Coffee’s darker side: What do you expect from caffeine?

Do you think of caffeine as a drug? A highly addictive drug? If so, you are in the minority, but you’re also correct.

Why is caffeine considered addictive?

Caffeine is an addictive drug that produces several of the same withdrawal symptoms as many other drugs typically considered as dangerous and addictive (i.e. tobacco, cocaine, heroin). These include headaches, depression, cognitive problems (like memory, and concentration issues), and more.

Additionally, since coffee drinkers often experience tolerance, and some have difficulty stopping their use of the drug, caffeine can be thought of as meeting the addiction standard. Obviously, unlike at least some of those drugs, caffeine’s psychoactive effects are more subtle, which means that even for those with relatively long-term escalating use, the effects on their daily life are usually pretty subtle.

What you expect affects what you get from coffee

A recent report in the Psychology Monitor mentioned two recent, interesting, findings about coffee drinking:

In one study participants were told they would be given caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. Then, some were actually given the decaf or caffeinated drink they were promised while others were given the opposite drink. Researchers found that participants’ expectations about whether or not they’d be drinking a caffeinated drink altered the short term effects on them. Surprisingly, those who were told that they wouldn’t be getting the drug experienced more withdrawal symptoms, possibly because their bodies were not ready for its effects. However after a few hours all indicators returned to caffeine’s expected effects instead of people’s expectations.

In another experiment with a very similar setup, people participated in a task that required use of both motor and cognitive skills. All across the board those given caffeine performed better. Although those who thought they received caffeine said they were more attentive, the results proved otherwise.

Caffeine is good in the short term, just be careful

These experiments proved that in the short term caffeine proved to be beneficial for quick pick-me-ups and help in focusing but, in the long term, people can become addicted and some participants reported that they had trouble functioning in their daily tasks without the drug.

As usual, the issue is one of diminishing returns as tolerance builds and the body responds to the drug’s effect. The increased attention and focus initially experienced give way to a reduced ability to focus without the caffeine. Like with many other addictions, this begins the cycle of using more to get the same effect, eventually leaving users with little effect and a sustained use of the drug. The trick is monitor your use, take long enough breaks when you don’t really need the stuff, and reap the benefits.

In addition to coffee, caffeine is found in many of our popular drinks including tea, soda and the increasingly popular energy drinks. However, while caffeine is thought of as being completely harmless, it can increase the negative effects of many existing heart conditions, anxiety disorders as well as lead to insomnia and stomach and digestion issues. As usual, the drug has benefits, but also some risks, so if you drink coffee often you should, at the least, be aware of those risks; not being aware could lead to trouble down the line.

Time to get high- Circadian rhythms and drug use

Contributing Co-Author: Andrew Chen

Like most living creatures, humans have internal biological clocks known as circadian rhythms. These internal cycles synchronize our bodies with the Earth’s 24-hour day/night cycle and prepare us for predictable daily events (1). Circadian rhythms regulate a number of bodily functions including temperature, hormone secretion, bowel movements, and sleep (2). Recent research suggests that drug use may disturb our circadian rhythms, possibly influencing our decisions to take drugs.

Moon

Environmental drivers of drug use

Our biological clocks are set by external cues from the environment, called zeitgebers (3). The most familiar to us are light and food. However, research on rats has shown that opiates, nicotine, stimulants, and alcohol also have the ability to alter the phase of circadian rhythms independent of light or food (1). Drug use has long been associated with major disruptions in the human sleep cycle. Cocaine, crystal meth, and MDMA users often go without sleep for days, and these sleep disruptions can continue long after people stop using drugs. In fact, sleep disturbance outlasts most withdrawal symptoms and places recovering addicts at greater risk for relapse (3).

The rhythm of drug use

Circadian rhythms could also be the reason why people show 24-hour patterns of drug use. A study of urban hospitals found that overdose victims are admitted to hospitals more around 6:30PM than any other time of the day (2). Fluctuations in drug sensitivity, effect, and reward value are believed to be regulated by genes that control circadian rhythms. In other words, our biological clocks are telling us when to get high.

Researchers are just beginning to explore the relationship between circadian rhythms and drug use. Future understanding of this relationship will help us explain how drug addiction develops and develop better ways to treat it. It’s possible that offering specific aspects of treatment as certain point in the circadian rhythm can improve the probability of success.

