Why Is Meth So Addictive? Unraveling the Science and Impact of Methamphetamine

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Methamphetamine use affects millions of families every year. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "Among people aged 12 or older in 2021, 0.9% (or about 2.5 million people) reported using methamphetamine." The impact of methamphetamine misuse affects communities nationwide.

Methamphetamine addiction has been on the rise for decades. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), between 2015 and 2019, methamphetamine misuse "increased by 43%." In addition, "The number of people using methamphetamine and cocaine together increased by 60%."

The COVID-19 pandemic increased methamphetamine misuse and reduced access to treatment. Communities nationwide have worked to combat the risk of methamphetamine misuse through recovery programs and support services. Pathways Recovery Center provides treatment and recovery services to individuals and families in and around Azusa, California. Treatment programs ensure clients have the resources to recover and heal from substance use disorder (SUD). The clinical team uses evidence-based and alternative holistic therapies to treat SUD and address underlying issues related to the disorder.

The Chemistry of Methamphetamine

Stimulants share symptoms and side effects. However, the chemical makeup and mechanical processes of each is unique. According to the NIH, "The methamphetamine molecule is structurally similar to amphetamine and to the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical that plays an important role in the reinforcement of rewarding behaviors, but it is quite different from cocaine."

Neurotransmitters like dopamine play an essential role in the development of dependency and addictive behaviors. Dopamine is released when a person experiences pleasure. Many substances cause short-term euphoric side effects that increase dopamine levels. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), "Dopamine is involved in body movement, motivation, and reinforcing rewarding behaviors." Abusing meth "rapidly releases high levels of dopamine into reward areas of the brain, making people want to continue to use meth."

Treating methamphetamine addiction is often complicated by the long-term changes to neurotransmitters and the brain's reward centers. Psychotherapy and prescription medication are often used to help clients manage their condition.

Meth and the Dopamine Surge

Methamphetamine dysregulates neurotransmitters and causes a surge in dopamine levels. Even a very small amount of methamphetamine profoundly affects neurotransmitters like dopamine. According to the Journal of Neuroscience, "Multiple high-dose administrations of methamphetamine (METH) both rapidly (within hours) decrease plasmalemmal dopamine (DA) uptake and cause long-term deficits in DA transporter (DAT) levels." Dopamine increases the intense euphoria felt directly after abusing methamphetamine. The effects cause people who misuse the drug to behave more impulsively and with less self-control.

Reward centers in the brain help people create healthy routines and increase positive behaviors by increasing the production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine during positive experiences. However, this automatic system works against people who misuse substances. Methamphetamine and other drugs overstimulate the brain's reward centers and make it more difficult to build healthy routines and behaviors during recovery.

Rapid Dependence: The Vicious Cycle of Use and Craving

Methamphetamine causes changes in many body systems. The extreme high is followed quickly by a severe comedown. Intense cravings and other symptoms often cause people to rely on repeated substance misuse to avoid withdrawal, compounding the side effects and symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms begin within 24 hours. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Methamphetamine use is associated with a range of health harms, including psychosis and other mental disorders, cardiovascular and renal dysfunction, infectious disease transmission, and overdose." Every instance of using methamphetamine increases the health risks.

Some of the most common health side effects of chronic dopamine dysregulation include:

  • Muscle cramping, spasms, or stiffness
  • Digestion issues, including constipation
  • Increased aggression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depressive symptoms

The cyclic nature of addiction is more pronounced in individuals who misuse methamphetamine. To avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms, many people continuously misuse the drug – feeding off the highs and avoiding the lows. Methamphetamine causes rapid dependence and addiction. The extreme cyclic nature of methamphetamine addiction is a leading cause of accidental overdose and death. Often, people with SUD involving methamphetamine misuse more than one substance at a time. According to NIDA, "Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, and particularly methamphetamine, have also risen steeply in recent years, and many of these deaths involved use of an opioid at the same time."

Neurological Alterations: Rewiring the Brain

Substance misuse affects the structure and function of the brain. Chronic methamphetamine misuse rewires certain areas of the brain and may cause neurological damage. According to NIDA, "Methamphetamine misuse greatly reduces the binding of dopamine to dopamine transporters . . . in the striatum, a brain area important in memory and movement." In addition, methamphetamine misuse in young adults can reduce cognitive abilities and cause long-term neurological issues.

