Health Effects of MDMA (Ecstasy)

Health Effects of MDMA (Ecstasy)

MDMA (3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is an illegal, manmade psychoactive drug more commonly known as Ecstasy. In the U.S., peak use of Ecstasy occurred in 2001; however, significant numbers of American pre-teens, teenagers and young adults still take the drug at least occasionally. MDMA is unique among common drugs because it combines the effects of a stimulant such as methamphetamine with the perception-altering effects typically associated with hallucinogens. In addition to the effects actively sought by Ecstasy users, consumption of the drug can trigger a number of dangerous or unwanted health-related effects, as well as the eventual onset of physical dependence or addiction.

MDMA Basics

Despite its hallucinogenic properties, health and legal authorities in the U.S. classify MDMA as a stimulant. Inside the brain, it achieves most of its mind-altering effects by increasing levels of a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) called serotonin, which plays a critical role in human health by helping to control such essential functions as sleep cycles, sexual urges, pain susceptibility, and basic mood regulation. MDMA also increases levels of a second neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, which helps control your blood pressure and heart rate, as well as levels of a third neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps regulate your ability to experience pleasure.

After a user swallows an MDMA pill or tablet, the drug reaches his or her brain in roughly 15 minutes and produces its peak effect in roughly one hour. On average, an MDMA “trip” lasts anywhere from three to six hours, although specific times vary according to the purity of the dosage. Ecstasy users typically seek a euphoric state that features heightened energy levels; loss of normal social or personal inhibitions; a heightened sense of touch; loss of an accurate sense of time; a fixation on sounds or sources of visual stimulation; and feelings that can include increased confidence, social connectedness and empathy toward others.

Short-Term Effects

In addition to its “desired” effects, MDMA commonly produces short-term effects that include heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, blurry vision, uncontrolled jaw clenching, nausea and either sweating or chills. In unpredictable circumstances, some users also develop seizures while under the drug’s influences. Since Ecstasy users often stay active for extended periods of time in cramped environments such as clubs or “raves,” they can also develop unpredictable cases of serious or severe dehydration, as well as rapid, severe increases in core body temperature. In turn, these body temperature increases can trigger a form of muscle tissue breakdown called rhabdomyolysis, as well as dangerous or deadly failure of the liver, kidneys, or heart. Ecstasy users can increase their risks for harmful or fatal outcomes if they take multiple doses of the drug in a short span of time, or take a single very high dose.

Long-Term Effects

Long-term or users of Ecstasy (and, in some cases, short-term users) can develop a variety of different health problems, including sleep disturbances, confused thought processes, depression and intense anxiety. Depending on factors that include individual response, frequency of drug use and length of drug use, these problems can last anywhere from a day to several weeks following a single MDMA “trip.” In addition, when compared to people in their age groups who don’t use the drug, MDMA users commonly score lower on tests that measure memory, logic and other basic cognitive functions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in animal testing, MDMA has been shown to act as a long-lasting neurotoxin that damages the brain’s serotonin system for several years or more. However, no real-world human testing has verified these laboratory results.

Problems of Purity

Since MDMA is illegal in the U.S., drug manufacturers produce it without any oversight from medical or legal authorities. This means that users of the drug have no idea how much actual MDMA a supposed dose of Ecstasy really contains. In some cases, manufacturers dupe MDMA users by passing off other, potentially toxic related substances-such as MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine) or PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine)-as “Ecstasy.” In other cases, they may “cut” a dose of MDMA with other drugs such as cocaine, caffeine, methamphetamine, ketamine, ephedrine or the cough suppressant dextromethorphan. In combination with MDMA, any of these drugs can produce additional, serious health-related dangers.

Dependence and Addiction

Many MDMA users believe that they can’t get addicted to their drug of choice. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports, approximately 43 percent of all MDMA users show clears signs of dependence, a physical reliance on a drug’s effects that sometimes acts as a precursor for full-blown addiction. Dependence typically manifests as withdrawal symptoms following a drug’s sudden absence; in the case of MDMA, these symptoms commonly include depression, lack of concentration, appetite loss and unexplained fatigue. A minority of MDMA users also show clear signs of addictive behavior, which classically include compulsive drug seeking and a consistent, reckless disregard for the consequences and penalties associated with drug use.

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