Citations:

1. Kosobud, A. E. K., Gillman, A. G., Leffel, J. K., Pecoraro, N.C., Rebec, G.V., Timberlake, W. (2007) Drugs of abuse can entrain circadian rhythms, The Scientific World Journal, 7(S2), 203-212

2. McClung, C.A. (2007) Circadian rhythms, the mesolimbic dopaminergic circuit, and drug addiction, The Scientific World Journal, 7(S2), 194-202

3. Gordon, H.W. (2007) Sleep, circadian rhythm, and drug abuse, The Scientific World Journal, 7(S2), 191-193

Crystal meth withdrawal – It’s not like heroin, but don’t expect it to be easy

Heroin, or opiate, withdrawal symptoms is the gold standard of addiction withdrawal. Imagine the worst flu of your life, multiply it by 1000, and then imagine knowing that taking a hit of this stuff will make it all better. Think sweats, fever, shaking, diarrhea, and vomiting. Think excruciating pain throughout as your pain sensors get turned back on after being blocked for way too long. Now you have an abstract idea of the hell and it’s no wonder why heroin withdrawal has become the one every other withdrawal is judged against.

Crystal meth withdrawal

Withdrawing from crystal meth use is nothing like opiate withdrawal and there’s no reason that the withdrawal symptoms should be. Opiates play a significant role in pain modulation and opioid receptors are present in peripheral systems in the body, which is the reason for the stomach aches, nausea, and diarrhea. Dopamine receptors just don’t play those roles in the body and brain, so withdrawal shouldn’t be expected to have the same effect.

But dopamine is still a very important neurotransmitter and quitting a drug  that has driven up dopamine release for a long time should be expected to leave behind some pain, and it does.

One of the important functions of dopamine is in signaling reward activity. When a dopamine spike happens in a specific area of the brain (called the NAc), it signifies that whatever is happening at that moment is “surprisingly” good. The parentheses are there to remind you that the brain doesn’t really get surprised, but the dopamine spike is like a reward signal detector, when it goes up, good things are happening.

Well guess what? During crystal meth withdrawal, when a crystal-meth user stops using meth, the levels of dopamine in the brain go down. To make matters worse, the long-term meth use has caused a decrease in the number of dopamine receptors available which means there’s not only less dopamine, but fewer receptors to activate. It’s not a surprise than that people who quit meth find themselves in a state of anhedonia, or an inability to feel pleasure. Once again, unlike the heroin withdrawal symptoms, anhedonia doesn’t make you throw up and sweat, but it’s a pretty horrible state to be in. Things that bring a smile to a normal person’s face just don’t work on most crystal-meth addicts who are new to recovery. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it can take as long as two years of staying clean for the dopamine function of an ex meth-addict to look anything like a normal person’s.

This anhedonia state can often lead to relapse in newly recovered addicts who are simply too depressed to go on living without a drug that they know can bring back a sense of normalcy to their life. The use of crystal-meth causes the sought-after spike in dopamine levels that helps relieve that anhedonic state.

When it comes to more physiological sort of withdrawal symptoms, the meth addict doesn’t have it that bad, I guess. After an extended period of sleep deprivation and appetite suppression that are some of the most predictable effect of meth, the average addict will do little more than sleep and eat for the first week, or even two, after quitting the drug. Many addicts experience substantial weight gain during this period as their metabolism slows and their caloric intake increases greatly. Like everything else, this too shall pass. With time, most addicts’ metabolism return to pre-use levels and their appetite catches up and returns to normal as well. Still, there’s no doubt that a little exercise can help many addicts in early recovery steer their bodies back on track.

There’s some research being talked about around the UCLA circles to see if detoxification from meth may help people do better in treatment for meth addiction by reducing the impact of their withdrawal. Detox before addiction treatment is an accepted fact in opiate and benzodiazepine addiction, but because of the supposedly “light” nature of crystal meth withdrawal, it’s been ignored. Hopefully by now, you realize that was a mistake.

Steven Tyler deals with pain killer addiction by checking into rehab

After the recent death of Michael Jackson, and possibly Brittany Murphy, due to prescription drug overdoses, Steven Tyler, the lead singer of the mega-band Aerosmith, has checked himself into rehab for pain-killer addiction.

Many pain killers commonly used are opiates (which are very similar to heroin), and many chronic-pain sufferers resolve to taking such drugs in high quantities and for many years. Such use can easily lead to dependence and serious withdrawal symptoms.

We wish Tyler all the best in his rehabilitation efforts. Stay strong Steven!

Heroin Addiction and HIV infection – Dirty needles and a place for harm reduction

Co-authored by: Jamie Felzer

Many people today know about the dangers and risky behaviors (sharing needles, unsafe sex, and mother-to-child transmission) that can increase the risk for HIV/AIDS infection. The question lies in whether or not they are able to take appropriate actions to prevent contracting the disease themselves.

