What Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth) Does to the Body
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, up to 5.5 percent of individuals over the age of 12 will use meth at some point in their life. Methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, is one of the deadliest illicit drugs. Heart failure, paranoia, “meth mouth,” and facial sores—methamphetamine has negative consequences on the body and mind due to its addictive nature and poisonous ingredients.
What is What is Methamphetamine??
Developed in the early 20th century, methamphetamine was manufactured from amphetamine in decongestants, inhalers, and stimulants in which physicians prescribe for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.
Due to its addictive effects and impact on the central nervous system, amphetamine and methamphetamine have become widely abused street drugs even when legally prescribed. The illicit form of methamphetamine is most known as crystal meth. However, crank, speed, chalk, ice, glass, Tina, and shards are other street names for the drug.
How is Methamphetamine Made?
“Crystal meth” consists of a distilled, potent form of methamphetamine that is created in illegal laboratories. Pseudoephedrine is extracted from cold medications, converted to methamphetamine, and cooked with some of the following ingredients to increase its potency: battery acid, antifreeze, ammonia hydroxide (i.e. stored in propane tanks and coolers), hydrochloric acid, acetone, drain cleaner, lighter fluid, lye, iodine crystals, pool acid, sodium metal, and ethyl ether (i.e. starting fluid).
Cooking meth is a dangerous process, as the ingredients are highly flammable. Meth laboratories are prone to explosions. Those exposed to the ingredients are poisoned over time from the toxins released into the air.
What Methamphetamine Looks Like
Methamphetamine comes in different forms. The most prevalent form of meth is a crystal white powder that appears similar to ice. Depending on the specific ingredients used in the manufacturing process, the powder can also be tinged with brown, yellow-gray, orange, or pink. The powder can also be compressed into a tablet.
How Do People Use Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is used in many ways. Each route comes with its own risks. Smoking meth is the most popular method. However, users can inject meth in pill form or snort the meth powder, which damages the sinus cavities. Some inject it directly into the vein. When injecting, the user is at risk for HIV, hepatitis C, and hepatitis B.
Immediate Effects of Methamphetamine
- Euphoria—A pleasurable high that motivates someone to continue using the drug. It is associated with poor decision making like promiscuity.
- Emotional blunting—Along with the high, people using meth are less aware of their emotions.
- Increased respiration—Abnormal rapid breathing
- Rapid heartbeat—During a meth high, the heart beats faster and can become irregular.
- Increased blood pressure—The cardiovascular system must work harder to circulate blood throughout the body.
- Hyperthermia—Elevated body temperature
- Increased activity—Methamphetamine causes one to feel jittery and energetic with a temporarily rise in attention span. Increased activity is connected to insomnia.
- Decreased appetite—Users of meth often lose significant amounts of weight due to a lack of appetite.
- Tremors—The immediate impact that meth has on the central nervous system leads to tremors.
- Strange behaviors—Teeth grinding and jaw clenching, appearing “jittery.”
How Methamphetamine Acts on the Nervous System
As described above, methamphetamine has immediate effects on the body and mind. But why?
Methamphetamine passes the blood-brain barrier quickly in which three areas of the brain are stimulated: the nucleus accumbens, the prefrontal cortex, and the striatum. It acts as a highly addictive stimulant that motivates users to take more of the drug. When the body is exposed to methamphetamine, it activates the gland that produces adrenaline. The brain is triggered to release feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The sudden release of central nervous system chemicals blocks their re-uptake and creates an instant “rush” or high. According to professionals, methamphetamine is dangerous for the nervous system because it takes approximately 12 hours to metabolize.
The primary neurotransmitter associated with methamphetamine use is dopamine. Dopamine plays a role in motivation and reward. It is the main reason why meth provokes a sudden rush of euphoria. 2 to 3 hours after taking meth, dopamine levels are at its highest and the effects are the greatest. Over time, the body requires increased amounts of meth to obtain a high of equal intensity.
When meth is abruptly stopped, dopamine levels plummet. The body “forgets” to produce dopamine on its own and must rely on the drug to do so. Thus, the dopamine impact is long-lasting. Users sustain more than just the immediate, euphoric effects. Chronic, high amounts of dopamine damage the nervous system in a way similar to Parkinson’s disease. For example, users experience impulsivity, tremors, seizures, reduced motor speed, impaired memory and cognitive functioning, and learning.
Long Term Effects of Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine is a dangerous drug. With its vast impact on the body, its effects continue long after the initial high.
Mood Changes from Methamphetamine
Along with the euphoria from the sudden influx of dopamine, methamphetamine is connected to many changes in mood. Initially, meth causes an enhanced mood, talkativeness, and what feels like boundless energy. Once the immediate effects wear off, users become paranoid and irritable. Psychosis and anxiety are very common. Users hallucinate—or see and hear things that are not there. For example, those on meth incessantly pick at their skin in fear of “bugs” crawling on them. Meth also leads to aggressive behavior. The drug prevents users from correctly processing their emotions and the emotions of others.
