Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered cocaine actually does make you thin. Cocaine could stimulate significant metabolic changes that not only make it more difficult for the body to store fat, but also make an addict's recovery process more difficult with dramatic weight gain.

The research, published in the journal Appetite, challenges earlier beliefs that cocaine use simply suppresses appetite. In studying cocaine users, the Cambridge scientists found metabolic changes that need further evaluation, especially for recovery treatment purposes.

“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 Dr. Karen Ersche from the Bahavioural 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.”

Dramatic weight gain is often seen after chronic cocaine users overcome their addiction. However, rehabilitation experts and psychologists believed that the weight was due to substituting drugs with food. Ersche’s team of researchers have found evidence that could change the rehabilitation process forever.

In the study, body composition, diet, eating behavior, and leptin levels, which control energy storage, of 60 male participants were monitored. Half of the men were dependent, chronic cocaine users, while the other half was a control group consisting of men with neither a personal nor family history of drug abuse.

Before the study's cocaine users entered into the recovery stage, they exhibited uncontrolled eating patterns with preference for foods high in fat and carbohydrates. Ersche said it seemed that the preference was specifically caused by cocaine.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are 14.3 million cocaine users as of 2011. The national survey covered ages 12 and older and found that it is the short high from snorting cocaine, which lasts anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes, that encourages continued use and hooks its users. As a strong central nervous system stimulant, cocaine floods the brain with dopamine, creating a feeling of euphoria and pleasure.

Cocaine use affects the constriction of blood vessels and increases body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Will scientists soon be able to add metabolic irregularities onto cocaine’s list of consequences?

Body-Conscious Cocaine Recovery

“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,” said Ersche.

In addition to the physiological changes that take place when it comes to cocaine use, the stress of recovery can also play an unpleasant role in weight gain. Body image-consciousness can easily induce stress and increase the chances of relapse.

Cocaine invariably stunts a person’s metabolism throughout use. It all comes down to a decrease in leptin, which ultimately regulates appetite and metabolism, because for a cocaine-dependent individual, his or her leptin levels are much lower. When coupled with high-fat diets, the body ultimately suffers an impaired energy balance.

Take away the cocaine, and the user is still left with the desire to consume high fats and carbohydrates and nothing to keep leptin levels down, causing a spike in weight gain.

“It is therefore important that we better understand effects of cocaine on eating behavior and body weight to best support drug users on their road to recovery,” Ersche said.

Source: Ersche KD, Fletcher PC, Stochl J, Woodward JM. The Skinny on Cocaine: insights into eating behavior and body weight in cocaine- dependent men. Appetite. 2013.