What are the Effects of Substance Abuse?

The effects of substance abuse aren’t just on the user’s brain and body. Drug and alcohol addiction has impacts on family, the community, and society.

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What is a Substance Abuse Disorder?

The effects of substance abuse go beyond the risk of addiction. As our body becomes accustomed to a foreign substance, it tends to alter the mind in a manner that can be difficult to overcome. In turn, causing withdrawal symptoms whenever we go without said substance.

A substance abuse disorder is a mental health disorder that is physiological in nature, but has extreme repercussions on the mind. This is especially true when a substance is abused over an extended period of time – further causing our bodies and brains to become accustomed to its effects.

Throughout this article, we’re going to observe the effects of substance abuse and what you can do to minimize them. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What are the Signs of a Substance Abuse Disorder?

Substance abuse disorder (SAD) isn’t something that sneaks up on someone and catches them by surprise. SAD is a long drawn out process that builds upon itself as the user takes more and more of the substance. In turn, this causes dependency – a chemical and physical need for the substance. ¹

In fact, physical and mental dependencies are one of the first warning signs that someone is struggling with SAD. However, there are other signs and symptoms that can indicate a dependency is developing. These include: ² ³ ⁴

Physical Signs and Responses

  • Bloodshot eyes, enlarged and reduced pupils
  • Great changes in appetite
    • In addition to changes in appetite, there may be changes in weight with weight gain or loss that is not normal
  • Sleep difficulties, either having little to no sleep or sleeping in excessive amounts
  • Slurred speech, indecipherable language
  • Tremors or muscle spasms
  • Impaired coordination or difficulties in balance

Behavioral Signs and Responses

  • Strain in personal relationships with loved ones or friends
  • Missing responsibilities, either for work or for personal reasons
  • Neglecting one’s own health or personal appearance
  • Frequent need for money either to keep their substance abuse continuing or to cover other expenses as they lack funds due to using it on illicit substances
    • This may include stealing from friends or loved ones or robbing others and businesses for money to continue the habit
  • Increase in dangerous or illegal activities in order to continue substance use
  • Discontinuing activities that once brought joy or happiness in order to use illicit substance
  • Lying or being elusive in order to continue the habit at hand

Mental & Emotional Signs and Responses

  • Increase in anxiety, paranoia, or overall fear with no discerning reason
  • Lack of motivation or wherewithal to do things that need to be done or to engage in activities that once were comfortable and familiar
  • Increase fatigue and loss of awareness of one’s own environment
  • Rapid mood swings, going from one emotional extreme to another without warning, often resulting in emotional outbursts
  • Changes in attitude, personality, or speech
  • Utilizing substances and drugs to escape” from problems, uncomfortable situations in life or responsibilities
    • Oftentimes this need to “escape” will increase with the dependency on the substance

What Causes a Substance Abuse Disorder?

Unfortunately, scientists aren’t 100% sure what causes SAD. It’s understandable that some people experiment with substances and never develop a dependency whereas others will become addicted. It’s likely there are a number of factors that play a significant role in what causes substance abuse, but we currently lack the research to properly understand this.

One of the biggest causes of SAD is through genetic links to those in family lineages who have had previous addiction experiences and practiced unsafe or harmful substance abuse. ⁵ For example, if a parent struggles with SAD, there’s a greater chance their child will also struggle with the condition.

An individual’s environment plays a large part of the cause of substance abuse. Those who live around others that use substances can become more likely to use substances themselves. This is especially true if substance abuse is common place in a household and the dangers of such activities haven’t been established.

Finally, we know that other mental health conditions have been linked to a substance abuse disorder. For example, a person who struggles with anxiety or depression may be willing to use a substance simply as a means of self-medicating. Such practices go beyond mental health as well – if an individual is prescribed pain pills for an injury, they may develop a habit of taking these pills and, in turn, develop dependency.

What are the Effects of a Substance Abuse Disorder?

Substance abuse doesn’t just wreak havoc on the body and mind but also one’s overall health, wellbeing, and those around them. When someone is addicted to a substance, whether legitimate or illicit, it can cause a number of issues that often aren’t initially considered. In turn, developing a dependency can lead to external consequences on day-to-day life, relationships, the community, and society at large.

On the Brain

The brain is the central organ for our nervous system and its health is extremely important for how we live out our lives. When people develop a substance abuse disorder, their brains are rewired in a manner that’s controlled by said substance. This is due to how drug dependency alters the brain’s chemistry.

