Center for Health & Wellness

Alcohol & Other Drugs

Physical and Psychological Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs

The drugs reviewed below are generally referred to as psychoactive, or mind-altering, drugs. Alcohol and other drugs (AODs) act on the brain and central nervous system, affecting movement, judgment, emotion, perception, and many automatic functions of the body (breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).

The physical and psychological effects of AODs depend upon factors such as: the health, weight, gender, mood, and expectations of the user; the setting in which the drug is taken; the amount, method, and speed of ingestion; whether or not there is food in the stomach; and the level of tolerance and physical or psychological dependence the user has achieved. Tolerance to a drug is a user’s increasing resistance to the chemical’s effects. This means that one’s body requires larger amounts of a drug to have the same effects that lower doses used to create.

Physical dependence to a drug occurs when an individual’s tissue cells get used to a certain level of intoxication. This means the body physically changes, needing the drug in regular doses to maintain its chemical balance. Psychological dependence to a drug occurs when a person needs regular doses of the drug to maintain mental and emotional stability. In either case, a drug dependent person will experience withdrawal symptoms when drug use is discontinued.

For advice on battling drug dependency or addiction, contact the CHW. See below for information on the following:


Alcohol

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and toxin, affecting the body in much the same way as opiates, barbiturates, and tranquilizers. It is the most widely used and abused mind-altering drug in the world today.

  • Alcohol affects your brain. Drinking alcohol leads to a loss of coordination, poor judgment, slowed reflexes, distorted vision, memory lapses, and blackouts.
  • Alcohol affects YOUR brain differently. The National Institute for Mental Health reports that brain maturation continues into the late teens and early 20’s, leaving a unique vulnerability to heavy, ongoing alcohol use.
  • Alcohol affects your body. Alcohol can damage every organ in your body. It is absorbed directly into your bloodstream and can increase your risk for life-threatening diseases.
  • Alcohol affects your self-control. Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, lowers your inhibitions, and impairs your judgment. Drinking can lead to risky behaviors, like having unprotected sex. Furthermore, 90% of all acquaintance rapes occur when one or both people have been drinking.
  • Alcohol can kill you. Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to a coma or even death. Alcohol consumption by college students is linked to at least 1,400 student deaths and 500,000 unintentional injuries each year (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction).
  • Alcohol can hurt you, even if you are not the one drinking. If you are around people who are drinking, you have an increased risk for injury. At the very least, you may have to deal with friends who are sick, out of control, or unable to care for themselves.
  • There is no cure for a hangover. The only way to sober up is to wait. For each drink consumed, it takes the liver approximately one hour to process and remove the alcohol from the system.
  • Know your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). Blood alcohol concentration is the amount of alcohol present in the blood when consuming alcohol. There are many factors that affect your BAC when you drink, such as weight, gender, and how many hours you’ve been drinking. To view a BAC chart, learn the effects of BAC, and how to control your BAC, go to: www.brad21.org (Alcohol Info).
  • Know the risks. Mixing alcohol with medications or illicit drugs is extremely dangerous. Specifically, mixing opiate pain medications with alcohol can result in a depressed respiratory and heart rate. This can be fatal.
  • Know the law. It is illegal to buy or possess alcohol if you are under 21. In addition, Massachusetts law states that whoever furnishes alcohol for a person under the age of 21 shall be punished. The social host liability law is applicable even if you are under 21 and/or live in a residence hall.

Marijuana

Marijuana is derived primarily from the leaves and flowers of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. It contains more than 400 chemicals, including THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the mood-altering chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects. While THC can act as both a stimulant and a depressant, some first-time users claim to experience no effects at all. Marijuana is now the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States. (when excluding the underage use of alcohol).

When smoked, the effects of marijuana last two to three hours. When ingested in foods, the effects may last up to 24 hours and are very difficult to predict or control. Because it is stored in fatty tissue, THC can be detected in the body up to 30 days after its use.

