Metabolism, Weight Gain and Recovery from
Recovering from active meth addiction presents
some special challenges, one of those being unwanted weight gain. Before
understanding some specific weight problems related to meth use, we need
to have a good understanding of how our metabolism works in general.
How does the human metabolism
Metabolism is a big word that means the
rate at which the body uses energy.
We eat, taking in calories, which are broken down
and used for energy. When there is a surplus, the body will store it as
fat. In order to use up that stored fat for energy, we must eat fewer
calories than our bodies require for the energy we use.
We could accomplish this by reducing calories, or
increasing the amount of energy used. Or both. It looks simple. But it’s
not. If we only ate for energy, this would probably be rather easy.
However, we generally eat for many more reasons than simple energy
Eating for Nutrients
Our bodies use specific amino acids found
in certain foods for a variety of purposes. For example, we need protein
in order to make dopamine (a brain chemical that governs our moods and energy levels,
which is destroyed while using meth). If we don’t eat enough protein,
our bodies will begin breaking down our own muscle tissue. This often
happens when people forget to eat because they are high on meth. During
this time, more protein is lost than what is replaced. This imbalance
causes a gradual loss in lean muscle. This causes a big problem.
You see, lean muscle burns up to 20 times more
calories than the same amount of weight in fat. For example: a 200 pound
body builder, who has lots of lean muscle and barely any body fat, burns
more calories just sitting on the couch watching Oprah than a different
200 pound person, who has much less lean muscle mass, but carries around
60 pounds of fat with them. Fat doesn’t burn any calories. Muscle does.
These two people can weigh the exact same weight, and have drastically
different metabolisms. That means they would have to eat and exercise
very differently if they wanted to maintain or lose weight.
This is worth repeating: If
we deprive ourselves of the protein our bodies need, the body will break
down lean muscle mass, which results in a slower metabolism. This means
that it is even harder to burn off the fat, and we would require even
less calories or even more exercise to maintain our weight.
On the other hand, adding a few extra pounds of
lean muscle can increase metabolic rate by up to 200 calories per day.
This is of particular importance to someone who is
in recovery from meth addiction. Many meth users have spent weeks and
months at a time depriving their bodies of enough calories and protein
to function. During that time, the body had no choice but to break down
existing lean muscle mass and use up stored fat. Now that they have
stopped using, they have much less muscle than before, which means that
their metabolism is much slower than before. If they ate the same things
they did before they used without gaining weight, they would now gain
weight. They would have to eat less (or exercise more) to achieve the
same results. They would have to eat A LOT LESS (or exercise A LOT
MORE), to lose weight.
Increasing exercise is
especially challenging for recovering meth addicts, because movement
relies on dopamine which is generally in short supply in early recovery.
Eating less wouldn’t be so
hard if the recovering addict’s body wasn’t deprived of vital nutrients,
causing the brain to send out messages to FEED ME!!! FEED ME!!!
Our bodies experience cravings to satisfy
nutritional needs as well as in response to chemical reactions in the
brain. This is a survival tactic. It’s supposed to work this way. Let me
Heck yes, I want fries
Sometimes we eat because we have a craving. Some cravings are just a
result of our bodies telling us that we need something. Maybe we need
sodium, so we crave salty foods. Maybe we are low on energy and crave
quickly-converted carbohydrates. Perhaps our blood sugar has dropped too
low, and we crave sugar to fix the problem. These cravings have kept us
humans alive by subconsciously telling us to eat what we need.
Recovering meth addicts face
a particularly hard battle with weight gain because on one hand, they
need much less calories now than before. On the other hand, they need
nutrients so their brain tells them to eat!
For many people, craving signals can be confusing. For example: almost
every one of us will experience cravings for unknown foods, which tend
to be hard to satisfy (resulting in continuous trips to the fridge)
because we have confused the feelings of thirst with that of hunger. We
feel like we are missing something… so we keep eating… but what we
actually needed was water. Eventually we will either get enough water
out of the foods we ate to make the craving subside, or the discomfort
of being too full will outweigh the craving for water, and we will stop
eating. However, by overeating, instead of drinking, we took in way more
calories than we can use. This translates into stored fat.
As a “double whammy” over 70% of bodily functions
take place in water - not enough water causes all our systems to slow
down. We want to speed things up, not slow them down!
A recovering meth addict
also dehydrated their body while they were using. Re-hydration is very
important in beginning to repair the damage done to the metabolism.
But I just don’t feel
Sometimes people eat because it makes them feel better. This is due to
the chemical reactions that occur when we eat certain foods. Sugar and
carbohydrates cause dopamine to release in the brain, which elevates mood. People who
have learned to connect eating sweets and carbs with feeling better can
easily fall into the habit of eating to cope with a feeling they don’t
like, rather than eating to provide the body with nutrients or calories
Foods are a drug when it comes down to it. Food
can be abused just like drugs can.