The brain’s internal structuring can actually physically change with the introduction and continual use of certain substances, such as cocaine, prescription pain killers (Vicodin or fentanyl), alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine. Damage to the brains structures usually fall into three segments of the brain:

1.) Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps in planning, decision making, and social behaviors. When illicit substances are introduced and reinforced through repeated use, it can alter this segment of the brain and change it permanently – especially if the substance is a harsh irritant to the brain.

The most concerning effects of the substance abuse on the prefrontal cortex is an altering in how it functions, causing changes in how the user thinks. This can lead to confusion and complications in decision-making. Not to mention, it can affect how an individual interacts with others in a social setting. ⁶

2.) Extended Amygdala

The extended amygdala is responsible for emotional processing – to help create and control emotions such as stress, anxiety, happiness, and sadness. Usually a person’s extended amygdala can be controlled through their normal processes of their brain, but with substance abuse, a person may lose that control.

In fact, substance abuse can cause the regulation of these emotions to be sporadic. When someone who’s experiencing substance abuse goes without the substances – referred to as a withdrawal period – it can cause the extended amygdala to spin out of control. This creates more stress and anxiety which can cause the user to crave the substance. ⁷

People struggling with addiction utilize these harmful substances to quiet the raging chaos of these emotional responses like stress and paranoia. While such behavior only reinforces drug use, it also helps to calm the extended amygdala.

3.) Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia segment of the brain is it’s pleasure or reward center. It creates hormones like serotonin which increases uplifting sensations. Normally, serotonin is produced when the brain feels you should be rewarded. For example, getting a job promotion, completing a project, and getting a good workout can activate this reward center.

When we introduce a substance to the reward center, it’s initially overwhelmed with pleasurable chemicals such as serotonin. This is thanks to the fact that most substances are able to replicate these chemicals and attach to the brain. Unfortunately, over time, the brain starts to have difficulty developing these chemicals naturally. In turn, a person needs to continue taking a substance in order to feel rewarded. ⁸

On the Body

Substances can wreak havoc on the body when they are administered in copious amounts, regardless of whether they are beneficial or not. When illicit substances are introduced into the body, it causes a chemical process to break it down and apply it to the segments of the body where it is supposed to be utilized. However, when one struggles with addiction, it can disrupt the normal functionality of the body’s processes.

Every substance has different reactions within the body, but illicit and harmful substances usually have similar side effects. We’ve compiled a list of the most common drug reactions and their effects within the body: ⁹

  • A change in how the body breaks down and processes substances, both harmful and beneficial
  • Feelings of nausea, pain in the abdomen and stomach
  • Weight loss due to changes in appetite and food consumption
  • Strain on internal organs like the liver, stomach, and intestines which have to absorb the substance and try to break them down and process them
  • Damage to the lungs, especially if the substances are introduced to the body through inhalation
  • Changes in internal body temperature, development of muscles and breast tissue
  • Changes and strain on the heart and circulatory system, especially if the substance introduction is through inhalation or injection
  • Brain damage combined with increase risk of seizures, memory lapses, and strokes

On Health

With the damage substance abuse can leave on our brains and bodies, it comes as no surprise that our overall health takes a toll as well. Every substance has its short-term consequences – for example, opioids and cocaine can lead to a fatal overdose. However, continual abuse of a substance can create long-term health consequences.

Of course, much of this has much to do with the type of substance, how often and how much of that substance is consumed, and a person’s overall health. Some of the most common long-term health consequences include: ¹⁰

  • Permanent lung damage from inhalants and smoking cause disorders like COPD which occurs when the bronchial tubes within the lungs are damaged.
    • Lung cancers can become a result from long-term substance abuse through inhalants, such as smoking cigarettes, or inhaling toxic fumes. Second-hand smoke from cigarettes can affect those around smokers, even if they aren’t smokers themselves.
  • The liver is what processes everything we eat, drink, or introduce into our bodies. Prolonged substance abuse can cause damage like cirrhosis of the liver and fatty liver disease. These diseases can create permanent damage to the liver causing difficulties in liver functions.
    • Liver cirrhosis can develop into liver cancer which can result in liver failure and, in more serious cases, renal failure and death.
  • Kidney damage can cause complete kidney failure in one or both of the kidneys which could require dialysis or kidney transplants.
  • Prolonged drug and substance abuse can increase the rate of contracting infections and diseases thus hindering the body’s immune system.
  • Infections like HIV and Hepatitis C can be contracted through using and sharing injection needles or through practicing unsafe habits.

