Cocaine Prevents Fat Storage, Study Finds

Many people addicted to cocaine gain substantial amounts of weight once they enter recovery, and the mental/physical effects of this weight gain can contribute significantly to the risks for relapse and a return to drug use. Until now, doctors and researchers have tied weight gain in recovering cocaine addicts to the urge to replace drug consumption with food consumption. However, according to the results of a study published in August 2013 by the University of Cambridge, long-term cocaine use may actually lay the groundwork for recovery-related weight gain by altering the body’s ability to properly store fat.

Background Information

Cocaine is notorious for its ability to generate powerful forms of addiction. It gets this power from its ability to sharply boost the levels of a brain chemical responsible for producing pleasurable sensations. Of all Americans over the age of 12, 14.3 percent have uses cocaine at some point in their lifetimes, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. The highest rates of usage occur in adults age 26 or older, and the second highest rates occur in teenagers and younger adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Cocaine use is rarer among younger teenagers, but still occurs in up to 5 percent of high school students.

Treating Cocaine Addiction

In the U.S., there are no medications specifically designed to deal with the effects of cocaine addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains. However, several medications originally created to deal with other ailments show at least some promise as ad hoc or makeshift treatments. Examples of these medications include the alcoholism drug disulfiram, the weight loss drug topiramate, the anti-seizure drug vigabatrin, the anti-seizure drug tiagabine and a treatment for narcolepsy and sleep apnea called modafinil.

Doctors also treat cocaine addiction with a number of behavior modification techniques known collectively as behavioral interventions. Examples of these interventions include a psychotherapeutic approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an incentive-based therapy called contingency management, long-term live-in programs called therapeutic communities and 12-step programs or other mutually supportive recovery groups. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, is known for its ability to reduce the chances that a recovering cocaine addict will experience a relapse.

New Findings

Long-term cocaine addicts frequently lose a lot of weight while using the drug, then regain considerable amounts of weight when they enter recovery programs. This rapid weight gain can meaningfully degrade a recovering addict’s physical and mental well-being, and thereby increase the chances that a relapse will occur. In the study published by the University of Cambridge, a team of researchers examined several weight-related factors in a group of 30 men addicted to cocaine. These factors included the men’s eating patterns, daily diets, overall level of body fat and levels of a substance—called leptin—needed to store body fat. After gathering data from these men, the researchers compared the results to those of another group of 30 men unaffected by cocaine addiction.

After reviewing their work, the researchers made a surprising finding. Despite the fact that they tend to lose weight, active cocaine addicts frequently adopt a diet that’s relatively high in weight gain-promoting fats and carbohydrates. However, even though they eat lots of high-fat foods, these addicts have relatively low levels of body fat when compared to people not addicted to cocaine. This is apparently true because of the metabolism-altering effects of the drug, which lower the body’s stores of leptin, and therefore reduce the body’s ability to store fat properly. When cocaine addicts enter recovery, their bodies no long experience the fat-suppressing effects of leptin. Since many addicts already consume diets high in fat and carbohydrates, absence of leptin’s effects frequently leads to relatively rapid weight gain. It is this process that leads to increases in cocaine addicts’ weight-related chances of relapsing during recovery.


The University of Cambridge researchers believe that their study shows that, despite common perceptions among doctors and the general public, cocaine is not an appetite suppressant. To the contrary, cocaine addicts often eat substantial amounts of foods that would cause weight gain were it not for cocaine’s offsetting effects on fat processing. Understanding of this fact could potentially help doctors lower the risks for cocaine-related relapse by altering their preconceptions and preparing them to reduce the risks for weight gain during recovery.