The brain chemical serotonin is directly affected through drug addiction. The levels of serotonin become erratic through the process of addiction and make withdrawal challenging. Neuroscience is finding out more about addiction and how it influences the brain all the time. How the mind is affected by substances is a key factor to our dependency. It starts with incentive sensitization, a reward system with the brain. It results in the body becoming dependent on the drug to regulate the chemistry in the brain. The substances we abuse are different in their structure. Each causes certain behavioral effects for the user. The common feature they exhibit is the ability to modulate your brain reward system. This is a natural part of our mind that initiates behaviors essential to our survival.
Which Part of the Brain Controls Addiction?
Most drugs will either directly or indirectly control the brains reward system. It does so by flooding this part of the brain with dopamine. This neurotransmitter is found in parts of the brain that are in charge of how you move and feel. It’s responsible for your motivation and your ability to feel pleasure. Feeling pleasure motivates us to keep repeating behaviors that keep us alive. The problem is, the brain believes that these rises in dopamine from drugs is one of those things critical to keep you alive. It should be activated by food and being social.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a brain chemical that is responsible for our emotions, reactivity to conditioned cues, and judgement. It functions in the mind to provoke feelings of contentment and well-being. Artificial rewards like food, sex, drugs, and alcohol mimic our natural reward system so we become dependent on them. Science has learned a lot about the process of the mind and how drug abuse, addiction, and withdrawal. There are quite a few brain chemicals that play a role in the drug dependence process.
The Role of Serotonin in Drug Addiction
Your mood and ability to sustain yourself are regulated by your brain and chemicals within it like serotonin and dopamine. Drugs act on these processes which is why they take over every aspect of your life. This is why addiction alters your personality and creates destructive behaviors that didn’t previously exist. These behaviors include:
- Obsession of the substance, object, or activity.
- Even if the object of addiction is causing problems in one’s life, they will continue to seek it out.
- They will engage in the activity over and over and have no control to stop.
- When cessation occurs, they experience withdrawal symptoms.
- They don’t have control of the addiction. They may just want one beer but will end up drinking 6.
- They deny there’s a problem and defend their behavior, making excuses so they can continue on with their addiction.
- They hide the behaviors from loved ones.
- They may experience blackouts as part of addictive behaviors.
- They may experience depression which has to do with serotonin and dopamine levels in the body.
- They will have low self-esteem and feel anxious easily.
Addiction and the Brain, the Role of Neurotransmitters
When we consider evolution, serotonin and dopamine work together to help us understand our surroundings. These neurotransmitters were once essential to our survival when we were prey to other species. Serotonin and dopamine are what allows us to assess whether we have enough food. They regulate your appetite and determine how aggressive you need to be to get food. With addiction, you consume foreign substances which causes an overstimulation of serotonin levels or dopamine levels. Some drugs will raise both serotonin and dopamine. When this occurs, you inhibit a natural release of these brain neurotransmitters. This is where the dependence comes from. It’s not the initial high that was once so pleasurable but the dependence on the drug to function.
How are Dopamine and Serotonin Levels Affected by Various Drugs?
Every type of drug you take affects the brain in one way or another. It most often affects how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. Most drugs interact with serotonin and dopamine. The drugs that interact with serotonin will cause a person’s happiness to be affected. Sometimes, it can be hyperactive happiness and joy while other times, the person can fall into deep depression. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drug abuse commonly affects dopamine and serotonin. When dopamine is manipulated, it has an effect on the following:
- Motor functioning.
- Sense of pleasure.
- How a person is effected by events.
Drugs that have an effect on serotonin include:
- Sleep pattern.
- Emotions and feelings.
Prescription Drugs that Affect Serotonin
There are many drugs that affect serotonin levels which then affects the brain processes. The most commonly used drugs that affect serotonin are antidepressants, known as SSRIs. They were developed to treat the symptoms of clinical depression. They have less side effects than other kinds of antidepressants. They block the brain’s ability to reabsorb serotonin. This helps the mind send and receive messages more effectively which improves the patient’s mood.
Illegal Drugs that Affect Serotonin
Researchers have found that the fluctuation in serotonin causes by illegal drug use can cause mood disorders. Depression, anxiety, and lack of energy have been found to occur from substance withdrawal. The increase of serotonin caused by illegal drugs are why people will continue to use them. They want to experience the good feelings that a rise in serotonin brings them. The following substances affects serotonin levels the most.
