How Bath Salts Work

By: Nicholas Gerbis

Letting the Khat Out of the Bag

Like amphetamines, cocaine, LSD and ecstasy, bath salts act as a central nervous system stimulant, providing users a kick of energy, euphoria and sexual stimulation [sources: DEA; Olives et al.]. But bath salts also pack a psychoactive punch, meaning they can alter perceptions, emotions, thought processes and behavior [sources: Haiken; Merriam-Webster; U.K. Department of Health; Walsh].

These characteristics jibe with the known effects of bath salts' primary ingredients, namely mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone, aka meph, MCAT, drone or meow meow), MDPV (3,4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone) and methylone (3,4-methylenedioxymethcathinone), all of which are synthetic versions of cathinones, the active ingredients in khat. Khat (Catha edulis), a leafy plant native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is chewed in Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and elsewhere for its mildly euphoric, inhibition-freeing and appetite-suppressing effects [sources: Bossong; DEA; Fuentes; Goodnough and Zezima; Olives et al.; Reed].


Based on the molecular structure of cathinones, which resembles that of amphetamines, researchers hypothesize that they might inhibit reuptake of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin transporters in the brain [source: Olives et al.].

Your brain cells communicate via special chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Studies suggest that altering the balance of neurotransmitters affects mood and brain activity. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, better known as SSRIs, work by slowing down the reuptake (absorption) of serotonin, leaving more of the chemical messenger hanging around between nerve endings. This improves certain kinds of communication and boosts mood [sources: Mayo Clinic; Olives et al.].

The synthetic cathinones in bath salts slow absorption of serotonin, but they also interfere with reuptake of the following:

  • Dopamine, which affects your brain's reward and pleasure centers, emotions, and tendency toward addiction and sensation-seeking
  • Norepinephrine, which is related to stress response

Like cocaine, meth and ecstasy, this places bath salts squarely in the sympathomimetic toxidrome, a group of drugs that mimic the sympathetic response of the nervous system -- aka the fight-or-flight response [sources: CEPCP; NAMI; Olives et al.; Psychology Today].

The bodies of bath salts users experience a smorgasbord of stress effects, including rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, chest pains, fever, sweating, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, tremors, seizures and muscle agitation. These can lead to muscle damage, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and death. Meanwhile, their brains board an emotional and perceptual roller coaster of agitation, irritability, dizziness and insomnia, ticking slowly up hills of anxiety and then diving into valleys of depression. Concentration can grow difficult, and thoughts might take a turn toward suicide or extreme paranoia, fueled by delusions and, in some cases, hallucinations -- all of which can culminate in panic attacks, hostility or aggression [sources: CNN; DEA; Fuentes; Haiken; Olives et al.; Volkow].

In other words, bath salts users often get more than they bargained for, which occasionally includes an episode akin to a psychotic break. The more severe effects possibly arise from mixing bath salts with other drugs, or from users overdosing as they try to keep the one- to two-hour high going and avoid the inevitable crash. Even after a bad trip, the drug's addictive pull remains strong, and users frequently require extensive rehabilitation; they might continue to experience cravings or symptoms for months afterward [sources: Goodnough and Zezima; Haiken; Olives et al.; Volkow].

On the Web and on the street, bath salts and mephedrone are labeled with more prosaic names, such as bath powder, herbal incense or plant food. Before governments specifically banned their ingredients, these names provided a way to get around legal restrictions having to do with the sale of substances for ingestion [source: Reed].