What Happens to the Brain and Body During Drug Intoxication?

What the effects of drug intoxication can look likeThe intoxicating effects of drugs are what drive many people to begin — and continue — using them. Drugs and alcohol circulate throughout the body, causing a variety of short and longer term effects.Although some effects of intoxication are pleasant and desired, others negatively impact health. Understanding the effects of intoxication on the brain and body can help you understand how this process contributes to drug addiction.

Drug Intoxication Affects the Brain’s Reward Pathways

Drug intoxication refers to the immediate effects of the drug, which may last from minutes to hours. The speed with which a drug acts depends on the dose taken and mode of administration. For example, injecting heroin tends to result in faster effects than smoking. This is because the active drug molecules reach the brain more quickly when injected straight into the blood system.

Once in the brain, drugs bind to receptors on brain cells and trigger them to release chemicals. These chemicals cause feelings of pleasure that make intoxication so rewarding. They also strengthen the brain’s reward circuits, making it crave the drug. Over time, however, the brain needs more of the drug to get the same impact. This causes intoxication to feel less rewarding, particularly when weighed against many of its negative physical and mental effects.


Effects of Intoxication on Physical Functioning

In general, drugs can be broken into three main classes: central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, CNS depressants, and hallucinogens. Stimulants have the effect of amping up the nervous system, while depressants reduce the activity of this system.Hallucinogens, in contrast, affect the nervous system to cause dramatic changes in perceptions of reality. Thus, they are considered different from CNS stimulants and depressants.

Effects of Intoxication

Intoxication from all types of drugs impacts physical functioning. Some of the major effects include:
  • Cardiovascular system activity. CNS stimulants such as cocaine or amphetamines speed up the cardiovascular system, resulting in rapid heart rate. In contrast, depressants may slow heart rate and lower blood pressure.
  • Respiratory system. After taking a stimulant, you may notice your breathing becoming more rapid, whereas depressants slow breathing. In some cases, depressants such as opiates can even slow breathing to a dangerous level.
  • Body temperature. CNS stimulants cause your body temperature to rise, while depressants cause it to fall.
  • Kidney functioning. The kidneys constantly filter the blood to keep body fluids in balance. All drugs cause the kidneys to work harder to keep blood clean.
  • Liver functioning. The liver stores nutrients and prevents toxins from harming the body. Because the body perceives most drugs to be toxic, the liver must work harder when you are intoxicated.

Effects of Intoxication on Mental Functioning

effects on physical functioningMany of the desired benefits of drug intoxication are related to changes in mental functioning. For example, stimulants may give you a burst of energy or high feeling. CNS depressants often cause a blissful, drowsy, euphoric sensation.However, intoxication also negatively impacts mental functioning. Although they may report making new connections or fast mental activity, drugs typically cause decreased thinking ability. You may have impaired judgment and poorer perception. Additionally, drug intoxication may negatively impact mood. Particularly at higher doses, drugs cause people to feel anxious, paranoid, threatened, depressed, or even psychotic.

Over time, as the body becomes used to the drugs, intoxication may be less and less satisfying. Finding rewarding alternatives to substance use is an important part of treatment to break the pattern of addiction.

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Appendix B: Common drug intoxication signs and withdrawal symptoms. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64114/

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