Stimulant drugs are some of the most commonly misused substances in the United States. In fact, in 2019, more than 4 million Americans misused prescription stimulants. Even more Americans misused illicit stimulants like cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. When first consumed, stimulants, also called “uppers,” energize the body, making users feel alert, vigilant, zealous, and reckless. But these effects are temporary. Unlike the stimulant high, the comedown can leave users feeling fatigued, sluggish, irritable, depressed, panicky, anxious, and suicidal. Prolonged misuse and abuse of prescription and illicit stimulants can significantly and negatively impact the brain and body.
As the name suggests, stimulants are a group of drugs that stimulate or speed up activity in the central nervous system. Stimulants fall into two categories: prescription stimulants that are prescribed by doctors to alleviate medical conditions and illicit stimulants that are illegally sold, also known as “street drugs.”
Doctors prescribe prescription stimulants to help treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, or depression. Essentially, stimulants help increase the number of brain chemicals needed to alleviate symptoms of those conditions. In short, stimulants help ADHD patients stay focused, assist narcolepsy patients in remaining awake, and release excess amounts of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, to help relieve symptoms of depression. Some of the most common medical stimulants include:
Popular stimulants that are not prescribed by doctors, but are commonly used recreationally, include:
All stimulants, whether they’re prescribed by a doctor or illegally consumed, may be habit-forming, can lead to addiction, and affect the way the body and brain functions.
As stimulants travel through blood vessels, they begin their work in the brain. This speeds up activity in the central nervous system, interfering with the brain’s delicate chemical balance.
Stimulants rely on chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters to jump-start the nervous system, the brain’s control center. But instead of maintaining the brain’s chemical balance, stimulants increase the activity of two brain chemicals while leaving other neurotransmitters alone, creating an imbalance of neurotransmitters.
Stimulants over-activate dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine plays an important role in how we feel and experience pleasure. Dopamine also helps regulate our motivation and determines what we focus on and find interesting. Too much dopamine can cause anxiety, insomnia, mania, delusions, and paranoia. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone, increasing your heart rate and providing energy to your body. When overactivated, norepinephrine can lead to anxiety, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, jitteriness, excessive sweating, and organ stress.
In addition to imbalancing the brain, chronic stimulant use can reduce grey matter in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC helps regulate planning, decision making, problem solving, and self-control. In many ways, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with higher-level cognitive functioning. When the PFC has abnormally low levels of grey matter, the brain is less able to plan properly, solve problems, and make appropriate decisions. Although small levels of stimulants can help enhance cognitive functioning, moderate and high levels of stimulants are commonly associated with memory problems and poor decision-making ability. One study shows that Adderall can cause significant cognitive damage when students without ADHD illegally use the substance to enhance their grades and school performance.
Researchers have discovered that stimulants also interfere with dopamine transmission in the medial prefrontal cortex. The primary role of the medial prefrontal cortex is to set and achieve goals. Typically, dopamine helps regulate what the brain focuses on. But stimulants produce changes in the medial prefrontal cortex that incorrectly interpret dopamine transmissions, making stimulant users focus on consuming more stimulant drugs, making users more impulsive, and making addiction challenges more difficult to overcome.
Short-term and long-term stimulant use can have adverse effects on the body. Increased heart rates, elevated blood pressure, loss of appetite, and interrupted sleep patterns can weaken the immune system and make users more susceptible to cardiovascular, kidney, and respiratory problems. High doses of stimulants can cause convulsions, seizures, and death.
According to Healthline, a study shows that the stimulant amphetamine can prematurely age the heart. The study, which included more than 700 participants in their 30s and 40s, measured the stiffness of participants’ arteries, which is a sign of an aging heart. The study revealed that even though their outward appearance appeared fine, their cardiovascular systems and arteries showed a higher level of aging than the arteries of tobacco smokers and methadone users. Abusing stimulants is also commonly associated with strokes and aneurysms. Overstimulating the heart can be especially harmful to users as they age.
Once stimulants make their way through the body, they are processed by the kidneys. While some stimulants indirectly affect the kidneys, others are directly toxic to the organs. Amphetamines, for example, contain rhabdomyolysis which can flood the kidneys with toxins. Unable to remove such a high level of toxicity, the kidneys shut down. Ecstasy causes the body to retain urine, adding pressure and inflammation on the kidneys which can lead to kidney failure. Stimulants also allow toxins to build up in the bloodstream. Toxic blood combined with stimulant symptoms such as an increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels can also cause kidney failure.
As stimulants jump-start the central nervous system and increase energy levels throughout the brain and body, users' temperatures begin to rise. As the heart pumps faster and users’ blood pressure continues to increase, the body continues to heat up. This increase in body temperature is called hyperthermia and is the opposite of hypothermia, which occurs when the body becomes extremely cold. Hyperthermia is commonly associated with stimulant abuse and can be fatal. If the body becomes dehydrated in addition to hyperthermia, the kidneys will become extremely stressed and may break down completely, resulting in death.
Stimulants, like any other category of drugs, can be extremely dangerous. Their effects can range from mild nausea and vomiting to heart attacks, seizures, and strokes. Luckily, stimulant addiction is a treatable condition. At Genesis Recovery, our comprehensive treatment program for stimulant abuse combines clinical support with a 12-step program, soul-nurturing activities, and a supportive faith-based community.
You don’t have to settle for a life that’s been negatively affected by addiction. You can begin again. We can help you get there. Call us today at 619-797-7319 if you or a loved one are grappling with an addiction to prescription or illicit stimulants.