On Family and Friends

The impact of drug and substance abuse doesn’t just affect the user, it can unfortunately extend to friends and family members. In many cases, those that struggle with addiction create an environment where loved ones have to take over responsibilities. For example, a loved one may provide money, housing, food, or other basic necessities so the affected individual can (hopefully) seek out the treatment they need.

This is especially concerning in environments that involve children. For example, a child raised in home where parents or siblings are addicted are often left to rely on themselves and others.

On the Community & Society

Substance abuse can also affect the world surrounding the user. This is especially true to the community that they belong to. The impact of drug abuse on a community is far more consequential than it is on close personal friends and family members as the community is often taking the brute force of the problem. Most notably, it usually develops in an environment where criminality related to substance use can put a strain on those living within the area along with commercial business, the healthcare system, and local government bodies. ¹¹

Substance Use & Criminality

The most notable consequence of substance abuse on the community is the factor of crime and delinquency that such use brings about. Most substance use is illegal and create crimes such as drug dealing and illicit transactions. With the rise in criminality with community members brings about victims of said criminal acts, including the users and the families of the users.

As more and more citizens struggle with substance abuse, the financial need to obtain said substances causes the most desperate to start dealing themselves. In turn, this can require more on the police and law enforcement agencies – especially in major cities. This increase in law enforcement causes those who would be productive and functional members of the community to be placed behind bars for their addiction which overcrowds prisons and detention centers and increases the need to fund such institutions.

The most recent developments in the legal fight against the opioid addiction epidemic is a new court system to assist opioid addicts with drug abuse cases and settle suits against pharmaceutical companies. This project was given a grant of a million dollars from the United States Justice Department in order to develop and execute in one city and analyze the results of having a court system purely for painkiller cases. ¹²

The first opioid court was opened in Buffalo, New York and its ultimate goal for their $300,000 annual grant was to see “how many people are still breathing each day when we’re finished,” to quote the court project director, Jeffrey Smith. This opioid court is a unique solution but one that has firm roots in the justice system. Its goal is to treat addicts and save lives. This is a court system that doesn’t blame the addicts but reasons and stands with them and provide answers and solutions to their struggle instead of prosecuting them as criminals. ¹³

Strain on Community Health Services

With the rise of opioid and fentanyl use in the US came a rise in hospitalizations for overdoses. In turn, this put a strain on many city healthcare responses and care systems. ¹⁴ For example, in 2016, in the town of Huntington, West Virginia, there were 28 heroin and prescription drug overdoses in a 5-hour period – the most that area has seen ever. ¹⁵

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), there are an estimated 2.6 million Americans addicted to painkillers, such as Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin. ¹⁶ The prescriptions have resulted in an average of 30,000 overdose deaths per year. ¹⁷ Dependency on painkillers have a direct link to heroin use, due to the lack of continuing prescriptions and cost as heroin is far cheaper to obtain.

In order to combat this, the American Chronic Pain Association’s Resource Guide To Chronic Pain Management booklet has proposed alternatives for dealing with chronic pain. These include creating a balance of exercise, diet, and stress reduction in order to maintain and reduce stress or chronic-related pain. A doctor can also create an acetaminophen or anti-depressant medication regimen in order to deal with neuropathic or fibromyalgia pain. These methods can be a healthier and safer alternative to treating chronic pain than relying on opioids. ¹⁸

Financial Burden of Substance Abuse

The strain on society goes as far as to hit us in our wallets. Upon closer inspection, the monetary cost of the substance abuse far outweighs the profits being raked in by the alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drug companies.

The net result of substance abuse’s impact on the US economy is over $740 billion dollars a year. This is combining the costs of law enforcement, court costs, medical costs, and lost productivity from those that struggle with addiction. ¹⁹

During Adolescence

Adolescence is a time where change is thrusted upon the young and the impressionable. With such change, it’s granted that many young people are struggling with various emotions, from hormonal changes to anxiety to stress. With that said, it’s understandable that many turn to illicit drugs in order to relieve these emotions. Unfortunately, such behavior could lead to a substance abuse disorder.

