There’s a wide variety of addictive substances out there. Opioids, cocaine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, nicotine, and more. Each substance has a different high, a different effect on a person, a different withdrawal period, and a different road to drug or alcohol recovery. No two addictions are exactly alike—a heroin addict may have a very different recovery experience than an alcoholic. Likewise, someone addicted to nicotine will find that their addiction is much less of a destructive element in their life than someone addicted to benzos. With all these differences in mind, it’s all the more surprising that behind all these addictions, there’s the same mechanism driving it. No matter what drug a person takes, it’s technically not even the drug that they are addicted to—it’s dopamine.
Dopamine is a naturally produced neurotransmitter in the brain. When it’s produced and attaches to dopamine receptors, it creates a natural feeling of pleasure. This is essential for survival, since dopamine rewards us for exercise, sex, eating, and socializing, all things necessary for humanity to grow. All addictive, mood-altering drugs prompt an unnaturally intense reception of dopamine in the brain, giving the user a feeling of intense pleasure unmatchable in normal life.
When this happens, the brain can tell that something is wrong, and that the amount of dopamine floating around is too high. In an attempt to fix the imbalance, the brain will adapt by beginning to produce less dopamine. That means that when the high from the drug wears off, the brain won’t be producing enough dopamine to feel as intense a pleasurable feeling from normal stimulus. Nothing will measure up to the way the drug made the person feel. Extended use of the drug will make the brain continue to reduce natural dopamine production, until there is barely any noticeable pleasure to be felt when sober. Since so much less dopamine is being produced, even a substance that once produced a feeling of intense euphoria can become barely enjoyable.
Power over your life rests with you, not addiction. Learn about The Ridge’s treatment program and how we take control away from addiction.
Different drugs affect dopamine in different ways. Alcohol and benzodiazepines are both depressants, which slow down neural function by producing a type of neurotransmitter called GABA, which inhibits brain function. This is why drunkenness is accompanied by loss of balance and coordination. However, GABA also inhibits the neurons that regulate dopamine production, but it doesn’t inhibit the dopamine producing neurons themselves. This means that those neurons are left to produce dopamine unregulated, causing a pleasurable, euphoric feeling.
Cocaine and crack are absorbed into the brain, where their molecules bond to the part of dopamine-producing neurons responsible for reabsorbing dopamine. This means that when dopamine is produced, it can’t be reabsorbed as normal because molecules of the drug are clogging the re-absorption mechanism. Because of this, the active dopamine in the brain has a much longer, more consistent effect.
Opioids work by attaching to opiate receptors in the brain, which normally receive naturally-produced, healthy chemicals. Since opioids have a similar chemical structure, though, they too can bind to these receptors. Opiate receptors are responsible for changing the rate of dopamine production. Since opioid drugs aren’t naturally produced by the brain, they have an unnatural effect and cause dopamine-producing neurons to create a massive amount of dopamine.
The brain has evolved over the years to make activities that produce dopamine be ones that humans subconsciously want to do over and over. This is good when it comes to eating and sex, since it ensured our ancestors wouldn’t starve and would procreate. This isn’t so good when extended drug use has made using the only way the brain can feel dopamine at all. Knowing this, it’s easy to see just why addiction is so extremely difficult to break. Luckily, treatment is available, and it works. Drug or alcohol recovery isn’t easy, but with education, commitment, and help, it’s within any addict’s reach.