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The Impact of Addiction on Vital Body Organs

Addiction affects much more than just the social and mental well-being of the user. Spanning from immediate effects to enduring consequences, the impacts of addiction on the organs of the body are extensive and significant. Understanding these repercussions is crucial for raising awareness and fostering healthier decision-making.

According to Libre Texts (Biology), there are five organs in the human body considered vital for survival. They are the brain, heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. The severe physical consequences of drug and alcohol abuse can affect these organs.

The repercussions of addiction on the body can be devastating. Drugs and alcohol have the potential to alter brain function, resulting in neurological and cognitive impairments. Moreover, they can damage the other vital organs and associated body systems resulting a diseases, poor quality of life, and in more severe cases, death. 

Impact of Addiction

How does Addiction Affect the Brain?

As the epicenter of all human activity, the brain governs both voluntary and involuntary actions, regulating essential bodily functions and facilitating communication. Unsurprisingly, substances such as alcohol and drugs exert a transformative influence on the brain. They often tend to affect areas important for basic and life-sustaining actions like

  • The brain stem is responsible for controlling heart rate, sleep, and breathing – fundamental functions essential for life.
  • The cerebral cortex which controls our senses, thinking processes, and decision-making abilities, becomes a focal point of change under the influence of drugs and alcohol. 
  • The limbic system, which induces pleasurable feelings, becomes a driving force behind repeated substance abuse behaviors as individuals seek to replicate the pleasure experienced.

In a healthy brain, communication among neurons and brain circuits functions seamlessly. However, the introduction of substances like drugs and alcohol disrupts this process, negatively impacting normally healthy neural networks. In response to these changes, the brain initiates compensation mechanisms, leading to cognitive impairment.

Although alcohol can cause intoxication, it also increases the risk of experiencing blackouts, as proven by the 2003 study ‘Fragmentary and en bloc blackouts: similarity and distinction among episodes of alcohol-induced memory loss’ by Hartzler B. and Fromme K. 2003. 

Alcohol abuse has also been linked to brain shrinkage by Eckardt et al, in their 1998 study titled ‘Effects of moderate alcohol consumption on the central nervous system.’  Brain shrinkage is a common sign of brain damage.

An additional challenge arises in the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for experiencing pleasure. In a normally functioning brain, dopamine levels are maintained through various activities like enjoying a good meal, spending time with loved ones, or engaging in intimate relationships. 

However, alcohol and most especially addictive drugs disrupt this equilibrium. This results in an artificial surge in dopamine levels. The brain adapts to this new normal, and when an individual attempts to quit the drug, dopamine levels plummet. This results in adverse effects such as poor moods, depression, and other negative symptoms.

Impact of Addiction

How does Addiction Affect the Heart?

The heart, a vital organ at the core of the circulatory system, is profoundly affected by addiction, particularly in the context of alcohol and drug abuse. Alcohol consumption, when excessive and chronic, poses a significant threat to the heart’s well-being. Over time, heavy drinking weakens the heart, disrupting the efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients to essential organs. ‘The Effects of Alcoholism on Skeletal and Cardiac Muscle’ an article by Urbano-Marquez et al in 1989 shows that the elevated triglyceride levels associated with excessive alcohol intake, are linked to developing cardiomyopathies. 

Alcohol has been linked to hypertension, arrhythmias, and arteriosclerosis. In cases of chronic alcohol addiction, alcohol has been linked to heart failure. Djoussé L., and Gaziano, J. M. in their study ‘Alcohol consumption and heart failure: a systematic review’ showed that individuals with excessive alcohol intake were prone to heart failure.

The cardiovascular impact of substance abuse extends beyond alcohol, encompassing various drugs that can adversely affect the heart’s function. Substances like marijuana, heroin, cocaine, prescription stimulants, synthetic cannabinoids, and methamphetamine can lead to irregular heart rates and, in severe cases, trigger heart attacks. Injection of drugs introduces additional risks, including collapsed veins and bacterial infections like infective endocarditis.

Early signs of heart problems may manifest in substance abusers, including rapid changes in body temperature, fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure, stomach pain, and chronic headaches. The heightened risk of heart attacks and strokes looms large, with cocaine, in particular, being labeled as the “perfect heart attack drug” by the American Heart Association.

How does Addiction Affect the Lungs?

The lungs are a vital organ in the human body. They help to distribute oxygen to other organs of the body. Addiction to certain substances takes a toll on the lungs and airways and manifests in a range of detrimental effects. The inhalation of drugs like tobacco, marijuana, or methamphetamine can lead to various respiratory complications. 

An article titled ‘Lung and heart pathology in fatal drug addiction. A consecutive autopsy study’ by Birgitte K  and Per C in 1987 showed links between chronic drug abuse and chronic coughing and wheezing, an elevated risk of respiratory infections, reduced lung function and capacity, and the development of chronic conditions such as bronchitis or emphysema.

Different substances target the respiratory system in distinct ways:

  • Tobacco: Chronic coughing and wheezing; increased risk of respiratory infections.
  • Marijuana: Irritation of the airways; symptoms akin to chronic bronchitis.
  • Inhalants: Chemical damage to the lungs; heightened risk of pneumonia.
  • Opioids: Depressed respiration; increased susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Chronic drug use contributes to a spectrum of breathing problems. Drugs such as cocaine, heroin, inhalants, prescription opioids, and cannabis (marijuana) can impact respiratory health, leading to conditions like emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and respiratory failure.

Substance abuse-induced respiratory illnesses can range from reversible to potentially fatal. Conditions like asthma may see improvement if drug use ceases, while others, such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), necessitate treatment and carry the risk of becoming fatal.

