ARTICLE OVERVIEW: If you’ve used meth regularly for more than a few weeks, your brain chemistry changes. Have you wondered how to quit meth and reverse this damage? We review what causes these brain changes and how you can treat meth withdrawal here.
Table of Contents:
- Meth and the Brain
- How People Take Meth
- Short-Term Effects
- Long-Term Effects
- Tolerance and Dependence
- Withdrawal Symptoms
- Withdrawal Timeline
- How Treatment Works
- At Home Detox
- Who Needs Help
- Final Tips
- Your Questions
Meth and the Brain
Methamphetamine (commonly known as meth) is a stimulant psychoactive drug that comes in the form of a powder, pill, or glass fragments known as “crystal meth”. Meth’s main effects are comparable to amphetamine, a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). How does it work?
Just like other stimulant drugs, meth elevates the amount of natural dopamine being released in the brain. At low doses, methamphetamine both blocks the re-uptake of dopamine AND increases the release of dopamine, leading to much higher concentrations in the gap between nerve cells, which can be toxic.
Meth is very effective and can get you high for 4-8 hours, or more. But with this euphoric effect and high feelings of satisfaction and motivation…comes a darker side.
Meth also increases wakefulness and the need for physical activity. The relationship between meth and addiction is also centered in the brain: meth triggers the reward system within the user’s brain so that you feel extremely good.
How People Take Meth
People take meth a few ways. The main routes of administration include:
- Swallowing (pill)
The way that you take meth, however, can influence how addictive it is. People who inject or smoke meth are at a higher risk of addiction than those who snort or orally ingest it. Why?
The more effective the high, the likelier you are to crave and repeat the behavior.
This National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Report on Meth states that the most popular way to take meth is to smoke it. This is because smoking meth delivers the drug quickly to the brain. Snorting or oral ingestion produces a high, but not an intense rush. What are the relative onset of effects by mode of administration?
Injecting and smoking meth = Nearly instant effects.
Snorting = Effects within 3 to 5 minutes.
Oral ingestion = Effects within 15 to 20 minutes.
Upon one’s first use of meth, most effects are indistinguishable with other substances, such as cocaine and amphetamine. For example, meth causes euphoria, a sense of extreme well-being. But compared with coke and amphetamine, the high is quick, effective, and lasts for a relatively long time.
In terms of short-term physical effects, one can expect the following:
- A loss of appetite
- A large amount of energy and necessity for physical activity
- A rise in blood pressure/body temperature
- Heavy breathing
- Increased heart rate
Expect personality and behavior changes after a period of daily dosing… even when you aren’t high on meth.
The long-term effects of meth can be seen as an accumulation of toxicity in the brain. Meth can cause any or all of the following:
- Aggressive conduct
- Complications with sleep
- Extreme dental problems
- Itching sensations on the skin
- Severe weight loss
- Violent behavior
Over time, most meth users begin to lose sense of judgement and make poor decisions. When a person continuously takes meth, the chemicals restructure the brain in a way that decreases coordination and damages verbal learning. Emotions and memories can also be impaired. For example, experts have studied negative emotions such as anxiety and depression and identify them as possible triggers for compulsive intake of meth.
The risky behaviors associated with these traits are often just as destructive as the effects from the drug itself. People who inject meth put themselves at risk for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis A and B due to the sharing of needles. NIDA reports that parents who intake meth put their newborns at high risks on body abnormalities.
Much of the damage meth does on the brain can be reversed. However, there are certain areas in which the nerves can be permanently damaged. A recent study in the medical journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, has found that people who use meth are much more at risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Tolerance and Dependence
Over time, two major brain changes happen when you take meth:.
1. Tolerance. The more the brain becomes accustomed to the drug, the higher the dose required to get high. This need for more meth keeps people hooked.
