Study: cocaine causes metabolic changes that stunt weight gain
It’s long been thought that the reason cocaine users didn’t gain weight was because the drug suppressed their appetites, but a new study from the University of Cambridge suggests that cocaine causes profound metabolic changes, reducing the body’s ability to store fat.
For recovering users, the dramatic weight gain they experience when they’re no longer using the drug can be extremely distressing and sometimes causes psychological and physiological issues which can be contributing factors in relapse. It was previously believed that the weight gain was sparked by those in rehabilitation substituting drugs with food.
"Notable weight gain following cocaine abstinence is not only a source of major personal suffering but also has profound implications for health and recovery," says Dr Karen Ersche, from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge. "Intervention at a sufficiently early stage could have the potential to prevent weight gain during recovery, thereby reducing personal suffering and improving the chances of recovery."
The body composition, diet, eating behaviour and leptin levels of over 60 men was examined in the paper, which is due to be published in the journal Appetite. Half of the men were dependent cocaine users, and the other half were a control group with no personal or family history of drug abuse. Cocaine users subsisting on a fatty diet were found to experience a decrease in body fat compared to the control group.
Ersche’s team of researchers discovered that cocaine users had a preference for fatty food and carbohydrates and often exhibited uncontrolled eating patterns even before they entered recovery. “It seems that the preference for fatty food is caused by cocaine,” Ersche tells Wired.co.uk.
The team conducted a survey at a mixture of community treatment services and rehab services of both users and staff members, and found that about 70 percent of those in recovery experienced marked weight gain, but staff had no solution to offer them.
"There were no guidelines about what to recommend to recovering drug users to manage their weight gain," says Ersche. "We believe this lack in knowledge is due to the common misconception about low body weight in active users. Our research challenges this misconception because it seems that a preference for fatty food may have pre-dated recovery and does not necessarily reflect a replacement for the drug."
Instead, says Ersche, the weight gain in recovering users is primarily due to continuing with the diet of fatty food, but without the effects of the cocaine stunting their metabolism, making it easier to understand and therefore manage.
In order to better be able to support dependent cocaine users in recovery by helping them to manage conspicuous changes in their bodies, Ersche will next investigate more closely the underlying factors contributing to increased body fat in abstinent cocaine-dependent individuals.