Drugs that Affect Norepinephrine
Stimulant drugs will affect norepinephrine levels in the brain and body. Norepinephrine is a chemical in the body that acts as a stress hormone. It is also a substance that sends signals within the nerve cells in the brain. Low levels of norepinephrine have shown to increase the risk of ADHD, depression and low blood pressure. When the body responds to stress, norepinephrine will have an effect on how the brain pays attention and responds to situations. Being a stress hormone, when it’s released into the blood, the brain will believe something stressful has occurred. The body reacts by increasing heart rate, releasing sugar into the blood so you can run faster or be stronger for the fight. You become more alert and your reaction time is faster. Doctors prescribe Ritalin, Dexedrine and Adderall to raise levels of norepinephrine and dopamine. Depression can become quite intense when there is a reduction of norepinephrine levels. Drugs of a different class known as SNRIs will be administered in this cases. They are known as serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors. They will raise levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine. There are also tricyclic antidepressants that are prescribed to help increase the activity of these neurotransmitters.
Long Term Effects of Drugs on the Brain
Mechanisms that are involved in developing tolerance for substance can lead to changes in neurons and brain circuits. This can lead to long-term effects on the brain. To put things in perspective, normal rewards are like a whisper and rewards from substances are like someone screaming in a microphone. The brain adjusts itself in much the same way as turning down the volume when the radio is too loud. When you experience surges of dopamine and serotonin, the brain produces less of these neurotransmitters. The result is that dopamine has a much lower impact on the reward circuit of the brain, resulting in a reduction of pleasure. This is what causes people to become depressed when abusing drugs. Over time, the surges of neurotransmitters will prevent you from feeling any kind of happiness or pleasure. This flat, depressive feeling causes you to continue taking drugs to bring up your body’s dopamine and serotonin functions. While it can do this, you feel much lower after. This is the cycle of tolerance which is an indication of addiction.
Withdrawal and Serotonin
Whether its alcohol withdrawal or abstaining from addictive drugs, serotonin plays a part in how you feel. Addicts will often feel extreme feelings of sadness that can be so severe, suicide may become a consideration. Serotonin is well-known for being involved in depression, anxiety, and OCD. This is why the antidepressants work by raising serotonin levels. Scientists have found that serotonin is affected by substances and accounts for affective disorders that are similar to depression and anxiety when you abstain. Studies have found that when you increase the amount of serotonin in the brain (via antidepressants), drug intake decreased based on laboratory models.
Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome
When your body becomes dependent on a medication, it’s considered addiction. When you discontinue taking antidepressants or reduce your dose, you can experience flu-like symptoms. It may be difficult to sleep and you could have problems with your senses, mood, and thinking. Most people can cope with the withdrawal symptoms of antidepressant continuation syndrome. In severe cases, reintroduction of the SSRI and SNRIs can alleviate the syndrome symptoms. Opiates release 2-10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do. For those who are addicted to opiates like heroin or opioid prescription pain relievers, the brain will stop producing serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters. The longer these drugs are used, the less neurotransmitters will be produced naturally.
When Neurotransmitters are Imbalanced
Through addiction and then withdrawal, you can cause an imbalance or deficiency of dopamine and serotonin. You may experience feelings like stress, anxiety, nervousness, depression, and lifelessness. The things you once enjoyed don’t bring you any positive feelings. Rehabilitation clinics have found that opiate and drug users always experience a deficiency of their neurotransmitters. The longer drugs were used, the greater the imbalance is. Low dopamine levels
- You feel fatigued.
- You can experience memory loss.
- Personality disorders can manifest or worsen.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Panic and anxiety.
Low serotonin levels
- You may become constipated.
- You might have nausea.
- You can’t sleep.
- You feel depressed.
- You have a hard time learning things.
- You become confused easily.
Once you have overcome addiction, you may find it challenging to move forward with life. This likely has to do with serotonin levels that are so badly depleted in the body. There are ways you can naturally release endorphins and train the body to create serotonin and dopamine once again. If you’ve been taking part in drug or alcohol rehabilitation, you will notice their emphasis on exercise and healthy eating. Vigorous exercise daily is one of the best ways to boost serotonin levels and will allow you to feel your own power. Other ways to make yourself feel good is to listen to music that boosts your mood. Even better, listen to it while you work out. This gets the brain chemicals working again. Mindfulness meditation can help your nervous system to operate optimally. It takes some time but when you learn to be in the moment and put a stop to rumination, you raise levels of serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. Certain types of yoga have been found to retrain the brain after injury through stress. It may take some time to heal the brain from damage done through addiction. The good news is, neuroscientists have found that the brain can be brought back to its normal state. Through holistic therapy, you can experience happiness once again. You can improve your memory and motor skills and get past substance withdrawal.
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