Cocaine is extracted from coca leaves, and was used initially as a painkiller. In fact, in the late 1880s it was dentistry’s first injectable anesthetic and is still considered useful for nasal surgery. However, dentists and patients alike quickly discovered the drug’s ease of addiction. This inspired the development of alternative anesthetics without addictive properties, such as procaine, novocaine, and lidocaine.
In addition to addiction, cocaine use can lead to sudden death from heart attacks or strokes. It can also cause kidney failure and perforations of nasal sinuses or intestines. Because cocaine is a stimulant, the user can lose interest in food leading to weight loss and malnutrition.
Cocaine is used in powder or crystal form. The powder is often cut with other white powders such as talcum, sugar, or methamphetamine. It is snorted up the nose or injected. The crystal form, when heated, makes a cracking sound which is the reason it is called crack cocaine. Crack is smoked. Because it is cheaper than cocaine powder, crack is the form of choice in poor black neighborhoods which powder is more often found in more affluent white neighborhoods. The disparity expresses itself in criminal justice, with less severe punishments for powder use vs crack use in many jurisdictions.
The stimulant addiction epidemic is particularly tragic when seen through the lens of politics. A California journalist, the subject of a film called Shoot the Messenger, won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the United States government’s role in starting the crack epidemic in the country’s ghettos to fund Oliver North’s contra war in Central America.
The epidemic began in the 1980s, when addiction to cocaine, particularly to crack, was what revealed the weakness of the nation’s by-then standard model of treatment; The model still in use now, 40 years later. The inpatient programs were packed, but many left without completing the typical 28-day course of treatment and, of those who remained in treatment, most relapsed within 24 hours of “graduating.” That is also when amino acid supplements were first used as part of addiction treatment to address the new understanding of addiction as a brain neurotransmitter deficit disorder. We learned then that cocaine particularly targets the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is not only a natural generator of mental and physical energy but also of powerful feelings of reward. The amino acid precursor tyrosine restores optimal levels of this neurotransmitter which is depleted by cocaine use. Once the potential of this and the closely related amino acid L-phenylalanine was recognized, they began to be used across the country.
The famous cocaine addiction expert Mark Gold, MD, pioneered the use of aminos on the East Coast.
Kenneth Blum, PhD, noted neuroscientist and addiction expert published an impressive study showing AWOL rates dropping from 40% to 4% in a cocaine-addiction treatment program in Texas that provided amino acids to patients.
The medical director at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic raved in a San Francisco newspaper about their use of amino acids with crack addicts.
Minneapolis treatment innovator Joan Mathews Larson, PhD, author of Seven Weeks to Sobriety, spoke about it at conferences.
“The amino acid tyrosine was the first amino acid we ever used in our outpatient program in San Francisco,” says Julia Ross, MA, addiction treatment pioneer and cofounder of the Alliance. “After reading a transcript of a lecture by Joan Mathews Larson, I told our staff nutritionist to start using tyrosine with our cocaine and crack addicted clients. We had immediate, startling success with these formerly intractable cases.”
“Our first experiment was with an African American crack addict who had been in treatment many times. He was about to lose his job and his family until during his first week on tyrosine he lost his cravings! And, he continued to be drug-free. Like Larson we used individual doses, up to 2,000mg three to four times a day. We had the same response with all our cocaine and crack-addicted clients.”
As with all treatments for addiction using amino acids, helper nutrients are also needed in addition to tyrosine, such as a good multi-vitamin/mineral to replenish the malnourished brain and body, and a pro-recovery diet high in animal protein and vegetables, along with fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds, and whole grains as tolerated.
Methamphetamine has largely replaced crack use as this cheaper stimulant has become available from backyard “labs” all over the country. Fortunately, the response to tyrosine treatment has been just as good in meth addicts, as explained in the section on Meth that follows.
With all the media attention on opioid addiction it is easy to forget that the stimulant drug methamphetamine was responsible for more drug-related treatment admissions in the state of Hawaii than any other drug. It was also number one in San Diego, second in San Francisco, and third in Denver and Phoenix. In Sacramento County, California, as of 2015, nearly twice as many addicts admitted to treatment programs used methamphetamine (41%) as alcohol (23%) or opioids (20%). Across the USA, methamphetamine is one of the four drugs most mentioned in emergency room visits.
A meth high releases three powerful stimulant neurotransmitters into the space between nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine creates feelings of arousal and reward. Norepinephrine focuses the mind and primes the memory. Epinephrine (adrenaline) stops hunger and pumps the body with agitated energy, and raises blood pressure, putting us in the fight or flight state which allows us to cope with sudden stress.
In a Frontline special “How Meth Destroys the Body” produced by PBS, a lab experiment on animals revealed that the level of dopamine rises by 100 to 200 units when the animal enjoyed food or sex. Dopamine rose by 350 units when the animal was given cocaine, and it shot up by 1,250 units when given methamphetamine.