2. Drug dependence. Drug dependence is the brain’s ways of adapting to the constant stimulation…it “slows down” certain processes in order to continue to function. But take away meth from someone who’s dependent on it… and a person goes through withdrawal. Because most people don’t want to go through withdrawal, dependence can keep them hooked.
Withdrawal occurs in the first 24 hours after your last dose. The main symptoms of meth withdrawal include:
- Anhedonia, an extreme dissatisfaction with life
- Craving methamphetamines
- Decreased energy
- Deep, dark depression
- Decreased sexual pleasure
- Emotional liability
- Increased sleeping
- Lack of motivation
- Paranoid ideation
- Night sweats
- Red, itchy eyes
- Resumption of eating, leading to weight gain
- Sleep difficulties
- Suicidal ideation
Detox is best managed under the careful eye of trained medical professionals, as inpatient detox can boost the chances of successful withdrawal.
Withdrawing from methamphetamine is not a pleasant process. It can bring on hallucinations and suicidal thinking. Most people are extremely tried and experience VERY STRONG CRAVINGS. This is why successful meth withdrawal requires planning. Sometimes, meth users experience withdrawal symptoms for months after they quit.
So, what happens during withdrawal?
The first phase of withdrawal is most intense and occurs during the first 24 hours after you last use meth. Withdrawal gradually gets less intense over the course of about two weeks. In fact, depressive and psychotic symptoms accompany acute withdrawal (especially if you go cold turkey off methamphetamine) but usually resolve within a week.
The second phase of withdrawal is less intense, and lasts for about another two to three weeks. Craving is also present and lasts at least 5 weeks. You can find an infographic on the duration of meth withdrawal here…but here’s a general idea of what happens.
Days 1-3 of Withdrawal
Mixed emotions and out of control behavior are most common during the initial stage of methamphetamine Expect symptoms of depression and exhaustion. Many people report suicidal thoughts during their first two days of being without meth.
The main goal of doctors and nurses at this point will be to stabilize your condition and calm you down. Doctors will also assess you for major issues related to psychosis. If you are violent, you might even get tied to your bed to make sure you don’t escape or hurt the staff at the clinic.
Days 4-7 of Withdrawal
The first week of withdrawal is critical! You’re likely to feel very inactive, tired, and sleepy. This usually peaks around the fifth day of withdrawal, when people sleep an average of 11 hours per day. This is a phenomenon known as hypersomnia.
You can also expect initial symptoms to continue, although they may become only slightly less intense at this time. Mood swings, aches and pains, intense cravings for the drug, profound hunger and agitation are common.
Days 8-14 of Withdrawal
You can expect frequent sleep irregularities, cravings and depression. Mood swings become more intense and users are constantly bothered by thoughts of reaching for meth again.
Days 15-30 of Withdrawal
This is the period during which many people begin to stabilize. However, anxiety and depression may still be an issue. During this period, you may begin to feel your energy return. Improvements in sleep, increased appetite and mood stabilization slowly begin to improve.
How Treatment Works
STEP 1: Seek medical supervision.
The first step in treating symptoms of withdrawal is to seek medical help at a local detox clinic. Everyone’s experience of meth withdrawal is different, but there are certain common features and you can potentially be dangerous to yourself or others. If symptoms feel severe, see your doctor as soon as possible, and tell him/her that you are withdrawing from meth.
STEP 2: Address withdrawal symptoms as they occur.
The second step during withdrawal is the administration of effective therapies. Staff members at detox clinics typically help monitor, supervise, and manage your withdrawal without the use of medications. Instead, most detox clinics offer supportive care in the form of talk therapy or emotional support. There is an emphasis on peer and social support, so 12 step or support group meetings may be scheduled throughout the day.
Staff will administer anti-psychotic or antidepressant medications in accordance with physician orders. Furthermore, nursing care and daily physician care is available for severe, unstable problems.
STEP 3: Continue treatment in a residential treatment center.
