The health consequences of prolonged substance use are many and vary depending on the type of substance and duration of use. Further complicating the effects of long-term substance use is the high-risk situations one engages in while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. There are many prolonged health effects of substance use disorders but the most concerning are 1. those that have a physical impact on your body, 2. have a psychological impact on your mental health and 3. a physiological impact on your brain.
Substance use disorders undoubtedly negatively affect the body and overall health. Individuals abusing substances have an increased risk for chronic infectious diseases including HIV and Hepatitis C, cardiac conditions such as cardiomyopathy and valve damage, kidney disease, gastrointestinal damage, lung and liver disease and serious risk of overdose and death. Many of these health consequences of prolonged substance use have permanent, lifelong consequences. Fortunately, other harmful consequences of continued substance use can be reversed over time with abstinence and sustained recovery. For example, abstinence can increase the brain’s ability to recover the density of dopamine transporters.
Prolonged substance use can also complicate and even contribute to psychological disorders. In fact, mental health and thought process disorders are some of the most notable complications of prolonged substance use. More specifically, continuous substance use can cause anxiety, depression, hallucinations, visualizations and psychosis to mention a few. Substance use can also aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions resulting in a worsening of symptoms of bipolar, anxiety disorders and depression.
Of equal or even greater concern are the health consequences of prolonged substance use on the brain. Continued substance use can alter the brain’s chemistry in permanent ways. Substance use acts on the brains pleasure center, or reward system, and causes the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released in large quantities. As the brain gets used to an abundance of feel-good neurotransmitters the body develops a tolerance and requires the ongoing use of substances to provide equilibrium. When an individual stops using addictive substances, and withdrawal begins, the brain struggles to find a normal balance of neurotransmitters. Additional lasting and potentially permanent brain changes can include memory loss, impaired cognitive function, difficulty processing and learning information and poor attention and concentration.
Fortunately, there is help available and with the appropriate treatment and intervention, addiction recovery is possible. Substance use disorders are complicated and require a multifaceted approach. Integrative treatment can provide a comprehensive plan for the management of the physical, psychiatric and biochemical consequences associated with prolonged substance use.
Author: Bridgette Vail – Footprints to Recovery – Executive Director
More on the Signs, Cause or Risks of Addiction