The Chemistry of Addiction: How Alcohol and Drugs Change Your Brain

How Addiction Changes the Brain

Substance use disorders impact the lives of millions of people each day. The risks associated with drug abuse and addiction are commonly known, however, there are many that still engage in substance abuse regardless of the potential dangers associated with it. Drug and alcohol addiction creates shifts in a person’s brain chemistry and brain reward system that can cause individuals to continue to engage in drug abuse or alcohol abuse regardless of the risks associated with it. 

Drugs affect a person’s brain functions by changing the amount of dopamine released that is responsible for the brain’s reward system. Certain types of drugs will increase dopamine release causing elevated feelings of excitement and euphoria. After you stop taking drugs and alcohol, the dopamine release lowers impacting a person’s mental health and ability to feel pleasure or enjoyment. Drug and alcohol addiction will impact the brain region known as the limbic system. This impacts the brain’s reward center leading drug abusers to turn to drug abuse as a means of balancing the brain’s reward center again. When drug rewards are impacting the brain’s ability to produce dopamine, this can impact the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Drug abuse can lead to damage to the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for impulse control leading many substance abusers to engage in high-risk or dangerous situations or actions. The effects of drugs will often create an imbalance of the brain chemicals causing a disruption in homeostasis. Homeostasis provides a sense of balance within brain chemicals and when it is disturbed will affect normal brain functions and abilities. 

Call The River Source today at (866) 370-7806 for more information on how you can get help with your drug or alcohol addiction.

Understanding Addiction as a Disease

How Alcohol and Drugs Change Your Brain?

There are often questions about whether drug abuse and alcohol addiction can be classified as a disease. According to The American Society of Addiction Medicine, drug abuse and alcohol abuse are considered to be a disease as they meet the criteria needed to be classified as a disease. Substance use disorders are considered to be a primary chronic disease of the brain’s reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. This means that addiction is not a secondary factor to another disease but is a disease within itself. Classifications of disease also state that a primary disease needs to demonstrate the following: 

  • Observable symptoms and signs 
  • Biological origins 
  • A predictable progression 
  • Responsive to treatment 

Drug and alcohol addiction meet all of these criteria, therefore, drug abuse and addiction are classified as a disease. 

The Difference Between Substance Use, Abuse, and Addiction

When talking about substance use disorders and addiction, there are many terms that get used frequently to describe the disease such as substance use, abuse, and addiction. It is important to know the differences between the terms to better understand the nature of substance abuse.

  • Substance use refers to the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Substance use does not mean that you have a problem with addiction or need to seek help through addiction treatment. Substance use can be considered as having a social drink with friends or a drink with dinner. 
  • Substance abuse refers to when a person continues to use drugs and alcohol even after experiencing negative consequences within her life due to her substance abuse. 
  • Addiction is a term that refers to when a person is unable to stop their use of drugs and alcohol even after expressing a desire to do so. Individuals with a drug addiction or alcohol addiction will often experience withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop their substance abuse. 

What Happens to the Brain When You Quit Using Drugs or Alcohol

Once you have made the decision to stop using drugs and alcohol, there is hope to repair the damage done to your brain and improve brain functioning. Your brain on drugs has significant changes in functioning and once you quit using your brain region will be able to start developing brain cells again and begin to restore brain chemicals such as dopamine to normal, healthy levels. This will allow your reward system to be brought down to a normal functioning level and allow you to feel joy or excitement organically.

Can the Brain Heal From Addiction?

While drug and alcohol addiction can have serious implications on your brain and behavior. With the support of an addiction treatment program, you will be able to start restoring your brain functions through evidence-based therapy methods. Addiction therapy methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy will support you in finding new methods of shifting your thought processes and emotional responses as a tool for relapse prevention. These addiction therapy methods will support you in managing your triggers and remaining focused on your path to addiction recovery. The human brain is a powerful organ that has the power of neuroplasticity that will help you continue to function even with cell damage. Although substance abuse may have affected the brain cells, there are possibilities for your cells to regenerate over time allowing your brain’s recovery to occur over time. 

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