  • Depression, anxiety, and personality disturbances are all associated with marijuana use. Marijuana compromises the ability to learn and remember information. Therefore, the more you use marijuana, the more likely you are to fall behind in accumulating intellectual, job, or social skills.
  • Marijuana’s adverse impact on memory and learning can last for days or weeks. In a study of 129 college students, researchers found that among heavy users, those who smoked the drug at least 27 of the preceding 30 days, critical skills related to attention, memory, and learning were significantly impaired, even after they had not used the drug for 24 hours.
  • Long-term marijuana use is addictive for some people; that is, they use the drug compulsively even though it often conflicts with family, school, work, and recreational activities. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, of the 7 million Americans suffering from illegal drug dependence or abuse, 60% of abusers are dependent on marijuana.
  • Marijuana contains more than 50% carcinogenic tars than tobacco and can cause severe lung damage. The fact that users hold marijuana smoke in their lungs for as long as possible means that the potential for damage is greatly increased. Sore throats, bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer are found in heavy users, as is a decreased immunity to viral infection.
  • Marijuana is hard to stop. Along with craving, withdrawal symptoms can make it hard for long-term marijuana smokers to stop using. People trying to quit report nervousness, irritability, sleep disruption, anxiety, and upset stomach. They also display aggression on psychological tests, peaking approximately one week after last using the drug.
  • There are legal consequences. Despite changing laws related to the decriminalization for possession of marijuana, any amount of use or possession is still illegal.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is at an all-time high. To clarify, prescription drugs are drugs prescribed by a doctor or other health care provider and over-the-counter includes medicines found in any pharmacy, like cough syrup, diet pills, vitamin supplements, and herbal remedies. Abuse has become quite common on college campuses. Commonly abused classes of medications include: opiates (Percocet), central nervous system depressants (Valium), and stimulants (Adderall).

A 2009 report from The National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed the following:

  • Full-time college students were twice as likely as their counterparts not enrolled in college full-time to have used the stimulant medication Adderall non-medically in the past year.
  • Full-time college students who were abusing Adderall were 3 times more likely to have used marijuana in the past year and 8 times more likely to have abused cocaine.
  • Nearly 90% of full-time college students abusing Adderall in the past year were 3 times more likely to be weekly heavy alcohol users.

You can become dependent on these medications. Misuse of any drug can lead to dependence. Stimulant drugs, when used incorrectly, can have negative effects: addiction, paranoia, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, headaches, and even hallucinations are possible side effects. Opioid painkillers are also highly addictive and when taken in high doses slow your breathing down and can result in passing out. Mixing medications is dangerous. Mixing Adderall with over-the-counter medications, like cold medications containing decongestants, is risky. Equally dangerous is mixing pain medications or tranquilizers with alcohol.

Tobacco

Smoking rates on college campuses have fallen to their lowest rate since 1980. In 2006, about 1 in 5 college students smoked, according to a report by the American Lung Association. In addition, there are increased services available for students ready to quit (1-800-TRY-TO-STOP). However, in Massachusetts, tobacco-related illnesses kill more people than HIV/AIDS, car crashes, homicide, suicide, and poisoning combined.

The following is what we know about tobacco and smoking:

  • Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,800 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer. Smoking is directly responsible for approximately 90% of lung cancer deaths and approximately 80–90% of COPD (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) deaths.
  • The list of diseases caused by smoking includes: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); coronary heart disease; stroke; acute myeloid leukemia; pneumonia, periodontitis; and bladder, esophageal, laryngeal, lung, oral, throat, cervical, kidney, stomach, and pancreatic cancers. Smoking is also a major factor in a variety of other conditions and disorders, including slowed healing of wounds, infertility, and peptic ulcer disease.
  • Tobacco advertising specifically targets young people to encourage them to begin a lifelong addiction to smoking. In fact, 90% of adults who smoke started by the age of 21, and half of them became regular smokers by their 18th birthday.
  • Secondhand smoke involuntarily inhaled by nonsmokers from other people’s cigarettes is classified by the U.S. EPA as a known human (Group A) carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 46,000 heart disease deaths in adult nonsmokers annually in the United States.
  • Nicotine is an addictive drug, which when inhaled in cigarette smoke reaches the brain faster than drugs that enter the body intravenously. Smokers not only become physically addicted to nicotine; they also link smoking with many social activities, making smoking a difficult habit to break.

Quitting smoking often requires multiple attempts. Using counseling or medication alone increases the chance of a quit attempt being successful; the combination of both is even more effective. There are seven medications approved by the FDA to aid in quitting smoking. Nicotine patches, nicotine gum, and nicotine lozenges are available over-the-counter, and a nicotine nasal spray and inhaler are currently available by prescription. Buproprion SR (Zyban) and varenicline tartrate (Chantix) are non-nicotine pills. Talk to your clinician if you are curious about any of these medications.