From Chapter Two of the book
How to Quit Drugs for Good
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A Body that Craves
Psychoactive substances might be a free ticket through life if it weren’t for the physical addiction. The physical addiction drags you down. You begin using more but enjoying it less.
What happens? You go from wanting to use to a feeling that you need to use. Deep down, your drug of choice becomes your medicine. It seems to cure everything. The problem is that you begin feeling healthy only when you’re using, and you feel sick whenever you stop.
For Joan, quitting pot wasn’t easy. Every time she stayed off of it for more than a day, she grew nervous and upset and began getting angry at everyone around her. Like clockwork, every time, by the end of the day, she would say, “I can’t stand it anymore! I gotta get high.” Her use of marijuana no longer seemed a choice.
Joan could go without pot for about a day. Others can go for three or four days or even a week, before they can’t stand it anymore and have to toke up. Some users cannot stay straight for more than a few hours without getting symptoms.
Although this description of physical addiction involves marijuana, the same dynamic holds true for other drugs. However, each class of drugs has its own specific abstinence syndrome. In his book Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Dr. Milhorn rated the severity of abstinence syndrome for the various classes of drugs. These ratings, which varied on a scale from 0 to 4, with 4 being the most severe, were as follows:
- Depressants: 4
- Heroin, opiates, and the analgesics: 3
- Cocaine, amphetamines, & other stimulants: 2
- Marijuana: 2
- Phencyclidines: 2
- Inhalants: 1
- Hallucinogens: 0
The severity of the abstinence syndrome relates directly to the severity of the physical addiction. Thus, these ratings give us an idea about how severe the physical addiction is for each class of drugs.
How long can you stay off your drug of choice before you begin to feel uncomfortable? Or, more significantly, how long can you stay completely straight—not using any drugs—before you begin to feel uncomfortable? This period of time, between stopping your use and feeling that you need to use again, tells you something about the severity of your addiction: The shorter the period, the more severe the addiction.
There are two signs to the physical addiction. First, you begin needing more and more drug to get the same effects. This is called increasing tolerance. Second, you begin to feel as if you can’t get along without the drug. You feel more and more pain whenever you try to quit. This sign of addiction is called withdrawal, also known as the abstinence syndrome.
“Tolerance” describes how much of a drug your body can handle. As your body adjusts to the drug, your tolerance increases. What two bags of heroin did in the beginning might take five, 10, 20, or even more as tolerance increases. Your body finds its limit.
The second sign of physical addiction, the “withdrawal syndrome,” appears only when you take the drug away. Your body complains out loud, and your nervous system flashes urgent signals to the mind: “Give me another dose to calm me down” or “Give me another dose to pick me up.”
As a rule of thumb, the longer and heavier your drug use, the more problems you’ll experience during withdrawal. But also, as we just noted, the abstinence syndrome varies according to the type of substance (or substances) you’ve been using.
Medical research shows two major causes of physical addiction. First, your cells adapt to the drug and, second, your metabolism becomes more efficient.
Adaptation in the cells. To your cells, the drugs you’re using become a way of life. Every time you use a drug, your blood carries it to every cell in your body. Your cells adjust. They grow to expect these doses on schedule.
Your cells learn to cope with various drugs by defending themselves against the drugs’ toxic effects. Cell walls harden to retain stability and reduce toxic damage. But as your cells get tough against drugs, gradually more and more can be consumed. Your tolerance increases.
In the long run, however, cell walls break down. At this point, your cells not only lose their ability to keep toxins out but also become unable to retain essential nutrients. Many of them stop functioning altogether or start functioning abnormally. That’s when your organs (heart, brain, liver, or lungs), which are nothing more than whole systems of cells, begin to fail.
The problem with metabolism. Metabolism is intimately connected to diet. Your body metabolizes food (breaks it down into its constituent parts) to get vital nutrients to all the cells. To serve this purpose, your body can metabolize many different foods and can learn how to gain nutrients from almost any kind of food you give it.
Metabolism also helps to rid the body of unwanted toxins. The liver is the key organ in this process. The liver “sees” drugs as unwanted toxins and begins producing enzymes that will help eliminate them from the body. It produces a different combination of enzymes for each drug. Moreover, the liver becomes extremely efficient at producing these enzymes. The more it “sees” a particular drug, the more efficiently it produces the enzymes that inactivate that drug.
Thus, a drug that you use often will get eliminated from the body with greater and greater efficiency. It’s as if the liver begins to “expect” that drug and has enzymes ready and waiting. This is a key reason that tolerance increases, that is, why it takes greater and greater doses of a drug to get the same original effects.
Yet your personal metabolism works differently from anyone else’s. Studies show that each individual has a unique biochemical makeup and that individuals differ greatly from one another in the way they metabolize different foods, drugs, or toxins. To give you an idea how much possible variation there is, researchers have presently identified over 3,000 metabolic substances (called “metabolites”) and over 1,100 enzymes. Each individual has different proportions of all 4,100 of these biochemicals. Of the enzymes, only about 30 are responsible for metabolizing all drugs.
Also, the mixture of biochemicals varies for each kind of food you ingest. For example, your body uses different biochemicals to metabolize the different classes of foods: meats, grains, vegetables, beans, fruits, and nuts. As you might have guessed, you need a whole different biochemical preparedness to handle drugs, alcohol, sugars, chemical additives, and toxins.
However, your body adjusts to whatever diet you give it, and the most frequent foods in your diet come to be expected. Biochemical pathways become established the more they are used. Thus, if your body doesn’t get an expected food, you actually begin to crave it.
In fact, your body becomes addicted to the foods you give it the most. Your metabolism so completely adjusts to your regular diet that any change from this diet becomes increasingly difficult. Ask anyone who has attempted a major shift in diet.
For example, if you eat meat regularly, your metabolism will take a long time to adjust to a vegetarian diet. Although the same nutrients are available, your body doesn’t have the biochemical preparedness. The ability is there. Your body can metabolize vegetarian meals. No problem. But to gain the same efficiency with a new diet can take from one to seven years.
The important thing to remember is this: Metabolism depends on diet. For our purposes, “diet” includes not only the nutritious foods but also the non-nutritious foods, such as sugar and alcohol, as well as other substances, such as chemical additives in foods, environmental toxins, and drugs. You can change your metabolism if you change your diet. Although it will take a long time to change your metabolism significantly, you’ll feel incredible improvements after just a few months. You’ll discover the kinds of changes you need to make in a later chapter.