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Methamphetamine: What is it and why is it dangerous?
Part 1 of 4

Editor's note: This is the first of a four part series on methamphetamine; a powerful and destructive drug sweeping across our nation. Authored by Dr. Charles Bliss of Cornerstone Behavioral Health, the series will examine the physical effects of the drug, social impact, current influence on Wyoming and Evanston, and treatment.

Methamphetamine is a very potent central nervous system stimulant. The drug works directly on the brain and spinal cord by interfering with normal neurotransmission. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances naturally produced within nerve cells used to communicate with each other and send messages to influence and regulate our thinking and all other systems throughout the body.

The main neurotransmitter affected by methamphetamine is dopamine. Dopamine is involved with our natural reward system. For example, feeling good about a job well done, getting pleasure from our family or social interactions, feeling content and that our lives are meaningful and count for something, all rely on dopamine transmission.

Methamphetamine may be inhaled, smoked, or injected. When someone starts using methamphetamine, they have increased energy, feelings of euphoria, decreased appetite, and decreased need for sleep. They also experience increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, restlessness, and anxiety.

Although some of these effects sound positive, they are far outweighed by the bad effects and risks of using methamphetamine. The euphoria, increased energy, and grandiosity often lead to impulsive risk-taking behaviors such as violence and sexual promiscuity. The effects of the drug can easily last 12 or more hours so insomnia is quite common, but coming down causes depression and fatigue. Attempting to avoid depression and fatigue as well as a desire to regain the euphoria originally experienced, individuals are likely to turn to the drug again making it even harder to withdraw from it in the future.

One of the consequences of regular methamphetamine use, not typically seen with other drugs, is the very long recovery period where the former user experiences depression and little or no pleasure in life. Even things they use to enjoy are no longer satisfying. This inability to get pleasure from life and the environment typically lasts 2-3 years after stopping use. However, some persons never recover and remain unsatisfied due to permanent brain damage.

There are at least two ways this brain damage may occur. Through dopamine depletion, over time, cells that replenish this essential neurotransmitter are destroyed. Brain damage may also occur due to increased blood pressure and heart rate which can cause stroke and death of brain tissue. An irregular heart beat may also lead to heart attack and even death. And autopsy results of methamphetamine users document thousands of mini-strokes at the ends of microscopic blood vessels in the brain typically resulting in premature aging, and in some cases, premature senility.

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