Heroin addiction, dirty needled, and HIV infection

Many heroin addicts, especially those that are homeless or extremely poor, will use whatever heroin they can get, regardless of the risk it puts them in.  A study done in a San Francisco park frequented by almost 3000 IV drug users found that in times of heroin withdrawals, addicts would use dirty  needles, sometimes with visible traces of blood still on them. The need to overcome their withdrawal was more important to them than worrying about the risk of contracting HIV or any of the other countless diseases that can be contracted from such use.

Many of the users surveyed were poor and sometimes didn’t even have enough money to buy their own supply of heroin so they often pooled together what they had with others. They all shared the heroin, cooker and needle to get a fix for the time being.

Regardless of the consequences of HIV contraction, users needed their heroin.

In this community many of the users knew about the risks of sharing needles and were well aware of recommendations that they not share needles or bleach them.  The users actually found health outreach workers slogans patronizing because although they would have  loved not to have to worry about sharing needles, often the more imminent need is getting that fix or suffer being extremely sick from withdrawals.  Given the relatively rare harm-reduction sources available, they were able to use the clean needles given out by some health organizations but at other times had to be resourceful and use what they had regardless of the possible consequences.

There are 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US right now out of a 33.2 million total in the world. 2.5 million people recently acquired the disease and 18% of those new infections were from injection drug users (IDU).  HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease. If we allow users to have easier access to clean needles, we can help decrease the number of IDU infections. If you aren’t sure what your status is, get tested! HIV Testing

Here’s a great resource for finding needle exchanges operating in the U.S. : NASEN

Citation:

Social Misery and the Sanctions of Substance Abuse: Confronting HIV Risk among Homeless Heroin Addicts in San Francisco. Philippe Bourgois; Mark Lettiere; James Quesada. Social Problems, Vol. 44, No. 2  (May, 1997), pp. 155-173. University of California Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

UNAIDS Website

Alcohol, benzos, and opiates – Withdrawal that might kill you

Along with teaching and telling stories, part of my goal here at All About Addiction is to get important information out to those who can benefit from it.

Most drug users who quit drug use “cold turkey” have to go through withdrawal of some sort. Withdrawal is never comfortable, but sometimes it can actually be dangerous. The list below outlines some drugs that should NEVER be quit suddenly without medical supervision. This is the reason why some rehab treatment is preceded by a medical detox period lasting anywhere from 2 days to a week or more.

Which withdrawals can actually kill?

  1. Alcohol – Yes, after long term use, withdrawal from alcohol can kill. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can take on mild, moderate, or severe forms. If while withdrawing from alcohol a person develops a fever, extreme nausea, diarrhea, or DT (delirium tremens), they need to be rushed to see a doctor as soon as possible. In fact, alcohol withdrawal after heavy, chronic use is best managed under the care of a doctor or a professional medical detox unit. By using medications that relieve withdrawal symptoms, these professionals can essentially eliminate any of these risks.
  2. Benzodiazepines – Benzos were introduced as a replacement to barbiturates that were causing common overdose cases, many of which resulted in death. Nevertheless, withdrawal from extended use of benzodiaepines can kill. Whether Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam) or other variations, long term use of Benzodiazepines requires medical supervision to be completed successfully with minimal side-effects and risk to the patient. Normally, the withdrawal process is managed by slowly reducing the dose and transferring the patient from a slow acting, to a long acting, form of the drug. Still, full resolution of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can take up to 6 months (or even longer).
  3. Opiates – Many people are surprised to learn that in most cases, withdrawal from many opiates is not deadly. Still there are some very important exceptions. Methadone, a long-acting opiate often prescribed as a replacement for heroin can cause death during withdrawal if it’s consumed in high enough doses for a long enough period. The debate of whether the state should be prescribing something like this should be saved for a later date. It is one of the better ways of getting people off of heroin, though obviously, all it does is replace dependence on one substance with another, more manageable one. Also, some of the recently popular methods of rapid-detox from heroin addiction can themselves cause death, and many other negative side-effects. Overall, I would recommend checking in with a physician and conducting opiate withdrawal in a controlled setting. Withdrawal under Suboxone or Subutex can be far less horrific.

Much of the danger in withdrawal from all of these drugs has to do with the body’s response to the extreme changes in the chemical processes going on in the brain and the rest of the body. Alcohol, Benzos, and Opiates interference with the GABA system, the body’s most common downregulator.

Withdrawal from these drugs is like trying to turn the heat up in a cold house with a broken thermostat and an out of control heater – It won’t always lead to disaster, but it’s a bad idea.