Most people, especially those addicted to meth for a long period of time, need extra help. Rehab and residential treatment provide the talk therapy, routines, and counseling you may need. The urge to relapse may be strong, but with the right support system and goals in mind, you can beat a craving with proper guidance. This is why long-term stays of 90 days or more in a rehab may be recommended after the first week of detox.
You might wonder what kind of medications you’ll receive during withdrawal. While no medication is officially used or approved by the FDA for meth withdrawal, two types of medicines can help. The first group of medicines aims to reduce meth use. The second is for minimizing cravings after physical withdrawal.
Medicines to reduce use:
- Bupropion, generally only given to individuals with light meth use.
- Modafinil , which is still in clincial trial. One study suggests it works well when combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Naltrexone, which decreases meth use and promoted restraint against meth.
- Topiramate, an aid in reducing overall meth use.
Medicines to minimize cravings:
- Bupropion, a medicine that may also be used to address cravings.
- Dextroamphetamine, which comes with some risks, as it can also be an addictive substance. However, it has been proven to help prior meth addicts to cope with cravings and avoid relapse.
- Naltrexone, still being studied, but has proven to reduce meth-seeking behavior.
- Nicotine, the drug has shown promise in managing craving for certain individuals.
- Rivastigmine, potentially reduces crabbings and the desire to relapse.
Along with these medications, mental health disorders related to anxiety, depression, or mood disorder can appear alongside withdrawal. In some cases, short-term prescription of antidepressants can help.
At Home Detox
So, should you go through meth withdrawal at home or on your own?
No, most experts agree that you should not attempt to withdraw from meth at home on your own. The primary reason is that symptoms can be so intense, most people end up going back to the drug to ease the pain. Additionally, meth withdrawal can provoke psychotic episodes of extreme paranoia, hallucinations, or even violence. Under a medical professional, you can ensure lack of access to meth as well as protection.
Still, there are some individuals who have successfully withdrawn from meth through outpatient programs. These are usually individuals who have had a short-term relationship with the drug. But the number one reason for their success is that the home environment is supportive. Surrounding yourself with a strong link to support is key!
The main dangers of meth withdrawal include:
2. Violence episodes
3. Suicidal ideation
During withdrawal, it is normal that you feel disoriented, depressed, and very fatigued. However, know that withdrawal can also be dangerous. Very explicit direction is required during this period, which is why inpatient detox and rehab are recommended. Learn more about Methamphetamine Withdrawal and Detox Programs and Help GUIDE for safe and successful tips on quitting.
If you don’t feel you have somewhere you can go or you are worried about what will happen when you are in withdrawal, seek out a medical detox facilities. Detox units provide a safe, supervised environment. You can find help for withdrawal here: SAMHSA Find Help.
Who Needs Help
Anyone who is struggling to quit meth can benefit from professional help. If you are:
- Using meth on weekends
- Using meth almost every day
- Using meth every day
…you may need help quitting.
But know that you are not alone.
In 2016, approximately 667,000 Americans aged 12 or older were current users of methamphetamine, and an estimated 684,000 people had a methamphetamine use disorder (2016 NSDUH). In total, these people needed help for meth addiction:
- 10,000 adolescents
- 135,000 young adults aged 18 to 25
- 539,000 adults aged 26
These numbers represent the real face of meth addiction. And if you are one of them…don’t wait for the situation to get worse. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) methamphetamine accounted for about 103,000 ED visits in 2011; it was the fourth most mentioned illicit drug in ED visits following cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.
Don’t be a statistic!
Get help today.
Before you actually stop using meth, it is a good idea to make sure your environment supports you. This will mean distancing yourself from people who use meth, places that remind you of using and surrounding yourself with people who will support you during your withdrawal.
And to repeat our message from above: getting help also includes seeking medical advice. In fact, the best way to withdraw from meth (with the best outcomes for long term sobriety) are to seek medical help and 24-7 supervision to help you cope with cravings, depression, and symptoms.
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