Methamphetamine is a potent amphetamine-related stimulant that is a Schedule II drug per the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). When a substance is listed as Schedule II, it is considered to have an important medical use, so it is allowed as a prescription substance with intensive oversight from doctors and pharmacists. It was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication under the brand name Desoxyn. As of 2010, a generic version has been approved, too.
Although meth may be used for limited purposes as a prescription medication, it is more infamous as an addictive street drug, usually found as crystal meth but sometimes found in other forms like powder. It is potent, addictive, and dangerous.
People who abuse this drug quickly develop cravings for it, leading to cycles of abuse called binges, in which the rapid high ends quickly and prompts the person to take more meth to feel good. Additional doses do not trigger the same happy, energetic euphoria. This leads to frustration and unstable behavior, causing the person abusing meth to “tweak,” a condition characterized by paranoia and psychotic behaviors that may last for three to 15 days.
Because the brain releases surges of dopamine, it is also possible for a person to build up a tolerance to the drug’s euphoric effects. Quickly, people who regularly use meth will find that they need to continually ingest the drug to feel normal.
How does Tolerance to Drugs Like Meth Develop?
Tolerance to drugs like meth, heroin, or alcohol, occurs when the brain becomes used to the presence of the original dose and no longer responds to it by releasing the same level of neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine. The dose then feels less effective because the same kind of high is not achieved. To get the same high, caused by the same release of neurotransmitters, the person feels the need to take more of the drug. This creates a cycle of increasing rates of abuse commonly associated with addiction.
Someone who develops tolerance to a drug does not necessarily have an addiction. Many people develop tolerance when consistently taking a prescription medication as ordered, and they must take more of it with a doctor’s permission or change medications. However, without the oversight of a medical professional, tolerance is often more associated with harmful substance abuse and addiction.
Meth releases large amounts of dopamine that can, in people who abuse meth chronically, lead to various symptoms such as:
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Violent behavior
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Chronic insomnia
- Mood disturbances
These are symptoms similar to those seen with schizophrenia or related psychotic disorders, so people who struggle with consistent, high-dose meth abuse due to tolerance may be at risk of developing drug-induced psychosis.
Signs of Tolerance to Meth
A person who struggles with meth abuse leading to physical tolerance may not realize how much of the drug they are taking, or they may not realize how rapidly they have become tolerant to its original effects and started taking more of the substance. A doctor, counselor, or addiction specialist will have to diagnose this condition, which often develops alongside addiction in people who abuse meth.
Signs That Someone You Love is Abusing Meth Include:
- Sleeping less or sleeping at odd hours
- Appearing highly energetic and excitable
- Acting anxious or paranoid
- Becoming aggressive toward others or themselves
- Eating less and rapidly losing weight
- Physical shaking
- Picking or itching at the skin, leaving sores or infected areas
- Formication, or the hallucination of bugs on or under the skin, leading to excessive scratching
- Damage to teeth from clenched jaws and eating too much sugar, called “meth mouth”
- Heart problems
- Poor hygiene
- Paraphernalia such as pipes, small spoons, lollipops, pacifiers
- Smelling like chemicals
If someone you care about exhibits extreme changes in behavior, especially being overly energetic, anxious, or violent; if they suddenly change eating, sleeping, or hygiene habits; or if they can’t meet work or school obligations, they may be struggling with a drug problem. Because they are in the throes of the addiction, they may not realize how serious their physical tolerance to and dependence on meth has become. Denial is a major sign of addiction, so you may need to encourage them to seek help.
Is Tolerance a Sign of Dependence?
If you’ve become tolerant to meth, it’s a good indication that you’ve become chemically dependent on the drug. Chemical dependence is caused by your body’s ability to adapt to the presence of a drug. Dependence doesn’t happen overnight, but a period of consistent meth use, heavy doses, or long binges can cause your body to adapt and come to rely on the drug. Meth is extremely addictive, and it may be difficult for you to quit using the drug on your own. However, if you do stop using, cut back, or miss a dose, you may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms, mixed with cravings, can make it even harder to quit using meth on your own.
