Substance Abuse

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

What is it that causes human beings to seek out drugs to alter their reality? It seems to be a pattern that is found across the board throughout history, and in every strata of society. While drug and alcohol use is a commonly found habit, it becomes a huge societal problem when use morphs into abuse and ravages individuals, families, and communities. In these modern times, the use of drugs is pushed by the pharmaceutical industry and the media to the point where it seems more normal to pop a pill or take a drink than to abstain. This is a complex issue that deserves greater understanding.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse, also known as chemical dependency, involves the use of mind-altering chemicals in a repetitive, chronic manner that may result in physical, emotional, or psychological dependence on the drugs. Addiction may occur with either legal drugs, such as alcohol or prescription medications, or a variety of illegal street drugs, or a combination both. Not everyone who uses drugs becomes dependent on them, but a substance abuser may develop cravings and compulsions to repeat the drug high, often needing greater and greater doses to feed the addiction. Dependent users will also experience various degrees of withdrawal symptoms if the drug use is suddenly stopped. Eventually, the desire to use his drug of choice will be greater than fear of loss for the addict, and many life-controlling problems can result. The cycle of addiction can be broken, and there are many success stories of those who have found freedom. However, it is not an easy process, and many drug abusers will relapse multiple times before becoming permanently drug-free. Some never make it, and the drugs will eventually take their lives.

Drug and alcohol abuse is a devastating public health problem in this country. It contributes to a number of socioeconomic problems including crime, homelessness, under or unemployment, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) including HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancies, and school dropout rates. The cost for health care related to drug and alcohol abuse in the United States is enormous. Some estimates have linked up to 20% of total health care expenditures to chemical abuse. It also takes its toll on suicide rates and accidental deaths and injuries. Consider the fact that approximately 50% of all traffic accident fatalities are alcohol related.

What Types of Substances Are Abused?

There are a wide variety of drugs that can be and are abused. They fall into several general classes of drugs:

  • Alcohol: Alcohol is a depressant. Alcoholic beverages constitute the most popularly abused drug in the world. Beer, wine, and hard liquor are not only legal and readily available, but they are also socially acceptable, which makes it very difficult for the recovering alcoholic. Alcohol abusers are confronted with bars and liquor stores on seemingly every corner, as well as enticing messages about alcohol use in the media. These factors combine to make alcohol a huge problem, and the peer pressure to drink is huge, especially for young people.
  • Central nervous system depressants:  Aside from alcohol, common depressants include barbiturates (such as Seconal and Phenobarbital) and tranquilizers (such as Xanax, Valium, and Librium).
  • Central nervous stimulants:  These include amphetamines (such as diet pills), cocaine, and Ritalin (a pharmaceutical commonly prescribed to “hyperactive” children diagnosed with ADHD — Some drugs are abused with the support of physicians!).
  • Cannaboid compounds:  These are derived from the hemp plant, and include marijuana and hashish.
  • Opiates:  These types of drugs are narcotics that are typically prescribed as painkillers. Common ones that are abused include heroin, morphine, Oxycontin, and codeine.
  • Hallucinogens:  This class includes LSD, PCP, and ketamine (with a street name of special K).
  • Inhalants:  Substances such as glue, correction fluid, solvents, and paint are all considered inhalants.
  • Designer drugs:  These are sometimes called club drugs, and the most well known one is ecstasy. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse?

While many indicators of substance abuse are dependant on the type of drug being abused, there are some general signs that are associated with any kind of substance addiction. These include:

  • Breaking the law or social norms in order to get or use the drug. Examples include stealing, lying, or driving under the influence.
  • Placing relationships, careers, and finances in peril due to addictive behaviors.
  • Placing yourself in danger in order to secure your supply of drugs. An example would be going into an unsafe neighborhood in order to purchase drugs.
  • Feeling that you can’t face the problems in your life without the drugs.
  • Using the drug as an “eye-opener” first thing upon arising.
  • Increasing need for the drug on a daily basis, sometimes using it multiple times throughout the day.
  • Failing at repeated attempts to control or eliminate the use of the drug.

