The effects of substance abuse on the brain and body are different depending on the drugs or substances used. However, it is generally agreed upon that the effects of substance abuse in any context are bad for a person’s physical health.

The effects of substance abuse on the brain and body are layered and complex. Some drugs have more intense and serious side effects, while others do not have as detrimental effects. Regardless of the drugs or substances being used, any substance that can be abused has the potential to cause harm.

Understanding the long-term effects of drug abuse and substance abuse can help encourage people who are using substances to quit, help prevent people from starting to use substances, and encourage people to take steps towards recovery and getting clean.

If you or a loved one is battling substance addiction, please read on to find out the effects of substance abuse on the brain and body and how to detox from substance abuse safely.

What Effects Does Substance Abuse Have on the Brain & Body?

The brain is a unique organ in our body. It holds our personality, our behavior, how we speak, as well as feel, breathe, walk, live, and more. So much of the brain is incredibly complex, and it is very difficult to understand the complexities of this organ. Our brains set us apart from other animals like monkeys and allow us to be free-thinking rational agents in our life. Thanks to our developed prefrontal cortex, which enables us to make executive decisions.

The prefrontal cortex is one of the most important parts of the brain. It is what helps us be human. It allows us to think critically, process information quickly, and make good executive decisions. As we develop, our prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop completely.

As we age, the neurons in the brain are covered in a substance called myelin, a fatty substance that helps increase the brain’s cognitive ability. Myelin starts coating the neurons in the back of the brain first and works its way to the prefrontal cortex. Because the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to become myelinated, it is the part of the brain with the most risk of experiencing damage from substance abuse early in a person’s life.

Myelin helps protect the neurons in the prefrontal cortex and increase the ability to think critically and make good executive decisions. If the prefrontal cortex is damaged by substance abuse, a person can experience severe changes in personality and issues relating to executive function and cognition.

Although the prefrontal cortex is most in danger when it comes to teens and young adults whose brains have not finished developing suffering from substance abuse, other parts of the brain can be affected severely by drugs and substances even after the brain is finished developing. 

These three parts of the brain are:

  • The brain stem
  • The cerebral cortex
  • The limbic system

The brainstem is one of the most important parts of our brain. The brainstem works with all of the body’s functions necessary to stay alive. This includes breathing, circulation, digestion, movement, and more. The brain stem is connected to the spinal cord and the brain, which means that it is connected to all the muscles and extremities of the body. It also communicates between the brain and the body to help the body make decisions related to its nervous system.

Drug abuse and other substance abuse can severely damage the brain stem, which can cause severe issues with the functions that keep us alive. It can also cause issues relating to movement because of its connection to the spinal cord and limbs. 

The limbic system is another system that can be damaged by drug abuse and substance abuse. The limbic system is what connects several brain structures which control our emotions and form memories. Included in these brain structures is our reward system, which is responsible for releasing hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, which make us feel happy.

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Substance abuse damage to the limbic system can result in the overproduction of hormones relating to our emotional responses, which can severely change a person’s behaviors and personality. It can also make forming new memories harder since the limbic system controls our memories.

Lastly, the cerebral cortex is at risk of damage from substance abuse. The cerebral cortex is the outer part of the brain, lovingly called the gray matter by neuroscientists and psychologists. The cerebral cortex is approximately 75% of the brain. The four lobes of the cerebral cortex control different bodily functions such as information processing and sensory inputs such as sight, taste, hearing, and touch, and includes the frontal cortex.

The frontal cortex is also called the forebrain, another part of the brain that processes thinking and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex and the frontal cortex work together to give us the ability to solve problems, think critically, make well-informed decisions, plan, and more. 

As stated earlier, damage to the cerebral cortex includes damage to sensory information, the prefrontal cortex, and the frontal cortex, all of which are necessary for life. In addition, damage to the frontal and prefrontal cortex severely affects the cognitive ability and decision-making skills.

Damage can also be done to behavioral centers in the brain. The damage to these centers can be short-term or long-term but include several side effects. The long-term and short-term behavioral problems caused by substance abuse are paranoia, sudden aggression, higher addiction risk, impulsive behavior, hallucinations, delusions, poor judgment, and lack of self-control. 

The body is also affected by substance abuse. Different drugs affect the body in different ways, and different substances will have different reactions to the body long-term and short-term.

Some side effects of substance abuse disorder and addiction include the following:

  • A weak immune system
  • Cardiovascular and heart conditions include heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, collapsed veins, and blood infections
  •  Digestive issues, including nausea
  •  Appetite issues which include weight gain or weight loss
  •  Liver strain, liver damage, liver failure, and liver cirrhosis
  •  Lung disease and issues with the respiratory system
  •  Seizures
  •  Strokes
  •  Brain damage
  •  Confusion
  •  Issues with memory, focusing, and executive decision-making

Of course, there is always the issue of overdose or dying when talking about the effects of substance abuse on the body. Overdoses happen daily to thousands of people. However, drug-related deaths do not stop at overdoses.

People can go into cardiac arrest from drug and substance abuse which can kill them. This broadens the number of deaths per year related to drugs by thousands of lives lost.

Side-Effects of Long-Term Substance Abuse

There are some serious long-term side effects of substance abuse, depending on the substance that is being abused and how long the substance has been abused for causes the side effects of long-term substance abuse to show up differently.

However, several long-term substance abuse side effects are general issues.

The side effects of long-term substance abuse include organ failure, behavioral issues, premature death, cardiovascular issues, brain damage, increased risk of impulsive behavior and addictive behaviors, executive function issues, and more. 

Of course, long-term substance abuse almost always results in addiction. Addiction is the most impactful and severe side effect of long-term substance abuse because it is physical, chemical, and psychological.

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How to Detox From the Effects of Substance Abuse & Get Your Body Healthy Again

To help your body begin to heal, you must detox the drugs from your body. Once your body gets rid of the substance, it will begin healing. Unfortunately, the body receives drugs and other substances like toxins, so the reaction to flushing them out of the system is very similar to being ill. 

Once the drugs have been removed from your body, you will begin to heal. The body has a fascinating way of rebuilding the broken parts as best as possible. 

Detoxification is often one of the hardest parts of recovery and fighting addiction. Substance abuse is challenging physically and mentally, so it is important that someone going through detox is well-prepared and supported.

Making sure that you detox safely and properly is crucial. Medical emergencies can occur during detox, as can relapses. If you or a loved one is planning to detox the substance they are abusing from their body, please do so at a detoxification center or at a professional care facility where they can be supervised and taken care of properly.

Reach out to us today to get started on taking steps towards getting your life back. Nobody deserves to live in a body plagued with addiction and abuse.


Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.

  1. Eske J. Physical and mental effects of drug abuse — Medical News Today. Published June 19, 2022. Accessed July 3, 2022.
Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed July 3, 2022

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