Anyone who has been exposed to the photos provided by the “Faces of Meth” campaign is acutely aware of the outward symptoms of addiction. Skin is damaged and teeth are ruined. Eyes are bloodshot, and massive amounts of weight loss can leave a person looking like a walking skeleton. These visuals can provide a shocking glimpse of the ravaging effects of substances on the body, but the damage is actually taking place on a more minute, less visible, level. The biological processes within the brain and body of persons who are addicted to harmful substances undergo many changes, and the outward, visible, signs are only a symptom of these deeper problems.
The Body is Robbed of Vital Nutrients
A major contributor to the damage which is caused to the body as a result of substance addiction is that of nutrient deficiency. Some substances induce lack of appetite, which means that the addicted person is not taking in enough vitamins and minerals, to begin with. Other substances cause the user to experience symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, which prevent food and water from having the chance to do their work. Yet other substances prevent the body from absorbing the nutrients which are introduced. The body which is under the influence of addictive substances will simply refuse to absorb valuable components, even when healthy foods are ingested and digested. Some of the major nutrients that are missed out on during substance addiction are vitamin B; iron; sodium; potassium; calcium; and chloride.
The eight vitamins within the B class – ranging in numbers from one to 12 – play a major role in the body’s ability to metabolize nutrients. These vitamins help to transform food into usable energy, and contribute to the formation of new DNA. A lack of vitamin B can result in experiences of fatigue; nerve damage; jaundice; difficulty breathing; rapid heart rate; and lack of mental clarity. These nutrients are not able to be stored for later use by the body, and so a steady stream of them – and proper ability to absorb their effects – are necessary for the body to function properly.
The symptoms of an iron deficiency are quite similar to those of a B vitamin deficiency. Iron is a mineral that is necessary for forming the parts of the red bloods cells which carry oxygen throughout the body. Substances which decrease appetite, or which cause vomiting and diarrhea, are major culprits in the lack of iron absorption, and can result in a person developing the problems associated with anemia.
Nutrients such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and chloride are collectively called electrolytes. Electrolytes play many important roles in bodily function, including regulating muscle behavior and carrying signals from one nerve cell to another. Not having a proper amount of water in the body has a major effect on the balance of electrolytes, and many addictive substances are notorious for causing dehydration. An electrolyte imbalance can lead to physical symptoms such as bone disorders; disorders of the nervous system; and convulsions or seizures.
Thinking Patterns Are Reordered
Scientists are always at odds when it comes to the nature vs. nurture debate. While the nature side of the argument points out that certain things about us are inherent and unchangeable since birth, nurture proponents emphasize the fact that how we behave, and what we are exposed to, work to create our experience of being human.
Most of us are able to discern that, when it comes to patterns of thinking, we have added quite a bit to the thinking process which we utilized as a child. Our thought patterns are able to adapt and grow as we go through life, and hopefully with the outcome of our being able to reason more effectively. While under the constant influence of an addictive substance, however, our evolution of thinking is often stunted. The concept of Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) explains this stunting of thought development from a biological perspective.
In simple terms, PDP can be compared to how a stream of water turns into a river. When the stream is small, it is easily diverted. We can change the course of this stream by kicking some dirt into the path, or through digging some gullies with a shovel. As the stream of water grows more powerful, it will begin to cut out its own pathways through the ground. Eventually, as the stream turns into a river, its course becomes set, and we can predict exactly how it will flow.
The patterns which we establish in our thinking behavior can be compared to this stream of water. Inside of our brains are neurons. These neurons make connections through synapses. Neuron communication links together like a chain, forming a stream of thought. Each time we think in a certain way, we are reinforcing the direction of those thoughts, just as though we were using a shovel to move the dirt and change the direction of a developing stream of water. Over time, the thoughts become set in a pattern, and changing the river-like course of their content can become difficult. The established, biological, channels of mental processing can make changing our addictive responses and behaviors quite a challenge.
Emotional Transmitters Become Lazy
In kind with the concept of neuronal communication affecting our thinking patterns is the physical effect on our emotions. Our brains are designed to produce a natural punishment and reward system, through releasing certain chemicals under specific circumstances. Addictive substances are designed to bind the neurons which regulate pleasure, and to artificially invoke the chemicals which result in our feeling euphoric. Over time, these regulating neurons realize that they don’t have to do their job of producing our emotional responses, because an outside influence is going to do it, for them. When the addictive substance is removed, the neurons don’t know what is going on, and the result is that the brain – and body – go into a panic mode. Retraining the transmission and reception process of neurons to work on their own can take years.