The effects of addiction on your bodily systems can be wide-ranging and long-lasting. There will also be both shorter and longer-term effects. These effects will depend on the drug taken, length of time of the drug abuse, and the underlying health and psychological condition of the person addicted. In this article, we will seek to explain the effects of drug addiction on the body and consider how recovery can best be supported.

How do you define addiction?

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) addiction is “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences”. It is apparent from this definition that addiction is considered to be a disease. This is because addiction changes the way the brain functions. Since a basic understanding of disease is that it is something that changes how an organ functions, addiction is considered a disease.

The use of the term ‘chronic’ also stands out in the definition. When it comes to disease, chronic indicates that something will last a long time and cannot be cured. Whilst chronic diseases cannot be cured, they can be managed. Moreover, recovery from chronic diseases is possible with suitable support and treatment. As such, a simpler definition of addiction could be: a long-lasting brain condition that can be managed but not cured.

How does addiction affect the brain?

At least 20% of people in the US are estimated to suffer from an addiction. However, the physical effects will vary from drug to drug. The same drug may also have different effects when used differently. For example, if it is snorted, smoked, or injected it will have a different effect in the short and the long term. However, typically, addictive drugs trigger the brain’s reward system – releasing dopamine.

Normally, dopamine is used by the brain to tell us to keep doing something – it feels good so keep doing it! However, when dopamine is released as a result of an addiction,  the brain can be rewired if an extreme level of dopamine is released. The spike in dopamine in the brain tells it to stop producing so much. This, in turn, leads to the telltale withdrawal symptoms and a bodily desire for the substance that had previously caused a large dopamine release.

What are the physical effects of addiction on the body?

Addiction can also have physical effects on the body as well as the brain. Across the board, addictions to drugs can increase the chances that you will have other health problems. If you already have a health condition, this can also be exacerbated. How the body responds will depend on the type of drug, how much is used, how it is used, and how long the addiction goes on.

If someone is addicted to tobacco, then mouth, throat, and lung cancers are more likely, as are heart disease and high blood pressure. People will often look older if they are addicted to tobacco for a long time as it ages the skin prematurely. Cocaine addiction has been linked to things like strokes, heart attacks, and a general propensity to infection. Drugs that are inhaled spread toxic chemicals around your body and can even damage bone marrow, whilst methamphetamines can cause long-term damage to the heart and disease to the teeth and gums.

What are the psychological effects of addiction?

Beyond the physical effects on the brain and body, addiction can cause long-lasting psychological damage. As already outlined, addiction is considered to be chronic, meaning that it is incurable. However, the physical effects of addiction clear fairly quickly. It is psychologically where addiction will never be truly cured, only managed.  However, people also experience various psychological effects in the short and medium-term too.

A common side-effect of much substance abuse is paranoia and a negative impact on your mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, research shows a strong intersectional link between drug abuse and other forms of mental illness. The drug abuse might arise from mental health issues or, conversely, the mental health issues might lead to issues with addiction and substance abuse.

Potential for recovery

All of this seems to be focused on the negative. However, as the definition of addiction explained, addiction can be managed and controlled even though it cannot be cured. Many of the physical and psychological effects outlined will also be temporary and reversible with effective treatment and continued recovery. Detox is known to have restorative effects for the brain when carried out safely and with appropriate support, for example.

The key thing is spotting addiction quickly, seeking help as soon as possible, and implementing strategies for coping. Addiction is a tough battle, but with the right support, anyone can overcome addiction in the short-term and manage it in the long run.

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "Understanding Addiction and the Body," in Medicalopedia, May 1, 2020, [Permalink: https://www.medicalopedia.org/8786/understanding-addiction-and-the-body/].