Much of the information in this article is taken from the American Society for Addiction Medicine’s publication The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine in addition to the text links:
Alcohol is not digested in the same way as other foods. About 80 percent of it is absorbed into the small intestine with the other 20 percent being absorbed through the stomach, depending on the amount of food in the cells in the system. Alcohol affects the gastrointestinal tract in a number of ways.
Individuals who neglect their diets as a result of their severe alcoholism may wind up with a severe neurological condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is reversible if it is caught early in its progression; however, chronic alcoholics with long-term nutritional deficiencies can suffer permanent effects, including severe dementia.
Opiate or opioid drugs include a number of different drugs for the control of chronic pain, such as morphine, Vicodin, OxyContin, as well as the illegal drug heroin and other derivatives of the poppy plant. Chronic use of these drugs can affect the gastrointestinal system in several different ways.
Opiate drugs will cause most individuals to become constipated even at therapeutic doses. Long-term use of opiates may result in damage to the bowels and produce a narcotic bowel syndrome, which is a result of the slowing down of the bowel functions associated with chronic opioid use or abuse. Individuals with this syndrome suffer from constipation, bloating, vomiting, nausea, and distention of the abdomen.
Every medication or drug is eventually processed and broken down by the liver, and abuse of any drug can result in issues with the liver. A number of different opioid drugs, such as Vicodin and Percocet, have high doses of acetaminophen in them. Acetaminophen is associated with liver damage when used chronically.
Chronic abusers of drugs like heroin are known to ignore issues with personal hygiene including their diet. This can result in a number of nutritional deficiencies in individuals with opioid use disorders that may or may not be reversible.
Tobacco products are some of the most insidious drugs of abuse. Chronic tobacco use is associated with a number of health issues, including issues with the gastrointestinal tract.
Cocaine is a highly toxic and dangerous drug. Although cocaine is commonly snorted or smoked, it does result in issues with the gastrointestinal system.
Cocaine is associated with an increased risk of developing blood clots, and these can contribute to intestinal issues by blocking blood flow, resulting in necrosis and the presence of ulcers and perforations in the stomach and intestines. This can lead to an increased potential for the development of gangrene in the gastrointestinal system.
Because all drugs are broken down by the liver, individuals who chronically use large amounts of cocaine risk serious liver damage.
Chronic users of cocaine suffer decreased appetite as a side effect of their cocaine use. This often leads to food bingeing episodes when these individuals are not using the drug, and this can cause some gastrointestinal issues. In addition, long-term and habitual users of cocaine may suffer a number of nutritional deficiencies.
Cannabis products are the most commonly abused illegal drugs in the country. Although they are being made legal in some states, they are still illegal in all states according to federal statutes. There is research that suggests that cannabis can stimulate appetite in individuals who have certain diseases, such as cancer or HIV. There is also research that suggests that, in some individuals, cannabis use results in nausea and decreases appetite. Other research suggests that cannabis may have medicinal effects for a number of gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, whereas other research suggests that it may be associated with these types of disorders in some individuals.
A very rare and somewhat controversial syndrome associated with chronic cannabis abuse, termed cannabinoid hyperemesis, consists of repeated vomiting and the need to continually bathe to relieve the sensations of nausea and the urge to vomit. There are only a few cases of this syndrome reported, and its validity is questioned. Some believe it may represent an extended form of some psychological disorder.
As is always the case, individuals who suffer the physical effects of substance use disorders need to engage in some form of structured substance use disorder treatment program in addition to receiving any specialized treatment for their medical issues. Simply treating the medical issue and continuing to engage in the substance abuse will not resolve the issue.
In addition, when left unchecked for long periods of time, many of the physical effects of substance use disorders may not fully remit even with intensive and specialized treatment. For example, individuals with severe nutritional deficiencies or extensive damage to the liver may suffer the ramifications of these conditions for the remainder of their lives even if they remain drug-free. The key to controlling many of these issues is to identify them early and initiate a plan of complete and thorough treatment and relapse prevention.
Unfortunately for many individuals with chronic substance use disorders, these disorders are left unchecked for significant periods of time, and the physical effects of these disorders continue to linger. The only guaranteed method of avoiding potentially harmful physical complications associated with substance abuse is to not engage in substance abuse. If a person is currently abusing drugs, the best solution is prompt, comprehensive treatment.