The withdrawal danger summary

That’s pretty much it. “Cold Turkey” withdrawal from cocaine, marijuana, crystal meth, ecstasy, GHB (never mix GHB with alcohol though!!!), and many other recreationally used drugs will not lead to death in the vast majority of cases. While it may make you uncomfortable, and you may feel moody, constipated, dehydrated, hungry or nauseous, and a whole slew of other symptoms, the chances of someone actually dying from withdrawal are very small.

If you have any more specific questions regarding your case though, don’t shy from asking me!

Addiction brain effects : Opiate addiction – Heroin, oxycontin and more

Okay, we’ve talked about crystal meth and cocaine and how they affect the brain during drug use. As I mentioned, both cocaine and meth interfere with the way the brain stores and cleans up important neurotransmitters, including, most importantly, Dopamine and Norepinephrine.

opiates-morphine & heroinThe class of drugs known as opiates, which includes morphine, heroin, codeine, and all their derivatives (including oxycontin), acts on the brain in a completely different manner. Since our goal at All About Addiction is to explain drug use and abuse as comprehensively as possible, let’s turn our attention to this opiate addiction next.

Heroin, morphine, oxycontin, vicodin and other opiates

While cocaine and crystal meth work by disrupting the normal functioning of molecules responsible for cleaning up released neurotransmitters, opiates work by activating actual receptors that naturally occuring neurotransmitters activate. Substance like this are known as agonists; they perform the same action (identically as, to a lesser, or greater extent) as a substance the body already manufactures.

In the case of morphine, heroin, and most other opiates, the most important receptors activated are knownOpiate Receptors as µ-opioid receptors. Activation of the µ-opioid receptors is associated with analgesia (suppression of pain), sedation, and euphoria, which makes sense given the relaxing, pleasure inducing effects of opiates.

Natural opioids (also called endogenous opioids), which include endorphins, are used by the body to relieve pain and increase relaxation, especially during periods of extreme stress. These are the chemicals that make sure we can function during accidents, like after breaking our leg…

Opioids and dopamine

Opioids also increase the amount of dopamine in the brain indirectly. As I mentioned in the earlier posts, dopamine is thought to be the reward indicator in the brain. Unlike crystal meth and cocaine, heroin and its relatives increase the activity of dopamine neurons by releasing the hold that other neurons (that use GABA) have on them. Think of this as the release of pressure on a hose spraying water on a lawn. When the pipe is pinched, only so much water can get through, but once the clasp is released, water can flow in greater quantity; this is essentially what opiates do.

Heroin addiction and long term opiate use

Like I said before, this doesn’t sound so bad, does it? All we’re talking about here is the increasing of the functioning of system that already exists in the brain. The problem isn’t so much in the process, the problem starts when this system gets activated for long periods of time.

HeroinHeroin addicts, and other frequent users of opiates complain about the extreme discomfort they feel when they stop using the drugs. This discomfort has been described as the worse case of the flu you could imagine. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? In fact, withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping opiate use are at least one of the main reasons many users return to the drug after trying to clean up. This in addition to all the other effects of the drug on the brain to make wanting to stop so much harder.

The reason for the pains and aches? Given the overactivation of its pain suppression system, the body not only reduces its own supply of opioids, but it also turns up the sensitivity on its pain receptors. Heroin users notice this as an increase in tolerance, but they compensate for it by simply using more. However, when they stop, they’re left with a body unable to suppress its own, hyper sensitive pain system. The results are more than uncomfortable, they’re simply excruciating…

Another common complaint of addicts is diarrhea. This, again, is simply the reversal of the constipation caused earlier by heroin’s actions on opioid receptors that are present in the peripheral system (outside the central nervous system).

I’ve heard addicts speak online about the slow recovery from opiate addiction and I want to dispell a myth here:

Opiates DO NOT stay in your system for weeks or months – The drug itself is gone from the body within days. The reason for the continued suffering is the slow adjustment of your brain and body back to the way things were before the drugs. Think of how long the tolerance took to develop… Now play the tape back in reverse. That’s what happening to you. You can help relieve the pain, but know that if you use anything in the opiate family, you’re making the process last much longer…

So, in summary: As usual, the actions of opiates on the body and brain are not all the severe, extreme, or inappropriate. Opiates are still used in medicine for pain suppression, not only because they work, but because the potential for abuse when used in this way are minimal to non-existent. However, as with all drugs, continued, chronic, abusive use of opiates will change the way your body functions in ways that will produce the exact opposite effects of those users like so much. This leaves people not only with possible addiction problems, but also with a terrifyingly uncomfortable return back to normal functioning.

Addiction help

If you need help finding treatment for your own, or a loved one’s addiction, make sure to give our Rehab-Finder a try: It’s the only evidence-based, scientifically created, tool for finding rehab anywhere in the United States!