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The Skinny About Quitting Cocaine

It’s nothing new that people who quit using cocaine worry about weight gain. A study conducted by doctors at Cambridge University in England explores the causes of weight gain during recovery from cocaine addiction. Dr. Karen Ersche and her team believe that the ingestion of cocaine creates a metabolic imbalance, and when a person stops using coke the body’s metabolism returns to normal—often resulting in weight gain.

Until the results of this study were published by Dr. Ersche, common belief held that cocaine simply suppresses the appetite, and people who use it regularly become or remain thin because they aren’t eating. Their research involved a study of 60 men, and surprisingly it showed that these regular coke addicts maintained irregular diets rich in carbohydrates and fatty foods.

The study also addressed leptin levels in these men. Leptin is a hormone manufactured by the body’s fat cells. Scientists believe that an increase in leptin hormonal levels signals the brain that no more food is needed. However, from studies prior to Dr. Ersche’s we already know that some people do not respond normally when leptin is increased. Many of them cannot manufacture the protein that signals the brain to stop eating, and others manufacture the protein but the brain does not recognize it.

This means, incidentally, that leptin supplementation is not recommended here as a weight loss method: While leptin supplements are available as over-the-counter supplements, researchers have not yet found a way to confirm that they actually help with weight loss, because the brain may ignore the increased leptin levels or the body may simply become accustomed to increased amounts of body fat.

There is also a great deal of credibility to the theory that cocaine stimulates the pleasure-reward centers of the brain, and addicts who manage to quit using cocaine may substitute some other form of compulsive behavior—such as overeating—to compensate. Many recovering addicts relapse because of the stress from weight gain.

The use of cocaine increases a sense of euphoric confidence and artificial energy in users. Users don’t really feel like they’re “suffering” from cocaine dependency because they feel competent and sexy. Because its effects are short-term, people tend to binge on cocaine—with multiple uses over a brief time period. It doesn’t take long to become addicted. More and more cocaine is necessary to achieve the same euphoric high.

Normally the brain releases a “feel-good” neurotransmitter like dopamine in response to a pleasurable event, and then the dopamine is recycled back into the brain. Scientists know for certain that cocaine harms the brain by blocking its ability to reabsorb those neurotransmitters, ultimately interfering with the brain’s communication processes.

Cocaine also ratchets up the user’s blood pressure and heart rate, putting the person at increased risk for stroke or heart attack. The body temperature rises, and the user easily becomes irritated. Coke users commonly suffer from headaches. The nasal and sinus passages also suffer from chronic snorting. Cocaine swallowed has been known to reduce blood flow in the intestines, with severe cases resulting in intestinal gangrene.

Dr. Ersche’s research evokes interest among physicians, addiction treatment professionals—and even among users and people who want to stop using. Beating cocaine addiction is no easy deal, and until there are better answers it’s wise to enter a rehab program that addresses the needs of the whole person.

The right kind of program not only oversees the person through his withdrawal but also engages him in therapy so that he can understand why he uses and modify behaviors accordingly. In light of this new research, it’s all the more important to engage in supportive therapies involving movement classes, role playing, and various types of exercise. Then the addict can enter recovery armed with the tools to move forward without the fear of weight gain contributing to relapse. 

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