Many chemical reactions occur when we eat. Another
example: when our tummies are full, our bodies send signals to the brain
to stop eating. Those signals are accomplished by the brain chemical
Serotonin being released in the brain. Unfortunately, serotonin is also
partly responsible for a general feeling of wellness. Low serotonin
levels are associated with depression.
So eating until you are full increases serotonin
levels, which decreases feelings of depression. One can easily make a
habit of overeating to make up for feeling low.
Eating to overcome neurotransmitter imbalances
tends to result in a marked increase in calorie intake. Without
increasing activity and lean muscle mass, our bodies have no choice but
to store the extra calories as fat. In addition, we’ve stuffed ourselves
with food we don’t need, leaving no room for food we DO NEED, causing
our bodies to lose more lean muscle mass and decrease our metabolisms
even further. It’s like a snowball rolling down hill. As the cycle
continues, it gets exponentially worse.
Recovering meth addicts
suffer from notably low dopamine levels. The brain will naturally
attempt to get a dopamine release just to feel normal. This results in
sugar and carbohydrate cravings. Just when what they really needed was
protein, the brain tells them to seek out sugar! Very frustrating,
But I hardly ever eat!
How often you eat has a big impact on your metabolism. The longer you go
between meals the more your metabolism slows down to conserve energy and
the more likely the body will break down it's own lean muscle mass. So
if you haven’t eaten in days, your metabolism is at an all time low.
This means when you DO eat, you will not be able to use all those
calories for energy because your body is still in the mode to conserve
energy. This translates to stored fat. AGAIN!!
Eating smaller, more frequent meals assures your
body that food is readily available, and there is no need to conserve
energy. This raises your metabolism. Eating 4 smaller meals, rather than
3 larger ones, is much more conducive to weight loss.
An active meth addict who rarely eats is forcing
their metabolism to slow to a crawl. It takes time for the body to
adjust to being fed regularly again, and even then, there is still less
lean muscle mass to use those calories.
Fine! I’ll eat nothing
but fat free/low fat stuff!
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well either. Our bodies need a
certain amount of fat in order to be healthy. For example, hormone
production is reliant on at least a little bit of fat in the diet.
Low-fat diets tend to result in poor hormone production, which leads to
a slower metabolism. We don’t want that again!
I’m just getting old…
nothing I can do about it…
Yes and no. While the metabolism does slow some due to aging, most of
what we notice is actually due to a reduction in physical activity and
lean muscle mass. Think about how active you were in high school, or
shortly after. Always running around, lots of walking places, maybe
sports or dancing on a regular basis. Fast forward 10 or 20 years, throw
a few kids in the mix, and there is probably a whole lot less physical
activity happening, and a whole lot more Oprah watching going on.
Physical activity and lean muscle mass have a much
bigger impact on metabolism than aging.
So what do I do now?
Well, here is my “Top 10 List” of suggestions to address a slow
metabolism, weather meth induced, or otherwise:
10. Increase physical
activity. Just walking 45 minutes a day will burn more
calories and build lean muscle mass.
9. Drink plenty of
water. This increases metabolism and reduces the chances
of a thirst craving being misinterpreted as a hunger craving. No,
Cokes and Coffee are not water substitutes…. In fact, caffeinated
drinks will dehydrate you and often have too much sodium.
8. Speaking of
sodium…. lay off the salt! Sodium is one of the most
common appetite increasers!
7. Plan regular
balanced meals that provide the nutrients we need. A
multi vitamin couldn’t hurt. Break 3 meals into 4 smaller meals.
6. Do not skip meals.
Yes, breakfast really is a meal.
5. Don’t allow
yourself to get so hungry that you make poor food
4. Don’t eat until
you are stuffed. Our bodies take some time to communicate
to our brains that we are full. Give it that time!
3. Keep a diary of
what you eat. Make special notes if you eat something and
realize later that it was a coping mechanism. Write it down if you
were feeling bored, or lonely, or stressed, or upset when you made a
bad food choice. Therapy or self-help books can help you deal with
these “food issues”, by helping you learn new, positive ways to cope
with those feelings. Just like with drug use, abstaining from coco-crispies
is not recovery from eating as a coping mechanism!
2. Build lean muscle
mass. Very simple exercises that can be done in the home
without buying any equipment or weights are quite effective. Do some
arm curls with an empty milk jug filled with water or sand. Stand on
your tippy-toes for 5 minutes. Lift that basket of laundry up and
down 10 times before hiding it behind the couch!
1. Give it time. If your metabolism has been slowed due to meth abuse or crash
dieting, it will take time for your body to recover and “believe
you” that you won’t starve yourself of nutrients or calories again.
University of Texas at Austin
Disclaimer: I am not a
medical doctor and this page was not intended to provide medical advice.
Other articles by Lori Pate:
Triggers to use drugs
When there is more than meth going on
The Brain Chemistry of Being a Loved One
Dopamine, Methamphetamines, and You
Back to Crystal Meth & Methamphetamine Questions, Answers & Advice