Drug and alcohol addiction is a serious problem facing millions of Americans. In 2010, an estimated 22.6 million Americans reported using an illegal drug or prescription medication in the last month, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. While alcohol is not illegal, 17.9 million Americans report struggling with alcoholism or alcohol abuse. Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, prescription drugs and alcohol are the top five most addictive and self-destructive drugs.
Dependency and Withdrawal: The reason drugs are addictive
Drugs create addiction by stimulating the brain’s production of feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine or endorphins. With repeated use, the brain adjusts to these higher levels of chemicals and is unable to feel happy or even normal without the drug. Addicts develop physical and psychological dependency, experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms without the drug. Depending on the extent and frequency of abuse, some withdrawal symptoms may even be life threatening.
An individual who is addicted to drugs cannot simply will himself to quit. The psychological and physical dependency created by drugs – in addition to the painful withdrawal symptoms – makes quitting without rehab next to impossible. Addicts continue to use even though they know that continued drug use is putting their health and safety at risk. Without rehabilitation treatment, a drug addict will continue to be caught in a cycle of drug abuse.
The #1 most addictive and self-destructive drug: Heroin
Heroin is an illegal opiate street drug that is very similar to morphine. It is typically injected into the veins for a quick rush followed by extended feelings of euphoria. Like methamphetamine abuse, prolonged use of heroin prevents abusers from experiencing natural feelings of happiness.
Heroin users may experience cycles of hyperactivity followed by disorientation and drowsiness (called “going on the nod”), erratic behavior, shortness of breath, and dry mouth. Chronic users also suffer from a compulsive need to scratch or pick at their skin (called “itchy blood”). While users may initially turn to heroin as a way to block emotional pain, over time, addicts become unable to experience any emotions other than heroin’s artificial high.
Why is heroin addictive? Injecting heroin causes an intense euphoric rush. The drug surges to the brain, where it is converted to morphine and activates the brain’s opioid receptors. Opioid receptors are responsible for regulating feelings of punishment and reward. The constant activation of these receptors causes the brain to stop producing its own opioid activators. Consequently, users become chemically dependent on heroin for pleasure sensations.
Over time, addicts rely on heroin not only for pleasure, but also to prevent intense withdrawal symptoms. Heroin withdrawal causes nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, muscle and stomach cramps, panic attacks, loss of appetite, tremors and shaking, confusion and insomnia. Some common symptoms of Heroin are:
- Needles or syringes that are not for medical purposes
- Silver spoons, aluminum foil or gum wrappers with burn marks
- Missing shoelaces (used to tie off veins for injection)
- Lying or deceptive behavior, including stealing money from loved ones or the unexplained disappearance of valuables
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Lack of personal hygiene
- Wearing long sleeves in hot weather to hide track marks
- Slurred, garbled or incoherent speech
- Sudden change in performance at work or school
- Loss of motivation or interest in future goals
The #2 most addictive and self-destructive drug: Cocaine
Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant that is commonly snorted. It may also be smoked as crack cocaine. When snorted, cocaine is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Smoking crack cocaine brings the drug’s vapor directly into the lungs, where it enters the bloodstream. This produces a faster, more intense high than snorting. Both methods increase energy, speed the heart rate, reduce mental fatigue, and enhance mental alertness.
Regularly snorting cocaine leads to the loss of smell, constant nosebleeds, difficulty swallowing, and a chronic runny nose. Smoking crack cocaine damages the lungs, leading to emphysema. Cocaine abuse causes psychological problems, including anxiety, irritability and restlessness. Chronic cocaine abusers also experience full-blown episodes of paranoia, including auditory hallucinations.
Many users combine alcohol and cocaine while partying for a more intense high. When alcohol and cocaine are combined in the human liver, the substance cocaethylene is produced, which intensifies the high. Cocaethylene also compounds the addictive properties of cocaine and increases the risk for severe side effects, including death.