Here are some more specific symptoms that could indicate addiction to different types of drugs:

  • Depressants (including alcohol):  Slowed or slurred speech, ungainly physical movements, disorientation, memory loss, decreased blood pressure, decreased respiration, and constricted (smaller than normal) pupils. Depressants often act as stimulants when the drug first enters the blood stream, and then begin to act as depressants. This is what explains the outgoing behaviors of someone under the influence of alcohol, for example.
  • Stimulants:  Paranoia, increased heart rate / blood pressure / temperature, dilated (larger than normal) pupils, decreased appetite, weight loss, irritability, mood swings, rapid speech, restlessness, and insomnia.
  • Canaboids:  Red eyes, dilated pupils, paranoia, increased appetite, heightened sensory perceptions, and loss of concentration.
  • Opiates:  Numbness, sedation, confusion, decreased respirations, constipation, and depression.
  • Hallucinogens:  Visual and auditory hallucinations, perverted sensual perceptions (such as “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors), increased blood pressure / heart rate, tremors, aggressive behavior, paranoia, and “flashbacks” (hallucinations, sometimes years after use of the drug). Permament cognitive disturbances and memory loss are also a possible side effect of hallucinogens.
  • Inhalants:  The use of inhalants is very dangerous and can easily be fatal. Some common effects include brain damage, seizures, and liver / kidney damage.
  • Designer drugs:  Typically a combination of stimulant and hallucinogenic symptoms. Ecstasy is a particularly dangerous drug that is mistakenly thought to be mild and relatively harmless to many users. In reality, it can cause long-term effects such as memory loss, and toxic damage to the liver and kidneys.

What Are the Causes of Substance Abuse?

This is a complex question that encompasses physical, psychological, genetic, and social aspects. The exact reason why some drug users do not lose control and cross the line into addiction is not known for sure, but there are certain risk factors that have been identified:

  • Family history:  If there is a pattern of drug or alcohol addiction that runs in your family, you have a greater chance of struggling with it yourself. It is thought that this increased risk is due to a combination of genetic factors and other risk factors such as peer pressure, family values, and contributing issues like a family history of personality disorders or other psychological conditions (see below). With alcohol, for example, the highest number of problem drinkers come from alcoholic homes. Interestingly enough, statistics also tell us that the second highest number of alcoholics come from homes where there is total abstinence from alcohol.
  • Personality and mood disorders:  Individuals who suffer from certain conditions such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD are at a greater risk for drug abuse than the general population. It is thought that many of these folks use drugs or alcohol in a conscious or unconscious effort to self-medicate.
  • Social factors:  Isolation and drug abuse often go together, so folks who tend to be loners are often at a greater risk for addiction. Ironically, many times drug use will be started as a “social behavior,” but once it advances to the addictive stages, most abusers withdraw from others as a consequence of their dependency. Peer pressure is also a major social factor that leads many youngsters and adults into drug use and possible abuse.
  • Type of drug:  Certain drugs are more highly addictive, in the physical sense, than others. These drugs, which include heroin and cocaine, are more difficult for the user to control, and have a much greater chance of leading them into the nightmare of addiction. When it comes to physical addiction, researchers do not fully understand it yet, but it is known that drugs alter the neurological functioning’s of the body. Pathways in the brain are changed by chronic drug use so that they cannot function “normally” without the presence of the addictive chemical. This is why there are physical symptoms upon withdrawal from the drug.

How Can Substance Abuse be Prevented or Treated?

The best preventative measure is abstinence from the use of any mind-altering chemicals. The consumption of any of these drugs is poisonous to the body, and they are certainly not necessary. If you are struggling with handling stress or other issues such as lonliness or fear, there are other methods of overcoming these problems that are much safer and beneficial than drugs. The most obvious one is exercise. The physical and the emotional payoffs for regular exercise are enormous. In fact, physical activity actually releases some of the same chemicals that drugs stimulate in your endocrine and neurological systems.

Another positive choice that can help prevent drug use is socialization and communication. Don’t isolate from others, either in a physical way or behind walls of incommunication.  A balanced life of friendships and meaningful relationships goes a long ways toward eliminating the temptation to numb out with drugs.

If you are already an addict, and seeking to get free, opening up to others is even more important. There are many self-help groups available where recovering abusers seek to help others and maintain their own sobriety by sharing and caring transparently. There is strength in numbers.

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is a vicious cycle that does untold damage to the abuser and his family, and getting free from it is no easy task. But, if you or someone close to you is caught in the trap of drugs, do not give up hope. There is a lot of help available, and the rewards of freedom are priceless.

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