Regions of the brain most commonly affected by methamphetamine misuse include the hypothalamus and insular cortex. Chronic methamphetamine use affects the central nervous system (CNS). Methamphetamine addiction also increases the risk of developing Parkinson's and other diseases affecting nerve function. A person's general health will determine the type and severity of symptoms they experience.

Some of the most common side effects of SUD include:

  • Impulse control issues
  • Mood changes
  • Difficulty making sound judgments

Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based methods to help clients recover from neurological changes caused by substance misuse. Prolonged abstinence reverses most changes to the brain caused by methamphetamine misuse. Treatment also involves providing clients with the tools they need to manage their condition and overcome challenges caused by ongoing symptoms, including impulse control issues. Over time, affected areas of the brain may repair themselves and reduce the risk of relapse.

The Physical Allure: Immediate Gratification

Many people diagnosed with SUD have underlying trauma or other issues. Methamphetamine causes an immediate, intense euphoria. Some people use the drug to self-medicate untreated physical or mental health symptoms. The immediate pleasure often masks emotional or physical pain. However, the comedown worsens the symptoms of underlying issues, causing a cycle of dependency and addiction.

Immediate gratification is one of the primary reasons people misuse substances. Alcohol and other drugs may cause more delayed or less intense feelings of pleasure. Often, people misuse multiple substances alongside methamphetamine to ensure quick euphoria while still gaining the desired effects of other drugs. The brain's reward centers react more strongly to methamphetamine because it chemically resembles neurotransmitters like dopamine. Other substances have different chemical structures and may not release the same high levels of dopamine. Each substance has a different cycle of pleasure and comedown.

Immediate or delayed pleasure and euphoria often cause the following:

  • Behavioral issues, including uncharacteristic aggression and irritation
  • Mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression
  • Risk-taking and impulsive behaviors, including unsafe sex or unwise financial decisions

In some cases, addictive substances like methamphetamine cause people to experience anhedonia or a lack of pleasure from everyday activities. According to the Journal of Addiction Medicine, "[C]ontemporary descriptions of addiction posit that drugs 'hijack' brain reward systems and make it 'hard to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.'" Every substance causes different reactions, side effects, and mental health symptoms.

Societal and Psychological Factors

Popular media glamorizes methamphetamine misuse. The drug culture in America has grown significantly in the last few decades. Many people diagnosed with SUD live in homes or environments where they are exposed to media representations of addiction and multigenerational substance abuse, normalizing the behavior.

People raised in homes with substance abuse are more likely to develop SUD or co-occurring mental health disorders. Some other common risk factors for developing SUD involving methamphetamine include:

  • Peer pressure
  • Self-medicating untreated trauma or other underlying conditions
  • Living in an area with high instances of substance misuse
  • Exposure to substance misuse at home, work, or school

Some individuals use methamphetamines to increase their performance at work or school. The allure of being able to more easily meet personal and professional goals using the effects of drugs causes many people to become dependent. Methamphetamine is highly addictive, and most people cannot stop using it once they become dependent.

A few other reasons people misuse methamphetamines include:

  • Sexual pleasure
  • A desire to escape everyday life
  • Boredom
  • Emotional distress
  • Untreated symptoms of mental health disorders
  • Chronic stress
  • Pressure to meet unrealistic expectations at home, work, or school

Some people also misuse methamphetamine to lose weight. The drug inhibits appetite and increases body temperature, causing hyperthermia. Certain adipose, or fat, tissue is killed by the effects of hyperthermia. According to the World Journal of Plastic Surgery, "[A] single dose of METH can significantly influence basic homeostatic systems and protective functions." In addition, studies "showed degenerative changes in adipose tissue following METH use together with inflammation, and necrosis."

Often, people have multiple motivations for misusing substances. For example, someone may want to self-medicate to address untreated symptoms of trauma while giving in to peer pressure. Social acceptance of drug abuse and a lack of community education on the dangers of substance misuse increases the risk of SUD.

