Jun 16, 2008
Metabolism, Weight Gain and Recovery from Meth
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 work?
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 needs.
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 explain:
Heck yes, I want fries with that!
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 right…
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 for energy.
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, indeed.
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 choices.
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
Meth and Metabolism
Dopamine, Methamphetamines, and You