Methamphetamine and Mental Illness
People who abuse methamphetamines often have an underlying substance abuse disorder or mental illness. Their underlying mental illness makes them susceptible to drug abuse and more likely to use meth in attempts to mask the symptoms of mental illness.
However, mental illness can also be directly caused from the drug itself. The rapid fluctuations of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin effect mental health. The psychosis, anxiety, and mood swings from methamphetamine use are easily diagnosed as a mental health condition.
- Bipolar disorder—Drastic shifts in mood with manic highs and depressive lows
- Anxiety disorders—Excessive worry and fear our of proportion to the situation
- Major Depression—Unexplained sadness persisting for two weeks or more and interferes with daily functioning
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder—Flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety triggered after a traumatic event
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—A condition characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior
- Schizophrenia—A mental disorder that effects how someone think, feels, and behaves. Those with schizophrenia are out of touch with reality and suffer from hallucinations and delusions.
Cognitive Effects of Methamphetamine
Ironically, 2012 studies report that those given low doses of oral methamphetamine had an increase in cognitive functioning in the domains of learning, memory, visuospatial perception, and response speed. However, the positive effects were short lived. Long term methamphetamine disrupts the entire learning process. This stems from structural abnormalities of the brain’s neurons.
Neurons are the nerves within the central nervous system that send and receive chemical messages from neurotransmitters. As neurons receive signals, they tell other nerves what to do. Methamphetamine causes premature neuronal death. When neurons die off, they interfere with the functions controlled by the areas in the brain in which they are located.
- Hippocampus—Responsible for learning and retrieving information stored in memory
- Striatum—Controls movement and attention
- Cerebellum—Imperative for cognitive functions and movement
- Frontal and Prefrontal Cortex—These areas make problem-solving, reasoning, attention, and inhibition possible.
- Parietal Cortex—Controls memory of non-verbal information and the ability to visualize objects in space
Heart Damage from Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine compromises the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract, but the damage to the cardiovascular systems is most devastating. All methamphetamine users are at risk for sudden cardiac death. Methamphetamine effects the nervous system, which regulates heart rate, blood pressure, and other important functions. Ventricular fibrillation—a state in which the heart begins quivering uncontrollably rather than contracting to pump blood—is the result of an irregular heartbeat. Users who are extremely agitated are likely to experience complete cardiovascular collapse. Methamphetamine causes the blood vessels to become inflamed. The widespread inflammation injures the heart valves and according to studies, meth users have such high blood pressure that they are five times more likely to suffer hemorrhagic strokes.
Physical Changes from Methamphetamine
The poisonous chemicals in methamphetamine takes its toll on one’s physical appearance. Skin becomes dry and sagging, creating an aged look from only sort term use. “Meth mouth” or dental decay is the result of shrinking blood vessels. Meth causes the salivary glands to malfunction. With little to no saliva, acid erodes the teeth and gums Open sores and severe acne are from parasitosis, which is compulsive skin picking to remove bugs. Believing there are insects crawling beneath the skin is a common when meth results in psychosis and hallucinations, as the user feels crawling sensations on their skin. Someone abusing meth tends to lose significant amounts of weight as the body burns off fat and uses muscle mass as fuel.
Methamphetamine Comedown and Withdrawal
After meth is metabolized by the body, users endure what is called a “comedown.” This occurs within 12 to 24 hours. Comedown symptoms begin with poor mental health (i.e., hopelessness, sadness, depression, anxiety) and then progress to physical symptoms such as muscle weakness, fatigue, decreased appetite, headache, insomnia, and muscle pain. If the user does not take more of the drug to counteract the comedown, comedown symptoms eventually dissipate.
For those who are addicted to meth, comedown symptoms progress to withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms mimic the comedown—the opposite of the high—but persist for up to a month after the drug is discontinued. The longer the person has been using meth, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms are.
Treatment for Methamphetamine Addiction
Medical detox is the first step in methamphetamine abuse treatment. The withdrawal symptoms are so severe that most users require monitor in a medical setting. Prescribing medications to combat the symptoms of withdrawal is often necessary. For example, medications that regulate sleep help users rest as they detox. Antidepressant medications may stabilize dopamine levels, and some target anxiety and heart problems. Once medical assisted detox is successful, experts recommend rigorous therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy focused on the relationship between thoughts and behavior. An expert assists the client in identifying and correcting unproductive thoughts, feelings, and assumptions to change an unwanted behavior. In methamphetamine abuse treatment specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches coping skills to remain sober. Even with treatment, the American Addiction Center reports that almost 61 percent of meth users with relapse within one year.
Hart, C. L., Marvin, C. B., Silver, R., & Smith, E. E. (2012). Is cognitive functioning impaired in methamphetamine users? A critical review. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 37(3), 586–608. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2011.276
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.