Drug abuse can have a multitude of negative health effects on the human body. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, drug abuse can be a factor in the development of a host of serious physical illnesses, including:
- Kidney damage
- The contraction of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
- Cardiovascular disease
- Lung disease
- Musculoskeletal damage
- Liver damage
- Complications in pregnancy
Substance abuse can also have a deleterious impact on the brain. However, the frequent co-appearance of addiction and another mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia, should not be taken to mean that drugs cause mental illness. As NIDA explains, there are at least three possible scenarios to explain the relationship between substance abuse and other mental health disorders. One possibility is that drug abuse can trigger the emergence of symptoms of a separate mental health disorder. Another possibility is that a mental health disorder can influence a person to self-medicate with illicit drugs. A third possibility is that the drug abuse and mental health disorder are each an expression of a traumatic personal experience, genes, or deficits in the brain. Though it may be challenging to conclusively determine if there is a causal link between substance abuse and mental illness, it is helpful to understand that one can exacerbate the other and both require treatment.
There is an abundance of research available that discusses the various negative effects that drugs can have on the brain and body. In this article, the discussion focuses on some of the more extreme examples of what can happen to the body and/or mind as a result of substance abuse. To clearly illuminate the examples provided, a specific drug is paired with a particular health outcome and a firsthand story is provided if it offers greater insight.
Heroin-Induced Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms
The story begins in 1982. George Carillo, a heroin user, admitted himself to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. His body was bent over and contorted, and he could not speak. All of his muscles appeared frozen. The hospital’s chief neurologist examined Carillo and was baffled. Carillo presented with the symptoms of a person who had Parkinson’s disease for at least a decade, but at 42 years of age, Carillo was too young for that diagnosis. As it turned out, Carillo was having a severe reaction to a very dangerous batch of synthetic heroin that had been released into the community.
The chief neurologist, with the help of colleagues and the news media, was able to locate six additional victims. Toxicology tests of the heroin revealed the presence of a chemical known as MPTP. Research showed that when the MPTP reached the brains of the people who had taken the bad heroin, it affected an area known as the substantia nigra. Similar to what Parkinson’s disease does to the substantia nigra, MPTP depleted 80 percent or more of the cells in this area. As a result, the heroin users had become frozen, or statue-like.
A follow-up in 2014 on the status of six of the MPTP victims, published by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, filled in the story. Carillo and five other of the group were sent to Lund, Sweden, for an experimental brain surgery. Although the surgery provided some relief, not all of the brain damage could be reversed. Four of this group had passed away as of the foundation’s follow-up. Medical researchers recognize the devastation MPTP caused to this group but recognize the lasting impact their experience had on research into Parkinson’s disease. Tipped off by the MPTP victims’ experience, researchers were able to use MPTP in studies to advance their understanding of the origins of Parkinson’s disease and possible treatments.
The remarkable case of the MPTP victims offers insight into the serious risks individuals who use heroin take each time they use this drug. Before heroin reaches the street, dealers can cut any number of different chemicals into it. The MPTP case only highlights this possibility. But cutting poisons into heroin is not the only risk. Consider the story behind the heroin overdose of legendary singer Janis Joplin in 1970. The heroin that Joplin consumed was in the range of 40-50 percent pure. That dose would lead to a fatality in nearly anyone. Joplin had little chance of survival and reportedly succumbed to the heroin injection almost immediately. The many dangers inherent in heroin use has led Medical Daily to ranked this drug as the fifth most-deadly in existence.
Synthetic Drugs Can Cause Cancer
Synthetic drugs have turned an already precarious drug market into a Wild West of sorts. New synthetic drugs are constantly emerging and their chemical makeup is always changing. Synthetic drugs are created from man-made chemicals in illicit drug laboratories.
Between 2009 and 2014, an estimated 200-300 new synthetic drugs were discovered in the US, most of them having been made in China. Even more drugs have infiltrated the European market. In the past decade, more than 650 kinds of synthetic drugs have been identified. The chemicals within these synthetic drugs have not all been identified. There are, therefore, no clinical trials on the effects of each of these drugs, which make them an unknown threat to the human body and mind.
Research has been conducted on at least some of the chemical compounds found in synthetic cannabinoids. Researchers found that the digestive system and respiratory organs were particularly vulnerable to damage by these chemicals. The damage also extends to the user’s DNA. Once the chromosomes within the DNA are damaged, the risk of cancer increases. Researchers were careful to note their concern that individuals who use synthetic cannabinoids have no information about its many dangers. These drugs are not likely organically occurring marijuana. Consumer confusion could prove especially dangerous. The researchers warned that there is a high risk of overdose associated with these designer drugs.