Co-Occurring Methamphetamine and Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol misuse is prevalent in America. Television shows, social media posts, and peer groups glamorize binge drinking and overdrinking. Studies have shown that "[d]rinking cultures can develop among heavy drinkers at a bar or a college fraternity or sorority house that works to encourage new people to use, supports high levels of continued or binge use, reinforces denial, and develops rituals and customary behaviors surrounding drinking." Many people who misuse methamphetamine have co-occurring alcohol use disorder (AUD). Co-occurring alcohol and methamphetamine misuse has increased since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The combination causes more extreme changes to the brain and other body systems.

Some people with undiagnosed AUD don't realize their drinking habits are dangerous to their health. According to the CDC, "[A]dults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed." Women process alcohol differently than men; it takes less alcohol to cause a severe reaction when taken with methamphetamine.

The Toll of Meth Addiction: Beyond the Brain

Methamphetamine abuse takes a severe toll on the entire body. The effects on the brain and other systems can lead to severe illness, injury, or death. Most people misuse the drug to find relief from physical or emotional distress. However, the chronic abuse of methamphetamine causes severe health issues that often compound underlying problems.

Some common physical health consequences of misusing the drug include:

  • Dental decay
  • Skin lesions and infections
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of seizures and stroke
  • Weakened immune system

Anyone who lives in a space where methamphetamine is produced or participates in the creation of the drug has an increased risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals, including solvents, metals, and strong acids. The health side effects are cumulative. Early intervention and professional treatment provide the best outcomes for individuals with SUD.

During treatment, many people must find ways to replace old behaviors, friend groups, and sometimes even their living environment to support long-term sobriety. Pathways Recovery Center provides clients with a safe sober living community where they can heal with peers who share similar life experiences.

The Social Consequences of Methamphetamine Misuse

Drug abuse is an epidemic in America, and millions of people begin misusing substances every year. Early treatment is the best way to reduce the societal impact of SUD. However, most people never receive the treatment they need. Pathways Recovery Center works with families and communities in California to help people access resources and treatment. Recovery programs reduce the social expense of substance abuse.

Some of the societal consequences of continued drug abuse include:

  • Increased unemployment
  • Broken families
  • Greater reliance on child support services
  • Increased reliance on federally funded mental health and addiction recovery programs
  • Significant increase in accidental deaths
  • Increased homelessness

In addition to affecting communities around the country, SUD also impacts personal relationships. Everyone in a family unit is affected by substance misuse. In addition, family members have a higher risk of developing SUD and mental health issues if a loved one experiences addiction.

Breaking Free: The Challenge and Hope of Recovery

The effect of methamphetamine on the brain makes it challenging to overcome the cycle of addiction without the support of a professional recovery program. According to JAMA Psychiatry, "Chronic methamphetamine users show aberrant patterns of brain connectivity and function . . . when engaged in cognitive tasks and at rest." The cycle of addiction is difficult to overcome due to alterations in brain structure affecting behavior and thought processes. However, recovery treatment programs help clients successfully recover from the physical and psychological damage caused by addiction.

Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based treatments, including psychotherapy and peer support. Individuals and families struggling with the cycle of methamphetamine abuse can rely on their care team and peers within the recovery community to help them heal and recover.

Taking Advantage of the Thriving Sober Community at Pathways Recovery Center

Peer support is an essential part of long-term sobriety. People feel more self-confident and hold themselves accountable for their actions more consistently if they become an active part of a sober community. Pathways Recovery Center encourages clients and their families to engage in community groups. Alumni have access to local sober events and activities. Being around others with shared life experiences inspires positive changes and helps families feel more hopeful about the future.

California has a vibrant sober community where locals and visitors come together and make positive memories. People share their stories and successes with others who want to live sober lives. The community at Pathways Recovery Center creates a safe space where individuals heal together. According to SAMHSA, "Having relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope" reduces the risk of relapse and increases the effectiveness of treatment. The clinical team offers compassionate treatment, guidance, and resources to individuals and families affected by methamphetamine misuse.

Methamphetamine misuse affects millions of people in America every year. Thousands of individuals have died in the last decade from accidental methamphetamine overdose or health complications caused by methamphetamine addiction. The drug affects the reward center of the brain and the central nervous system, making it highly addictive and dangerous. Even a single instance of methamphetamine misuse can lead to dependency, accidental injury, or death. Often, people who misuse methamphetamine also misuse alcohol or other drugs. Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based methods to treat substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorders. Treatment programs address all active and underlying issues. To learn more about our services, call us today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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