What Are the Mental and Physical Effects of the Drug Ecstasy?

Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a synthetic drug first developed by German chemist Anton Köllisch in 1912. The drug was tested and tinkered with for decades after. First, it was used as a potential cure for internal bleeding, later as a synthetic version of adrenaline, and later still for its psychoactive effects.

Recreational use of ecstasy was not popularized until the 1970s and 1980s, when young people began using the drug to avoid strict criminalization of drugs like cocaine and LSD. Still, ecstasy earned Schedule I classification (drugs with a high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use) from the Food and Drug Administration by May 1985.

How Does Ecstasy Work?

Ecstasy goes by a few different names, such as Molly, E, X, and Adam, among others. Its formal chemical name is 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. This drug combines the effects of the stimulant amphetamine and the hallucinogen mescaline, creating a unique high that is unlike any other drug.

When someone takes ecstasy, the drug acts on three neurotransmitters in the body’s central nervous system. These neurotransmitters are serotonin, which is known to affect (among other things) mood and sexual arousal; dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers; and norepinephrine, which controls the body’s functions of sleepiness and wakefulness. As the drug affects these neurotransmitters, common physical and mental effects include:

  • A sense of intense wellbeing (euphoria)
  • A feeling of excited calm or peace
  • Feelings of wellbeing
  • Heightened sensitivity
  • Increased physical and emotional energy
  • Increased sociability and closeness
  • Relaxation

Given that initial side effects of ecstasy are positive, it isn’t hard to understand how this drug soared to popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. However, as more scientists have had the chance to study ecstasy, and more people have experienced issues with the drug firsthand, negative and even harmful side effects have become clear. These include:

  • Sweating
  • Ataxia, or the loss of full control of bodily movements
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Changes in perception
  • Dry mouth
  • Empathy
  • Mild intoxication
  • Muscle tension

When someone is using ecstasy, they exhibit some clear signs of drug use that are easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Behavioral changes and physical changes can both be signs of an ecstasy addiction. If you believe that someone you care about may be abusing ecstasy, monitor their behavior for signs of use and misuse. Along with the side effects listed above, you might notice additional physical and mental effects, such as:

  • Lethargy or fatigue
  • Susceptibility to getting the common flu or cold
  • Hemorrhaging
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Cardiovascular collapse

If you notice one or more of these symptoms, it’s possible that your loved one is abusing ecstasy regularly or even suffering from an addiction to the drug. Early intervention is the best way to avoid long-term effects from the drug, so it’s important to get them help. As a drug that causes direct chemical changes to the pathways in the brain, there are many dangers surrounding ecstasy use.

The dangers of taking ecstasy are both immediate and long-term. The drug can cause external harm in the moment, as taking it can increase heart rate and cause cardiovascular problems, especially in people who already have a heart condition. Ecstasy increases body temperature, which researchers at Anglia Ruskin University found can cause damage to the liver and kidney. In addition, ecstasy users are prone to dehydration, which can cause a bevy of associated issues.

Overdose is a very legitimate risk for ecstasy users. Overdose occurs when a person takes more ecstasy at once than the body is able to process; it can also occur when the user mixes ecstasy with other substances of abuse, such as cocaine or alcohol. According to the journal Scientific American, ecstasy overdose can lead to death due to heart failure or heat stroke.

Another disturbing side effect of ecstasy use is the extreme effect it can have on the brain. As discussed, ecstasy increases serotonin levels, leading to improved mood and feelings of desire. However, among people who use ecstasy regularly, this feeling does not last. A study from the University of Liverpool discovered that using ecstasy actually reduced serotonin levels in the brain once it worn off. Other studies mirrored these results, with one even finding that decreased serotonin levels could persist for seven years after taking the drug. As a result, ecstasy’s lasting effect on the brain could lead to general feelings of unhappiness, which will in turn drive an individual back to the drug, perpetuating the cycle of addiction.


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Treatment for Ecstasy Abuse

counselorPer the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are no current medications specifically designed to help an individual recover from an addiction to ecstasy. However, existing treatments like behavioral therapy have proven effective for many people who struggle with abuse of the drug.

Generally, treatment for ecstasy abuse involves supervised withdrawal to ensure relapse doesn’t occur during detox and comprehensive addiction therapy to address issues that led to the initial abuse of the drug. As with all substance abuse treatment, care should be ongoing; per NIDA, treatment that lasts at least 90 days is most effective in achieving lasting recovery.

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