Substance abuse takes a toll on the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system. Even caffeine affects blood pressure and circulation. Imagine what happens to the heart when you take cocaine or amphetaminesIt isn’t just stimulants that are the culprit. Alcohol consumption is one of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

About 1 in every 4 deaths in the United States is caused by heart disease. That’s roughly 610,000 people every year. The habitual use of substances increases the risk of having a heart attack and other related conditions.

The cardiovascular system pumps blood throughout the body. It’s the blood’s job to deliver oxygen to the cells and remove carbon dioxide and waste materials from the body. The heart provides the force that moves the blood, while the capillaries, arteries, and veins provide the tubing that transports the blood, nutrients, and waste materials.

Taking substances can affect the cardiovascular system in a variety of ways:

●  Thickness of the blood

●  Diameter of the arteries and veins

●  Elasticity of the arteries and veins

●  Power of the heartbeat

●  Rate of the heartbeat

Over time, the fluctuations of these factors can make you more prone to complications from cardiovascular disease, including death.

When Cardiovascular Disease Meets Substance Abuse

When cardiovascular disease meets the disease of addiction, it can be a recipe for disaster. Some types of heart disease are hereditary. Others are environmental. Drug and alcohol use increases the wear and tear on the cardiovascular system.

Alcohol deprives organs of oxygen and disrupts blood flow to key areas of the body, especially the brain. Oxygen deprivation can cause the surrounding tissues to become necrotic and die. Muscular actions can become weaker and less responsive. The liver wears down faster and has a harder time filtering toxins from the body.

Substances Linked to Cardiovascular Disease

Alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines and some of the worst substances for cardiovascular risk factors. Heroin and other opiates can cause arrhythmias, pulmonary edema, and may reduce cardiac output (weaken the heartbeat).

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways that substances can impact the health of your heart. 

Alcohol and Heart Health

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the rate of alcoholism in America has skyrocketed by 49% since the 2000s. 12.7% of the population, or one in eight American adults, now meets the criteria for alcohol addiction.  Alcohol abuse disorder doesn’t just affect the heart. According to the study’s authors, alcoholism is a significant risk factor in a spectrum of health issues:

“fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, liver cirrhosis, several types of cancer and infections, pancreatitis, type 2 diabetes, and various injuries.”

Alcohol abuse can also lead to:

●  Hypertension (high blood pressure)

●  Hemorrhaging

●  Peripheral artery disease

●  Arrhythmia

Stimulants and Heart Health

Stimulants like cocaine, amphetamines (Adderall), methamphetamine (meth), and MDMA (ecstasy), have damaging effects on the cardiovascular system. They engage the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “fight to flight” response, to release large amounts of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This can overload the cardiovascular system and increase the likelihood of a heart attack.

Stimulant use increases the risk of heart attack by:

●  Narrowing the blood vessels

●  Elevating heart rate

●  Increasing adrenaline and other stress hormones

●  Raising blood pressure

●  Making the heartbeat at an irregular rate

When the body experiences several of these factors at once, it can lead to myocardial ischemia. Myocardial ischemia refers to reduced blood flow to an area of the heart. When a given area of the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen for too long, the cells begin to die, causing a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

Long-term users of stimulants can experience heart spasms that lead to tears in the arteries that supply the heart with blood. These tears can eventually spread into the heart.

Why Cocaine is the Ultimate Heart Attack Drug

According to findings from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 14% of Americans over the age of 12 have tried cocaine at least once.

Even recreational cocaine users can have many of the side effects that increase the chance of cardiovascular disease and death. Recreational cocaine use can result in higher blood pressure, thicker heart muscle walls, and stiffer arteries.

According to an Australian study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, cocaine users have higher rates of risk factors for strokes and heart attacks. Researchers found that recreational cocaine users have left heart ventricles that are 18% thicker than average. Thicker heart walls cause the heart to pump less effectively due to decreased elasticity. Cocaine users in the study also had higher systolic blood pressure and a 30% increase in aortic stiffening.

Cocaine increases clotting factors in the blood, meaning that the arteries are more likely to become blocked. Clogged arteries increase the risk of heart attack. Many people who use cocaine drink alcohol at the same time. The combined use of cocaine and alcohol causes the liver to produce a toxic byproduct called cocaethylene.

Opioids and Heart Attacks

When most people think of substance abuse and heart attacks, opioids like morphine probably don’t come to mind, but they should. While stimulants like cocaine make the heartbeat too fast, painkillers like oxycodone can make the heartbeat too slow.

Opioids can reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system to dangerously low levels. When this happens, the heart rate slows, blood pressure plummets, and the heartbeat can become irregular. Opioids also depress the respiratory system, potentially causing the body to forget to breathe. The combination of reduced respiration and poor circulation can put users at high risk for a heart attack.

You Only Need to Take Too Much Once

When genetic and environmental risk factors combine with substance abuse, it only takes one night of partying too push your cardiovascular system over the edge. If you do survive after years of regular drug and alcohol use, the damage may already be done to the walls of your arteries and the strength of your heart.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is available to answer any questions you may have. Call us today at 602-535 6468 or email us at

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