Understanding Your Brain on Drugs: The Science Behind Addiction

The Role of Brain Chemicals in Emotions and Addiction

Our emotions, including pleasure, contentment, pain, and sadness, are driven by chemicals produced by our brain cells. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, act as messengers between neurons. Specific chemical receptors in each neuron are activated by neurotransmitters, triggering moods or physical reactions.

When drugs are used, they alter the concentration of these chemicals in the brain. For example, stimulant drugs like cocaine, crack, or methamphetamine increase dopamine levels, resulting in heightened electrical reactions and feelings of excitement. Opiates increase endorphin levels, blocking pain and creating numbness and euphoria. Meanwhile, hallucinogens increase serotonin levels, causing giddiness and hallucinations.

It’s important to consider how drug or alcohol use affects your brain’s ability to function. For example, did you use substances to avoid or create certain moods? Did these issues interfere with your daily activities?

How Neurotransmitters Respond to Drug Use

When you use drugs or alcohol to alter your brain chemistry, your brain attempts to compensate by creating more or fewer receptors depending on the drug used. This aims to bring your brain back into balance.

For example, consistent crystal meth use increases dopamine levels in the brain. The brain destroys dopamine receptors to compensate, requiring more of the drug to produce the same effect. This cycle of constantly trying to reach the same high is called “chasing the high” and is a hallmark of addiction.

The Link Between Brain Chemical Manipulation and Addiction

Sometimes, short-term drug or alcohol abuse allows the brain to recover quickly, thanks to its remarkable plasticity. However, long-term abuse can lead to fundamental brain chemistry changes and decreased plasticity.

Under stress, the brain produces chemicals such as adrenaline and endorphins to cope. The disease of addiction turns drug or alcohol use into a primal instinct, making the brain dependent on substances to survive. This dependence teaches the brain that the drug of choice is the only solution to stress, eventually hardwiring this lesson into our primal instincts.

Cravings and the Mid-Brain’s Role in Addiction

Cravings are the brain’s response to stress when the drug of choice is removed. The midbrain controls our primal instincts and is responsible for these signals. However, it is amoral and cannot differentiate between good and bad, happy and sad – it can only react.

Prolonged substance abuse can lead to permanent hardwiring of the mid-brain, making it extremely difficult to overcome addiction. Complete abstinence from drugs or alcohol is the only way to gain control over the disease.

Finding Help for Addiction

Completing an inpatient treatment program with medical detox followed by outpatient treatment and participating in recovery programs like AA, NA, SMART Recovery, or Refuge Recovery is recommended to maintain prolonged sobriety. Call us at 951-877-5868 for more information on overcoming the disease of addiction.

About the Author

Mike Carlyle

Michael Carlyle, CEO and Co-Founder of Mountain Sky Recovery, is renowned for his integrative approach to treating substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders. Emphasizing a holistic, strengths-based method, he empowers clients by enabling them to utilize their inherent talents and resources. Drawing inspiration from his own journey in recovery, Michael is deeply committed to fostering a belief in recovery for everyone, dedicating himself to providing essential support, love, and effective coping tools to clients and their families. His extensive credentials in addiction recovery training include being a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor-Clinical Supervisor (CADC-CS), Internationally Certified Clinical Supervisor (ICCS), Certified Co-Occurring Disorder Specialist (CCDS), and a D.O.T. Qualified Substance Abuse Professional (SAP). Michael's unique blend of personal experience and professional expertise positions him as a compassionate and influential leader in the field of addiction and mental health recovery.

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