Much has been said about the ways in which substance abuse weakens or damages parts of the body: from the liver damage of substance abuse to the brain chemical alterations of addiction, we know that substance abuse damages the body in many ways.
This February, though, in honor of American Heart Month, we are taking a look at 5 ways in which abusing drugs or alcohol weaken the cardiovascular system: your veins, artery, and heart.
Keep in mind: heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
Thickening of Blood Vessels
Most of the conditions that affect healthy blood vessels and heart function fall under the category “cardiovascular disease” (“cardio” meaning heart and “vascular” meaning the network of veins and arteries in the body).
One way in which cardiovascular disease manifests itself in the body is the build-up of plaque in blood vessels: a thickening of arterial walls. Excessive sugar consumption may be partially to blame, and many alcoholic beverages contain high volumes of sugar. (For a list of sugar in many alcoholic drinks, see this list. An example: a mojito contains almost as much sugar as a brownie).
Other potentially addictive substances, such as steroids and other drugs, may also cause plaque to build up in the blood vessels.
The condition of thick, hardened blood vessels is known as atherosclerosis and it carries an increased risk of heart failure, other forms of heart disease and stroke.
Blocking of Arteries
Build-up in blood vessels can also contribute to blockages. (Keep in mind that build-up may have come from substance abuse). Blockages in a limb, such as an arm or leg, may cause pain, bluing, or even require amputation (if the clot itself cannot be removed or tissue becomes damaged).
To put it another way, substance abuse could cost you an arm and a leg.
Contributing to Hypertension
Stress on the heart from drug and alcohol use can weaken, thicken or block cardiovascular tissue. It may also contribute to hypertension.
Hypertension means high blood pressure. The exact causes are not known, but stress to the heart, liver, or blood vessels all may be contributing factors. Drug or alcohol use may increase the likelihood of any of those factors.
Hypertension can be difficult to manage, often requiring lifestyle changes and even medication. When blood pressure is high, though, the heart works harder with every pump to keep the blood circulating.
High blood pressure can be dangerous — potentially damaging the heart and perhaps even leading to death.
Oxygen shortages may be part of what contributes to the “high” or euphoria in substance abuse, but it can also be dangerous and deadly. Lowered heart rate, slower breathing, or decreased levels of oxygen in the blood can result from taking drugs.
Oxygen deprivation can damage the brain, but also cardiovascular tissue. If someone you know has decreased breathing or slowed heart rate from taking drugs, it’s important to get immediate medical attention, as acute oxygen deprivation can also cause death.
Taking drugs can also cause dangerous irregular heartbeats. Cardiac arrhythmias, as irregular heartbeats are called, work like an electrical malfunction in the heart, and can feel like palpitations.
Irregular heartbeats often are not dangerous. They should be examined by a doctor, though, because some arrhythmias are deadly.
Healthy Heart, Happy Life
The good news is, that when you quit using drugs or alcohol, you may see rapid improvement in heart health. Other factors, like the length of time you have abused drugs or alcohol, play a part, but the sooner you stop the cycle of addiction, the better the odds.