Powerful stimulants like meth and cocaine can cause some physical withdrawal symptoms like fatigue and carb cravings, but they aren’t associated with the severe physical withdrawal symptoms like depressants are. However, meth can cause some severe psychological withdrawal symptoms.
Meth withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Fatigue and hypersomnia. Meth is a powerful stimulant that sends your body into overdrive. It can increase your heart rate, alertness, and wakefulness. During a meth binge, people may stay awake for days at a time. Coming off of meth often causes exhaustion and extreme fatigue as your body adjusts. In some cases, it can cause hypersomnia, which is sleeping more than usual.
- Depression. Depression and low mood are among the most common stimulant withdrawal symptoms. Meth lifts your mood and causes elation and excitement. Quitting meth can cause your mood to drop, and you may experience a major depressive episode.
- Anhedonia. Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure. Meth can cause your dopamine levels to rise to the point that dopamine floods its receptors, damaging them. Damaged receptors may make it harder to feel pleasure, which can lead to severe depression. Anhedonia is usually temporary, but it may take time to recover.
- Psychosis. Psychotic symptoms can occur as a result of a meth high, but they can also happen during withdrawal. Psychotic symptoms can include hallucinations and delusions.
- Increased appetite. Meth, like other stimulants, is an appetite suppressant. In fact, its use as a weight-loss drug is one of the only medical uses of meth that exist today. When you stop taking the drug, your appetite may return. You may especially crave carbs.
How to Get Off Meth
Meth withdrawal can be unpleasant and difficult to get through on your own. Stimulant withdrawal isn’t known to cause dangerous, life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, like alcohol and other depressants. However, there are some dangerous symptoms. Depression can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. If you’re experiencing deep depression and suicidal ideation, speak to someone as soon as possible. It’s important to realize that you can feel better, and what you’re feeling may be a temporary chemical imbalance caused by withdrawal.
Either way, it’s best to speak to a doctor about how to approach withdrawal safely and with the best chance of achieving sobriety. A detox program may be able to help you get through meth withdrawal as safely and as comfortably as possible. You may also need treatment to address a substance use disorder and any underlying issues. Meth is powerfully addictive, and addiction treatment can help you learn how to cope with triggers and stress without using drugs.
Getting Help with Detox is an Important Next Step
Once your loved one has decided to get help, you must find an evidence-based detox and rehabilitation program that understands how to work with individuals who struggle with meth addiction. Working with a detox program to manage withdrawal symptoms and end the body’s physical dependence on meth ensures safety throughout the process.
No specific medications can be used to taper off meth dependence during detox, but a doctor can manage symptoms like pain or anxiety with small, monitored doses of other medications. Once detox is complete, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — particularly a 16-week comprehensive approach called the Matrix Model — appears to work best to change behaviors around stimulant addiction.
Do You Need a Break?
Meth addiction and tolerance do not only mean you should take a break from the substance; they mean you need to overcome harmful compulsive behaviors to get healthy again.
Meth abuse is one of the more harmful forms of substance abuse, leading to lasting physical harm from infections and tooth decay as well as changes to the structure of the brain. Without quick help to stop taking meth, some of these changes can become permanent. These changes may affect various areas of functioning such as:
- Cognitive potential
- Learning abilities
Brain health may also be impacted because of the damage done by chronic meth abuse, changing how certain cells respond to the presence of infections and damaged or dead neurons. Without help from these cells, the brain becomes unhealthy and cannot function well.
Abstinence from meth abuse can reverse a lot of the damage, but it takes a long time. Scientific research has shown that an average of two years is required for most brain function to return. This timeline may feel frustrating but staying away from drugs or alcohol that can damage the brain for a sustained period is crucial to regaining a normal life.