What can be done to quench the powerful urge to keep using meth and to stop the hideous crash that begins as the drug wears off, the profound fatigue, and the other long-term consequences to brain and body of prolonged malnourishment and lack of sleep? What can keep people in recovery even though the most recent research suggests it takes at least a year for the brain to recovery function after stopping meth use?
You may be surprised to learn that some addiction treatment professionals find methamphetamine the easiest drug of all to treat successfully. According to Julia Ross, MA, author and nationally recognized pioneer in the use of nutrients and diet for addiction recovery, the over-the-counter amino acid L-tyrosine works literal magic on cravings for methamphetamine within an hour. It works by quickly restoring all three of the naturally stimulating neurotransmitters depleted by meth use.
Ross, a 40 year veteran in the addiction treatment field, and one of the cofounders of the Alliance for Addiction Solutions, finds that clients feel noticeably less inclined to use methamphetamine within ten minutes of starting treatment with L-tyrosine. For full recovery from methamphetamine use, the addicted brain typically needs L-tyrosine three to four times a day for a year or more, depending on the individual’s history of use and inherited biochemistry. Initially an individual will often need 2,000 mg per dose (4 capsules of 500mg each). Later, the dose may be dropped as brain repair proceeds.
Additionally, a full spectrum of other nutrients is needed to support the amino acid brain repair, derived from both wholesome food and specific nutritional supplements. In this way the malnourished brain and body are both restored. These helper nutrients include vitamin C, a multivitamin/mineral combination with a strong B complex in it, and omega 3 fatty acids from cold water fish oil.
Finally, the individual recovering from methamphetamine addiction needs lots of rest and sleep to recover from the extensive string of sleepless nights while on the drug.
There are those in and outside of government who claim damage to a brain by meth is permanent, and yet, it’s clear to those who watch the transformation through neuronutrient therapy that the meth brain can be repaired.
For 18 years Carolyn Reuben, L.Ac. directed the non-traditional therapies used at Sacramento County’s Adult Drug Court run by the Probation Department. During that time 51% of the clients used methamphetamine. They and all other clients in the first six weeks of a 10-month treatment program received
Daily smoothie containing quality protein powder and fruit
weekly lessons in how food choices influenced their recovery
a weekly meal of wholesome food the clients learned to cook for themselves, including whole grain spaghetti and turkey meatballs, and brown rice with chicken and vegetable stir fry.
daily doses of the amino acids and other nutrients that questionnaires and personal interviews suggested they needed.
ear acupuncture several times a week
They also learned yoga and Chinese exercises like tai chi and qigong.
One ten-year methamphetamine addict enthusiastically reported, “I’m not eating a lot of sugary foods so I’m not having the cravings for the drugs any more. I feel better about myself. “
Others report having more energy and gaining back the weight they needed to gain. One surprise for clients was how tasty nutritious food can be. “It’s not just plain and nasty food that I thought it would be,” said one, “It’s a lot better!”
“You’ve given us a whole extra week!” one delighted counselor told Reuben, noting that before the focus on brain repair the counselors were used to having people sit in group half asleep with foggy brains for their first two weeks in Drug Court. After the nutrition and acupuncture program began fogginess lasted only the first week so the counselors got more done with clients and felt more satisfied at work.
According to Reuben, “From 2004 to 2005 a study by the state of California’s Administrative Office of the Courts found 83% of Drug Court graduates were not re-arrested in the two years following graduation. Then we added a new nutritional component of a bag of healthy food to take home each week, and individualized nutritional supplements that the questionnaire designed by Alliance cofounder Julia Ross and personal interviews suggested were needed. In 2005 the Institute for Social Policy at California State University Sacramento followed graduates for one year and found this time the re-arrest rate had dropped from 17% to 13%. Fully 87% of graduates had stayed out of the criminal justice system!”
Nutrition is a potent treatment tool for methamphetamine addiction and needs to be the foundation of every methamphetamine treatment program.
These two books are highly recommended if you wish to further explore nutritional recovery:
End Your Addiction Now by Charles Gant, MD, PhD and Greg Lewis, Square One, 2010
The Mood Cure by Julia Ross, MA, Penguin, 2004
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2012, about 1.2 million people admitted to using methamphetamine during the prior year. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-scope-methamphetamine-abuse-in-united-states
The Drug Abuse Warning Network reported meth following cocaine, marijuana, and heroin in emergency department visits in 2011. ibid.
The Effects of Methamphetamine on the Brain by Dustin Fry http://www.slideshare.net/dustinfry/the-effects-of-methamphetamine-on-the-brain
How Meth Destroys the Body; PBS Frontline, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/meth/body/
Brain functions that can prevent relapse improve after a year of methamphetamine abstinence. (2016). UC Davis Health System.
Drug Court: http://npcresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/California_Drug_Courts_Sacramento_Fact_Sheet_11082.pdf
Relapse rate: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4550209/