The effects of substance abuse on the youth can stretch into their adulthood. Substance abuse within the teenage years can be caused by a number of different issues – from problems at home or school to stress of puberty to genetic and environmental stressors. One of the biggest reasons teens fall victim to substance use has to do with pressures from others to “fit in” with their friends. However, it could also be an “escape” from their problems. ²⁰

The biggest difficultly with the effects of substance abuse on adolescence is how it affects a growing brain and body. For example, some drugs are known to have permanent effects on adolescence and can last well after the brain has fully formed. To take this further, substance abuse can create issues with others or in school, disrupt family life and personal relationships, and in extreme cases, cause one to commit crimes. ²¹

During Pregnancy

It is widely understood that pregnant women should abstain from drinking and engaging in using illicit substances as it can cause disruptions in the pregnancy and lead to consequences with the infant. However, that doesn’t stop all pregnant women from abstaining from certain substances – especially if that prospective mother is struggling with an addiction.

Those that drink or do drugs while pregnant run the risk of the baby contracting a dependency of the very same substance. In cases where drugs are introduced to the baby before birth through the umbilical cord, that newborn needs to ween themselves off of the drugs which is referred to as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This can be a painful experience as the baby sufferers from the same withdrawal symptoms that adults do but with no cognizance of what’s occurring. With that, it can be a traumatic experience that impacts them later in life. ²²

Furthermore, mothers that drink while pregnant can cause a situation known fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is when the negative effects of alcohol is transferred to the child, even before it’s born. Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause physical, mental, and learning difficulties for the baby as it develops and can dramatically affect the child as it grows up. ²³

How Substance Abuse Effects Our Essence

It may sound a bit cliched but there is some truth in the fact that when one uses substances to try and escape life, they are missing out living in the moment and being their authentic selves in the world. There should be a concern that those that utilizing substances to try and escape from their problems are missing out on chances to mature and grow as people. Furthermore, they’re missing out on the opportunity to have an impact on those around them, whether it be family and friends or members of a community.

Final Thoughts

Substance abuse can be an unpredictable spiral that one falls into and doesn’t realize until it appears to be too late. Pulling yourself from an addiction is not an easy task and requires a tremendous amount of willpower. However, those that are able to often find themselves living much happier and healthier lives.

Your Questions

Still have questions about the effects of substance abuse?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ Indian Health Services for US Department of Health: “Warning Signs of Substance and Alcohol Use Disorder”

² Marr Addiction Services: “Physical Signs of Addiction”

³ DrugAbuse via American Addiction Centers: What Are Behavioral Signs Of Drug Abuse?

⁴ MentalHealth Services via U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

⁵ National Centers of Biotechnology / US National Library of Medical Sciences: The Genetic Basis of Addictive Disorders

⁶ National Centers of Biotechnology / US National Library of Medical Sciences: Prefrontal Cortex and Drug Abuse Vulnerability: Translation to Prevention and Treatment Interventions

⁷ National Centers of Biotechnology / US National Library of Medical Sciences: Brain stress systems in the amygdala and addiction

⁸ National Centers of Biotechnology / US National Library of Medical Sciences: Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health – Chapter 2: The Neurobiology Of Substance Use, Misuse, And Addiction -The Primary Brain Regions Involved in Substance Use Disorders -The Basal Ganglia

⁹ GatewayFoundation: The Effects of Drug Use – On Health & The Body

¹⁰ National Institute on Drug Abuse: What are the other health consequences of drug addiction?

¹¹ National Centers of Biotechnology / US National Library of Medical Sciences: Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy: Chapter 2 Impact of Substance Abuse on Families

¹² U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: What Are Drug Courts?

¹³ University of Buffalo: Do Opioid Intervention Courts work? UB study will provide the answer

¹⁴ National Institute on Drug Abuse: Opioid Summaries by State

¹⁵ Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Opioid Overdose Outbreak — West Virginia, August 2016

¹⁶ Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Understanding the Opioid Overdose Epidemic

¹⁷ National Institute on Drug Abuse: Overdose Death Rates

¹⁸ American Chronic Pain Association: Resource Guide to Chronic Pain Management

¹⁹ National Institute on Drug Abuse: Costs of Substance Abuse

²⁰ National Institute on Drug Abuse: Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide – Why do adolescents take drugs?

²¹ Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention via US Department of Justice: Consequences of youth substance abuse

²² National Institute on Drug Abuse: Are Some Babies Born Addicted?

²³ Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: Basics about FASDs

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