Opiate drugs like heroin and OxyContin limit oxygen entering the brain. This can potentially result in a coma or permanent brain damage. Schiller EY, Goyal A, and Mechanic OJ in their 2023 article Opioid Overdose, noted, that the majority of opiate overdoses are attributed to respiratory depression

How does Addiction Affect the Liver?

The liver, a vital organ nestled in the upper right side of the abdomen, plays a pivotal role in numerous bodily functions. Weighing about three pounds, the liver is responsible for several tasks, including aiding in the digestion of dietary fat, purifying the blood by transforming harmful chemicals into safe ones, removing toxins from the bloodstream, producing albumin for blood transport, and generating proteins essential for proper blood clotting.

However, the use of drugs and alcohol can inflict substantial damage on the liver, leading to severe consequences over time. Chronic and excessive use of substances may result in irreversible liver damage. Various drugs, including alcohol, heroin, DXM cough syrup, anabolic steroids, and inhalant drugs, can impact the liver adversely.

David S and Hamilton JP., in their 2010 article ‘Drug-induced Liver Injury” explains that drug-induced liver disease can manifest in several ways and can be caused by any class of drugs. Hence, chronic abuse of addictive drugs increases the possibility of developing these diseases. Examples of drug-induced liver diseases encompass hepatitis, cirrhosis, necrosis, steatosis, cholestasis, fulminant hepatitis, and blood clots within liver veins.

Individuals who chronically abuse alcohol are also at risk of developing liver disease. Liver cirrhosis is among the most common alcohol-induced liver disease. Continued alcohol use in the presence of liver disease can escalate to liver failure, a life-threatening condition.

How Does Addiction Affect the Kidneys?

The kidneys, critical organs responsible for filtering blood and producing urine, face significant threats from drug abuse. Toxic substances present in drugs pass through the kidneys, causing scarring and damage. Prolonged drug abuse can result in the loss of vital kidney functions and, ultimately, kidney failure.

Drug abuse has been linked to proteinuria, bacterial endocarditis with hematuria, azotemia, and focal or diffuse glomerulonephritis and the nephrotic syndrome as discussed by Olivero J et al in their 1976 article ‘Renal complications of drug addiction.’

Chronic alcohol abuse also takes its toll on the kidneys.  Das Kumar, S., Vasudevan, D.M. published an article titled ‘Alcohol-induced effects on kidney’ in 2008. Their article pointed out that chronic alcohol intake reduces renal tubular reabsorption and in turn decreases renal function. Ethanol the by-product of alcohol breakdown also induces changes in membrane composition and lipid peroxidation of the kidneys resulting in functional abnormalities within the renal tubules.

Additional Questions

What organ is the most affected by addiction?

The organ most affected by addiction depends on the substance being abused. For example, the liver is particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and certain drugs, while the respiratory system, including the lungs, can be significantly impacted by substances like tobacco and methamphetamine.

Can you reverse organ damage after recovery from addiction?

The potential for reversing organ damage after recovery from addiction depends on factors such as the extent and nature of the damage, the duration of substance abuse, and individual health conditions. While abstinence and medical care can contribute to partial or full recovery in some cases, not all damage is reversible, especially in advanced stages of organ disease. Early intervention and sustained recovery efforts enhance the chances of improved organ health.

Can Substance Abuse Impact Your Immune System?   

Yes, substance abuse can impact the immune system. Prolonged and chronic substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol, can suppress the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Alcohol, for example, impairs the immune system’s ability to defend against pathogens, and certain drugs may have immunosuppressive effects. 

How are neurotransmitters related to addiction?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for transmitting signals between neurons. When someone develops an addiction, neurotransmitters are greatly affected. In the case of drug addiction, drugs directly interfere with the normal functioning of neurotransmitters, causing an increase in the release of dopamine, which creates a sense of pleasure and reward. 

This creates a cycle of seeking out the substance to achieve the same pleasurable feeling, leading to addiction. Additionally, the chronic use of drugs or alcohol can cause changes in the brain’s wiring, leading to a decrease in the production of neurotransmitters. 

This can result in impaired brain function and, in the long term, damage to vital body organs. To learn more about the effects of addiction on the brain’s neurotransmitters, click here.

How does addiction affect the body and the brain?

Addiction can have devastating effects on vital body organs. Substance abuse can damage the heart, liver, and other organs, leading to serious health issues such as heart disease, liver failure, and even death. It can also cause changes in brain structure and function, making it difficult for individuals to control their impulses and make rational decisions. The continuous use of drugs can alter the way the brain responds to pleasure, leading to increased tolerance and dependence. 

This can also result in changes to brain chemistry, affecting an individual’s mood, memory, and behavior. Therefore, addiction not only harms the body but also has a significant impact on brain function and overall health. To learn more about the effects of addiction on the body, see here.

Get help for your Addiction

Addiction Treatment at Olympic Behavioral Health offers help and support for those struggling with addiction. Taking the first step can be difficult, but it is crucial to call for assistance. Our facility in West Palm Beach provides comprehensive addiction treatment programs to guide individuals towards recovery. If you or your loved one is battling addiction, reach out to Olympic Behavioral Health today.

Adam Siegel
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Adam is the lead addiction therapist at Olympic Behavioral Health and has been in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Adam earned his associate degree in Applied Science for Chemical Dependency Counseling from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, in 2009 and became a Certified Addiction Counselor in 2016. He is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work Program at Florida Atlantic University to obtain his MSW. Adam is also in long term sobriety which allows him to relate with patients on a deeper level.

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