Why is cocaine addictive? By stimulating the central nervous system, cocaine increases levels of the brain chemical dopamine. Under normal circumstances, the cells release dopamine in response to a pleasure signal. With cocaine, the brain is flooded with dopamine, causing euphoric feelings. With repeated exposure, the brain becomes conditioned to this flood of dopamine, so the user does not experience the same euphoric high. However, addicts continue to crave this high, using greater quantities of cocaine in an effort to obtain it. This creates psychological and physical dependency. Some of the common symptoms and signs of cocaine addiction are:
- White powder residue on mirrors, CD cases or glass
- Rolled up dollar bills, cut straws or tiny spoons for snorting
- Paranoia, anxiety, irritability and violent mood swings
- Change in eating and sleeping habits; unexplained weight loss
- Nasal passage disintegration, loss of smell, chronic headaches and nausea (if snorted)
- Chronically runny nose
- Chronic hoarseness
- Respiratory disorders, including fluid in the lungs and asthma (if smoked)
- Heart and nervous system problems
The #3 most addictive and self-destructive drug: Methamphetamines
Methamphetamines (also known as “meth” or “crystal”) are synthetic stimulants. Meth can be snorted, smoked, injected or ingested. Chronic meth abuse changes how the brain functions, which reduces motor skills, impairs verbal learning, and alters the brain’s ability to experience pleasure.
Like cocaine, meth speeds up the central nervous system, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate. Users experience intense sensations of euphoria, increased alertness and outbursts of energy. The side effects caused by withdrawal are just as intense; users suffer from severe depressions, irritability, paranoia and nervousness. Prolonged use leads to meth binging, violent outbursts, dramatic weight loss, decayed teeth, open sores on the face, and dramatic aging.
Why is meth addictive? Crystal meth causes a euphoric high, causing addicts to lose touch with ‘real-world’ pleasure. Meth addicts rely on the drug’s euphoria to cover up their feelings of depression, stress, anxiety, inadequacy or fear. Unfortunately for addicts, the first high is also their best high. It is an incredibly intense sensation of euphoria that is diminished with continued use. Despite this, meth addicts continue chasing this feeling of euphoria. Addicts are unable to enjoy “real-world” pleasures, depending entirely on meth for their happiness.
The meth produced today is more potent than crack cocaine, causing sleepless binges that can last up to seven days. Meth addicts need intensive treatment to help overcome their dependency on meth as well as the underlying psychological issues that contribute to their addiction. Some common symptoms of meth addiction are:
- Obsessively picking at skin, which causes pockmarks similar to severe acne and open sores
- Sensation of “skin crawling”, known as formication
- Tooth loss and decay, also known as “meth mouth”; severe dental problems
- Psychosis, including paranoia and hallucinations
- Unexplained violent outbursts and aggressive behavior
- Mood disturbances
- Severe weight loss
- Memory impairment and loss
The #4 most addictive and self-destructive drug: Prescription Drugs
Prescription drug abuse affects more than 7 million Americans, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. A doctor may initially prescribe a prescription painkiller for a patient, and then the patient develops a psychological and physical dependency. Other users may begin abusing prescription drugs to get high while partying because they mistakenly believe these drugs are safe for recreational use.
In reality, prescription drugs are just as dangerous and harmful as street drugs like crack and heroin. In fact, more than 120,000 Americans end up in the emergency room each year from prescription drug overdoses, according to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians. More Americans die each year from prescription drug overdoses than from cocaine or heroin.
Why are prescription drugs addictive? Prescription drugs affect the brain in different ways. For example, opioid prescription drugs (e.g. OxyContin) change the way that the nervous system responds to pain. Stimulants increase alertness and energy levels (e.g. Ritalin). Depressants (e.g. Valium) slow down the central nervous system and the brain’s ability to function.
Like illegal drugs, prescription drugs are habit forming and highly addictive. This is especially true for opiate-based prescription drugs, such as OxyContin (oxycodone). Opiate medications block the transmission and reception of pain signals. Their effects are similar to heroin and morphine use. Like heroin withdrawal, the withdrawal process from opiate prescription drugs is marked by chills and sweating, fevers, shakes, vomiting, bone pain and depression. Withdrawal symptoms from stimulants like Ritalin include extreme fatigue and depression. Individuals who are addicted to prescription painkillers not only face a physical and psychological dependency, but they also struggle to quit because of these difficult withdrawal symptoms.
What are the symptoms of prescription drug addiction? Since prescription drugs are legal, addicts become experts at hiding their addiction from the world while still obtaining their drug of choice with minimal difficulty. Many addicts will “doctor shop” in order to collect as many prescriptions as possible from different doctors. Some addicts resort to other unethical behaviors, including stealing, in order to obtain their drug of choice. The most common signs and symptoms of prescription drug addiction are:
- Frequent requests for physician refills
- “Losing” prescriptions and requesting replacements
- Borrowing medication from friends and family
- Breaking or crushing pills
- Doctor shopping
- Ordering medications online
- Inconsistent answers to questions about prescription drug usage
- Unexplained mood swings and increased irritability
- Change in sleeping behavior
- Unexplained weight loss
The #5 most addictive and self-destructive drug: Alcohol
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant commonly consumed in the form of beer, wine or liquor. Even in small doses, alcohol affects reaction time and decision making skills, causing individuals to lose their inhibitions. Excessive use causes intoxication, which is characterized by slurred speech, stumbling, lack of judgment and a loss of coordination. It only takes one drink to impair an individual’s ability to operate a motor vehicle.