Due to the multitude of chemicals used to created synthetic drugs, it seems that science will always lag behind the reality of what designer drugs are in the street. This fact alone can be the starting point of public education. Since research already suggests that synthetic cannabinoids can lead to cancer, there is no telling what other deleterious health effects these drugs may have.
Sleep Medication and Strange Sleep Behaviors
Prescription sleep medications, such as Ambien, are known to cause abnormal behaviors, such as sleep walking, driving, and talking. The drug can also induce sleep eating, which is more dangerous than it seems at first. Individuals who take prescription sleep medications typically do not learn about their sleep behaviors until after the fact; it is generally inadvisable to wake a person from a sleep state, although it may be necessary to do so to avoid a disaster.
For those individuals who experience sleep eating, the signs include refrigerators left open, missing food, finding food in one’s bed or bedroom, an oven or stove burners left on overnight, or dramatic weight gain. These side effects can occur with regular use or abuse of prescription sleep medications. The stories of abuse, however, illuminate the many complexities and dangers inherent in taking prescription sleep medications.
Professional writer Laurie Sandell shares her story of Ambien addiction with Today Health. Sandell was an extreme insomniac, and it was interfering with every facet of her life, including her livelihood. When Sandell began to take Ambien, she immediately dove into addictive behaviors; she doctor shopped to get multiple prescriptions, combined the pills with alcohol, and took an excessive amount. As Sandell’s abuse progressed, she found herself passing out in candlelit baths, experienced extreme weight loss (she went down to 98 pounds), had panic attacks, and felt uncharacteristic social anxiety. Sandell found her way to rehab and recovered. But Sandell’s experience begs the question: Why do some prescription sleep medications cause abnormal behaviors?
Ambien, as well as the branded drugs Lunesta and Sonata, are classified as selective gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) medications. These drugs are a newer generation of sleep medications. They are considered selective because they target a particular type of GABA receptor in the brain – the one believed to promote sleep. When a person abuses a selective GABA medication, like Ambien, there is an overabundance of GABA in the brain and then a crash. Stated simply, GABA regulation is off-balance in the brain, which in turn causes partial arousal. When a person is partially aroused, they have the capacity to partially awaken but cannot achieve a fully awake state.
But Ambien and similar medications can have additional negative side effects, such as future memory loss and a potential increased risk of cancer. Research and patient reports reveal the risk of anterograde amnesia. This form of amnesia prevents a person from being able to recall future plans or events. This occurs, in part, because there are many GABA receptors in the hippocampus area in the brain. The hippocampus region is responsible for much of the processing of memory retention.
The association of Ambien with the risk of cancer stems from a research studies, such as one that reviewed 10,529 individuals who were using sleep medications (many were taking Ambien). The clinical trial compared the 10,529 sleeping pills users to 23,676 people who were free of such pills. The research study concluded that individuals who took at least 18 sleeping pills annually were 35 percent more likely to develop cancer over the duration of the trial. The way that sleep medications impact the brain and body demonstrates the need to exercise caution when using these drugs and to get help if addiction occurs.
A review of how different drugs impact the brain and body underscores that drug abuse is an inherently dangerous behavior. When discussing addiction, it seems natural to talk about all of its side effects. However, it is critical to bear in mind that the most universal side effect of drug use is addiction. Stated broadly, when a person consumes a habit-forming drug, such as a prescription opioid, the body typically develops a physical dependence over time. Provided that one is under a doctor’s care, physical dependence is an acceptable medical state. However, when individuals abuse drugs, they can slide into a psychological addiction to the drug. At this point, many negative effects can occur in the brain and the rest of the body. In addition, the individual will display addiction-related behaviors that can include stealing to pay for the drug.
Yet it is important to keep in focus that however destructive drug addiction can be, the recovery process can help to heal the damage to a person’s health and personal life. Drugs may be poisonous to individual wellbeing and overall social good, but treatment can provide the antidote that leads to lasting recovery.
 Palfreman, J. (March 20, 2014). “Author Reflects on Impact of “The Case of the Frozen Addicts” as 2nd Edition Released.” Michael J. Fox Foundation. Accessed May 15, 2016.
 Bushak, L. (October 26, 2015). “The Top 10 Deadliest Street Drugs: They’ll Destroy Your Vital Organs and Rot Your Flesh.” Medical Daily. Accessed May 15, 2016.
 “Nobody knew how bad John’s addiction was, until it was too late.” (n.d.). Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Accessed May 15, 2016.
 “Ambien Sleep Walking Turned Me into a Midnight Binge Eater.” (n.d.). Health. Accessed May 15, 2016.