Cocaine changes metabolism after recovery, leads to weight gain

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It's long been thought that former cocaine addicts tend to gain weight in recovery because of better eating habits - and possibly because they substitute food for drugs.

But new research suggests that dramatic weight gain in recovery has biological roots: chronic cocaine use could temporarily reduce the body's ability to store fat, resulting in a sweeping metabolic changes during recovery that can cause a person to pile on pounds quickly.

Cocaine and metabolism

Researchers at the Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge scanned over 60 men to determine body composition, diet and eating behaviors. Half of the men in the study were cocaine dependent, while the other half had no history of drug abuse. Participants' leptin levels were also measured - which indicated important information about appetite and energy use.

Cocaine users seemed to have a preference for fatty foods and carbohydrates, while also showing patterns of "uncontrolled" eating. Despite these habits, however, the cocaine users often experienced weight loss and had significantly lower levels of body fat than non-users. Leptin levels were low in cocaine users, suggesting that, along with a high-fat diet, the users should be gaining rather than losing weight. After cocaine users stopped taking the drug, however, consumption of the same high-fat diet resulted in weight gain.

Dr Karen Ersche, from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, elaborated:

We were surprised how little body fat the cocaine users had in light of their reported consumption of fatty food. It seems that regular cocaine abuse directly interferes with metabolic processes and thereby reduces body fat. This imbalance between fat intake and fat storage may also explain why these individuals gain so much weight when they stop using cocaine.

Weight gain and relapse

Taking into account the metabolic changes that cocaine users will experience during recovery, researchers said that medical providers should understand the implications weight gain can have on the recovering addict's psychological and physical state.

"Notable weight gain following cocaine abstinence is not only a source of major personal suffering but also has profound implications for health and recovery," said Ersche. "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 stress of weight gain, Ersche noted, can also lead to relapse.

"It is therefore important that we better understand the effects of cocaine on eating behavior and body weight to best support drug users on their road to recovery."

Results of the study are published in the journal Appetite.

Source: University of Cambridge

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