Methamphetamine, also known as meth, is a type of drug that stimulates the nervous system, resulting in a variety of effects that create an energetic high. Amphetamine, which is also referred to as speed, is a similar compound with similar physical and emotional results when used.
However, most people consider meth to be more potent than amphetamine in the effects that it has on the body and brain. In addition, while they are similar, meth has gained a reputation for being a worse drug of abuse by far than amphetamine in a variety of ways, including its potential for addiction and the effects it can have on the individual’s physical and emotional health. To help clarify the differences between meth and amphetamine, the following compares and contrasts the effects of both drugs.
Before trying to understand the differences between these substances, it helps to know what they both are. Meth and amphetamine are both included in a class of drugs called substituted amphetamines. These drugs, first developed in the late 19th century, are derived from substances in the ephedra plant called ephedrine. These substances interact with a pathway in the brain that stimulates neural activity. This results in accelerated brain function that affects consciousness, focus, energy, and drive. Ephedra-based compounds are often used to treat hay fever and congestion in the body.
As explained in Trends in Plant Science, amphetamine was the first of its specific drug type produced by incorporating substituents – that is, replacing one or more of the hydrogen atoms in the compound with different combinations of other molecules. The other substituted amphetamines are created by doing the same thing to an amphetamine base. This creates a variety of drugs that have the characteristic stimulant effect, to varying degrees.
Amphetamine was originally used medicinally to treat a variety of health issues, including hay fever, obesity, and narcolepsy. However, it was also used as a drug of abuse fairly early in its development. According to sources, the drug was also used during World War II to keep soldiers awake and to treat depression. Today, amphetamines are included in drugs used to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Methamphetamine is similar to amphetamine in many ways. It is also used in ADHD medications and can help treat narcolepsy. It was developed around the 1920s, and it was quickly seen to lead to abuse. Meth is a highly potent drug that is often taken in binges that last over several days. Sometimes, this even extends to the drug being taken as part of a daily
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How It Affects the Brain and Body
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), amphetamine works by stimulating the body’s production of dopamine, which increases activity in the brain. This enhances memory and focus, and gives a sense of energy. It can also enhance sexual performance and heighten sexual response.
When abused, these effects may be diminished. Studies show that students who try to use these drugs to enhance study or do better on tests actually tend to fare worse than their peers who don’t abuse these drugs. DrugScience indicates that using these drugs through injection produces an immediate high that lasts 4-8 hours, with side effects that can last 2-4 days.
Meth’s effects on the brain and body are similar to those of amphetamine. However, smaller amounts of meth are required to achieve the same response, because higher amounts of meth get to the brain compared to amphetamine. Meth also leaves the body more slowly, resulting in a high that can last for up to 24 hours, depending on the dose, according to Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
As a result, people who take meth can stay awake for days on a binge, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research. Appetite suppression can be extreme as well, leading to the drug’s use by people wanting to lose weight. When injected or taken as a syrup, the drug’s effects take hold quickly. Smoking meth brings on the high within a few minutes, and it takes up to a half-hour for effects to be felt if it is taken orally.
How Meth Is Made
Potential for Addiction
According to the NIDA article on these drugs, studies have shown that proper use of ADHD drugs that contain amphetamine does not increase a person’s likelihood of abusing drugs later in life. However, abuse of these drugs results in changes in the dopamine system that can lead to addiction over time. Abuse often results from people who are trying to enhance athletic or academic performance and use more of the drug than required or use it without having ADHD.
Withdrawal from amphetamine can be uncomfortable, contributing to addiction problems. Symptoms include sleepiness, insomnia, depression, irritability, mood swings, and increased hunger.
Meth is highly addictive. Anecdotal evidence such as this article from the Merced Sun-Star claims that people can develop addiction to meth with just one or two uses.
This claim, however, is backed by the drug’s effects on the body. Because a larger percentage of a dose gets to the brain than is true with amphetamine, meth has a more intense and longer lasting effect, which can quickly alter the dopamine system, making it harder to feel pleasure. Because one of the thrills of the meth high is euphoria, as explained by NIDA, the damage to the dopamine system can easily lead to more cravings for the drug, resulting in quick development of addictive behaviors.
Physical and Mental Health Symptoms
In the short-term, amphetamine use can result in:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Nervousness and agitation
- Decreased appetite
- Paranoia and anxiety
- Delusions or hallucinations
- Anhedonia (lack of ability to feel pleasure)
Over a longer period, effects on the body and mind can include:
- Weight loss and malnutrition
- Agitation and violence
- High blood pressure
- Stroke and heart attack
- Permanent psychosis
When a person who uses meth hasn’t slept in several days, a stage called tweaking can begin, according to CESAR. In this stage, the individual experiences extreme paranoia and irritability, and craves more of the drug. However, because a tolerance point has been reached, the same level of high cannot be experienced, leading to frustration and erratic behavior that can result in violence.
Meth also has profound physical effects, from the decaying teeth and infections of “meth mouth” to the open sores and ragged scars caused by delayed healing and agitated skin scratching and picking. Severe weight loss and malnutrition can lead to a form of anorexia. This severe appearance can make a person who abuses meth relatively easy to recognize.
In the long-term, meth can lead to brain damage, anhedonia, heart disease, and potential seizures that can lead to death.
While meth and amphetamine are similar drugs, the higher potency and more severe physical and mental effects of meth can make it a riskier drug. Nevertheless, abusing any stimulant can result in severe consequences to the body and brain. To avoid these issues, anyone who is struggling with meth or amphetamine abuse would do well to get help from a research-based, professional treatment program to begin the journey toward recovery.