Why is Meth So Addictive?

woman on meth with head in her hands
Methamphetamine is highly addictive due to its potent action on the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals: dopamine and serotonin.

According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, 4.9% of Americans aged 12 and older reported using methamphetamine in their lifetime.1 Meth is an extremely addictive drug with limited medical use. It creates an intense high that can fade as quickly as it comes, leading people to take repeat doses in order to stay high and avoid a comedown.

Users often go on binges where they don’t eat or sleep and continue to take methamphetamine to stay awake for days at a time.2

Here we explore why meth is so addictive and some of the negative effects that can come from using the drug.

Methods of Use

Methamphetamine users have several means of taking the drug to achieve a “high.” They may take the drug in a pill form, smoke it, inject it, or snort it.

Smoking or injecting meth produces an instant high that lasts between 8 and 12 hours,6 which leads many people to take repeat doses to remain high. When taken orally, the drug’s effects can last anywhere from 6–12 hours, but they are not as intense.3

Short Terms Effects of Meth

Methamphetamine is highly addictive due to its potent action on the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals: dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine gives you feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation. Because meth significantly increases the brain’s levels of dopamine, it creates a euphoric rush when users take the drug.2

Meth also impacts the brain’s levels of serotonin, which is responsible for regulating mood, appetite, and memory. When the effects of methamphetamine wear off, the brain is depleted of both dopamine and serotonin, creating feelings of depression and anxiety.

Repeated use of methamphetamine also leads to tolerance, meaning that users need higher doses to receive the same effect.3 These higher doses fuel the addiction to the drug.

The short-term psychological effects of methamphetamine include:2-5

  • Euphoria (extreme happiness).
  • Heightened sense of well-being.
  • Increased alertness.
  • Increased wakefulness.
  • Excitement.
  • Edginess, anger, irritation, or anxiety.
  • Paranoia.
  • Unpredictable behavior.
  • Urges to do repetitive and/or meaningless tasks.

Some of these effects—such as euphoria, excitement and a heightened sense of well-being—can make the user want more and more of the drug.

Short-term physical effects of methamphetamine include:2-5

  • Increased physical activity.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Rapid breathing rate.
  • Rapid and/or irregular heart rate.
  • Elevated body temperature (overheating).
  • High blood pressure.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Twitching.
  • Headache.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Uncontrollable jaw clenching.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.

Even with this long list of physical effects, most of them negative, users may still become addicted to meth due to the perceived beneficial psychological effects listed above.

What users need to be aware of when using meth and becoming addicted is that high doses of can lead to overdose, which can be fatal. Symptoms of overdose include:4

  • Dangerously high body temperature.
  • Convulsions.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart attack.
  • Death.

Long-Terms Effects of Meth

Chronic, long-term methamphetamine use can chemically alter the structure and function of the brain. What does this mean? It means that meth use can impair motor skills, learning abilities, and emotional regulation.

Many of these effects may continue for several months or even years after users have stopped taking the drug.2 Research has indicated that at least 50% of the brain’s cells that produce dopamine can be damaged from long-term use of even low doses of meth.2

In addition to damage to dopamine-producing cells, studies have shown that the damage to nerve cells containing serotonin may be even greater.4

Long-term psychological effects of methamphetamine include:2-4

  • Confusion.
  • Memory loss.
  • Anxiety.
  • Sleeping difficulties.
  • Violent, aggressive behavior.
  • Mood swings.
  • Paranoia.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Delusions.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Homicidal thoughts.
  • Psychosis.

Long-term physical effects of methamphetamine may include the following:2-4

  • Significant weight loss.
  • Anorexia.
  • Sensation of insects crawling on skin.
  • Skin sores caused by scratching.
  • “Meth mouth” (severe dental problems).
  • Increased risk of contracting Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV.
  • Parkinson’s—or Alzheimer’s—like symptoms due to brain damage.
  • Damaged nerve terminals in the brain.
  • Lung disease.
  • Heart problems.
  • Liver and kidney damage.
  • High blood pressure.

Sources

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Methamphetamine.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). DrugFacts: Methamphetamine.
  3. Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Methamphetamine.
  4. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2016). Drug Facts Sheet: Methamphetamine.
  5. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2016). Methamphetamine. Mooney, L., et al. (2009). Medical Effects of Methamphetamine Use. In Roll, J.M. et al., editors, Methamphetamine Addiction: From Basic Science to Treatment. New York, NY: Guilford Press. pp. 117-142.
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