Effects of Drugs

Effects of Drugs: 5 Commonly Abused Substances – Worldwide, millions of people use drugs or drink alcohol every day. This use can range from a glass of wine or two during dinner to a line of cocaine to experience a boost of energy and euphoria. Unfortunately, the use of substances such as these can eventually develop into an addiction, as they are causing the mind and body to operate in unhealthy ways.

Effects of Drugs on the Brain and Body

Here is a look at a few of the most commonly abused substances, and how they impact the brain and body when consumed.


Despite being legal and widely accepted in many countries (or perhaps because of it), research has found that alcohol is actually the most lethal substance on the planet. The intoxicating effects of alcohol are implicated in more deaths than the effects of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Over three million fatalities are related to alcohol abuse each year.

Alcohol consumption initially increases levels of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain, inducing effects that make people feel happy, less stressed out, and even elated. For this reason, many people erroneously believe that alcohol is a stimulant. It is not, however—it is a central nervous system depressant and a potentially powerful one in high doses.

In fact, despite the short burst of elevated mood, slowed thinking and a depressed breathing and heart rate onset within a short time after consumption. The liver can only process the equivalent of one standard drink of alcohol per hour—this drink can be one shot of liquor, 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine. Drinking alcohol at a faster rate than that can quickly and dangerously increase one’s blood alcohol concentration, leading to moderate to severe impairments in cognitive functioning and motor skills.

In those who drink excessively over a long period, up to 90% will develop fatty liver disease which can result in fatigue, weight gain, and chronic pain. Also, frequent consumption can induce damage to the links between neurons in the brain, which affects the ability to process information. Alcohol consumption also reduces inhibitions and can create a feeling of fearlessness which can lead to risky sexual encounters, accidents, physical fights, and injury.

And, as with any intoxicating substance, there is always a risk for dependence and addiction. When dependence develops, the brain has become accustomed to the constant presence of alcohol and is thus unable to function correctly without it. This state results in unpleasant withdrawal symptoms upon cessation and contributes to the development of addiction, which is also characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite the incurrence of adverse consequences.


Opioids are painkillers that include prescription medication such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and fentanyl, as well as the illicit street drug heroin. In addition to pain relief, opioids also have properties that mimic a CNS depressant, and in high doses, can result in respiratory arrest and death. Opioids bind to certain receptors in the brain and alter pain signals.

Opioids also reduce the amount of GABA in the brain, which in turn increases the amount of dopamine. Opioids have a high potential for dependence and addiction. Constipation and other gastrointestinal issues are also common for opioid users.

During an overdose, a person can completely stop breathing, causing brain damage, coma, and death. This effect may be accompanied by gurgling or choking sounds (death rattle) and bluish skin on the lips and fingers (cyanosis). Acute opioid intoxication is a life-threatening emergency. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately.

The effects of drugs such as opioids are all similar, although the presence and severity of each symptom depends on the drug itself, the amount that was taken, and how it was administered. Effects generally last between 4-12 hours.


Cocaine is a powerful CNS stimulant that boosts dopamine and serotonin, resulting in a brief but elated feeling of well-being, confidence, and energy. Over time, these feelings may turn into irritability, anxiety, or paranoia.

Because cocaine’s high is so brief (usually less than a half hour), people frequently use it in binges to avoid the unpleasant comedown after the high begins to subside. Cocaine begins affecting the brain within moments, causing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

Snorting cocaine on a routine basis can cause frequent nosebleeds and the formation of holes in parts of the nose, often the septum. Smoking cocaine can irritate the lungs, sometimes resulting in permanent lung damage. Injecting cocaine frequently leads to damaged veins and the possibility of contracting blood-borne diseases such as HIV when needles are shared.

Cocaine also constricts arteries, which can lead to a heart attack. Cocaine is highly addictive, and the binge-like fashion in which it is often used contributes to its addictive potential.

Methamphetamine (Meth)

Like cocaine, meth is a highly addictive stimulant that can be extremely detrimental to a users physical and emotional well-being. It is most often smoked, but can also be injected, snorted, or swallowed. Crystal meth presents as small crystals or glass shards that are light blue to white in color. Meth use induces a sense of euphoria in users, which is the primary reason people use the drug.

The effects of meth may differ, depending on how it was administered. Initially, the user will feel like they have improved concentration and may feel a rush of euphoria or a large burst of energy—this is known as a “rush.” This effect is short-lived, but other sought-after effects of meth, such as increased energy and elevated mood, will persist for hours.

While these euphoric feelings are being experienced, the CNS is working overtime to produce dopamine and other neurochemicals important for maintaining a stabilized mood. Moreover, meth use interferes with these chemicals, and research has shown that a person’s mood and behavior can be dramatically altered when under the influence of meth.

Other adverse effects of meth use include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, as well as agitation, paranoia, and odd, erratic, or repetitive behavior. Like cocaine, users often binge on meth for days at a time to avoid the unpleasant feelings of coming down.

MDMA (Ecstasy)

MDMA is a synthetic “club drug” that has both stimulating and hallucinogenic properties. MDMA, as taken in tablet form, is popularly known as “Ecstasy.” There is little evidence that Ecstasy has the potential for chemical dependence, but it can be habit-forming, and in rare cases, death may occur, primarily due to dehydration or overheating.

Ecstasy increases levels of serotonin and dopamine, causing users to feel elated more social, and experience an increased level of empathy towards others. It also enhances sensory perception and can produce mild hallucinations. Effects typically last between 3-8 hours.

Negative effects of drugs such as MDMA also include the release of cortisol (a stress hormone) which can result in insomnia for a day or so following use. During this time, the user may also feel depressed, irritable, and fatigued.

Getting Help for Addiction

All of the aforementioned drugs produce an excessive influx of dopamine in the brain, which can eventually result in addiction. Most medical professionals now consider addiction to be a chronic disease that should be treated using a combination of psychotherapy, counseling, group support, and other therapeutic modalities.

Recovery By The Sea offers these services in partial-hospitalization and outpatient formats. Our caring addiction specialists are dedicated to providing clients with the resources, tools, and support they need to recover and free themselves from the grips of addiction indefinitely.

If substance abuse is causing adverse consequences in your life and you have found that you are struggling to quit using a drug on your own, please contact us today for a free consultation with an addiction expert!

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