An alcoholic may initially begin drinking to fit in or feel comfortable. A shy wallflower may find himself the life of the party. Suppressed feelings of physical and emotional pain may drive an individual to continue drinking. As tolerance builds, the individual needs increasingly greater quantities of alcohol for the same feelings. This leads to increased alcohol consumption and addiction. A glass of wine at dinner or a few beers while watching the game may seem like a harmless way to be social and have fun with friends. For an alcoholic, however, it is not possible to stop after just one or two drinks. Unlike social drinkers, alcoholics depend on alcohol to function each day.
Long-term alcohol abuse causes fatty liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a brain disorder that may require permanent hospitalization.
Why is alcohol addictive? There are several reasons why alcohol is one of the most addictive substances. Alcohol consumption is associated with the release of endorphins, dopamine, glutamate and GABA, which temporarily diminish physical, mental and emotional pain. Endorphins are a type of neurotransmitter responsible for killing pain and creating feelings of well-being. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates a sense of satisfaction. The release of glutamate and GABA is associated with the loss of inhibitions. This causes people to do or say things they would not normally do, including engaging in risky behavior.
New brain imaging research shows that heavy drinkers produce more endorphins in response to alcohol consumption than light drinkers. This evidence shows one way that heavy alcohol use can change the brain and make alcohol so addictive. Since heavy alcohol users experience greater pleasure from drinking than casual users’ experience, it is even more difficult for the heavy users to quit. The most common signs of alcohol addiction are:
- Inability to stop drinking or control consumption
- Dangerous or risky behaviors, including unsafe sex and drug use
- Periods of insomnia followed by periods of oversleeping
- Lack of attention to personal or professional responsibilities
- Increasing tolerance for alcohol
- Tremors, convulsions and shaking when not drinking
- Extreme agitation and anxiety when not drinking
- Broken promises to quit or cut back on drinking
- Repeatedly drinking until blacking out or losing consciousness
Seeking Help for a Drug or Alcohol Addiction
Drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs are essential to helping addicts break their physical and psychological cycle of dependency. While individuals who are addicted to drugs and alcohol may wish to quit, they cannot overcome their addiction on their own. They need the support of a rehab program to successfully detox, manage withdrawal symptoms and prepare to live a sober life.
Why is rehab and detoxification important? Heroin, cocaine, meth, prescription drugs, and alcohol are the five most addictive substances. Detoxing from these substances can also produce severe side effects. For example, heroin’s intense withdrawal symptoms may even lead to death. Detoxing by going “cold turkey” at home is not recommended. Detoxification programs help manage withdrawal symptoms, which increase the success rate for detox.
An effective treatment program will incorporate medically supervised detox with cognitive and behavioral therapy. For example, meth addicts need help re-learning real-world pleasures because their meth abuse has made it impossible for them to experience happiness without a drug.
Additionally, addicts will benefit from programs that develop coping skills and teach drug refusal methods. For example, since alcohol is legal, learning how to manage alcoholism requires strong coping and refusal mechanisms. Alcoholics may have friends, family and coworkers who drink; learning how to say no in the face of peer pressure and resist falling back into old habits is essential.
In-patient treatment centers offer medically supervised detoxification, rehabilitation, and cognitive and behavioral therapy. Therapy helps addicts understand the emotional and psychological reasons for their abuse. Addressing the underlying reasons, such as anxiety, depression, neglect or abuse, helps to reduce relapse. Group therapy provides a supportive environment for addicts to discuss the challenges they face during recovery.
Recovery does not happen overnight. Without a strong set of coping and drug refusal skills, the risk for relapse is high. This is why in-patient treatment programs are so important.
How can I get help? If you are struggling with a drug or alcohol addition, it is important that you take steps to seek treatment. The earlier that you seek treatment, the more that a drug counselor and rehabilitation program can do to help lessen the serious physical and psychological damage that drug abuse can cause on the body and brain.
It is never too late, however, to seek help. Even if you have tried to quit in the past and relapsed, rehab programs can still help. You may need a longer stay in a residential facility or ongoing outpatient care to successfully break the cycle of addiction.
Sobriety is an on-going process that must be taken day by day. Living a sober lifestyle is possible; do not give up hope.