cause meth to be incredibly addictive.

Help for Crystal Meth Addiction

Recovery from crystal methamphetamine is possible. It is hard to do on your own.  There are Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings in many cities which are free of charge. In addition, many treatment centers have developed expertise in treating meth addiction.  New Hope Recovery Center has helped a large number of individuals who were addicted to crystal meth.  You can reach us at 888-707-4673 or info@new-hope-recovery.com.  Read more at www.new-hope-recovery.com.

Written By: New Hope Recovery Center

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