The Effects Of Alcohol & Drug Addiction On Serotonin & Dopamine
- What Is Serotonin?
- What Is Dopamine?
- How Alcohol & Drugs Affect Serotonin & Dopamine
- Treating Alcohol & Drug Addiction
Serotonin and dopamine are both brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) and hormones. They carry messages between nerve cells (neurons) that tell your body how to function and respond to outside influences.
Alcohol/drug use and addiction affect serotonin and dopamine levels. These effects change how your brain and body function, making you more reliant on drugs.
What Is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain and a hormone in the gut. Healthy serotonin levels help you feel good physically and emotionally.
Serotonin affects many mind and body functions, such as:
- Mental health: Low serotonin levels can lead to depression and irritability.
- Mood: Serotonin regulates your mood to keep you stable and help you control your emotions. A more stable mood is usually a happier mood.
- Behavior: By keeping your mood balanced, serotonin helps you choose positive behaviors and have more control over your actions.
- Sleep patterns: Healthy levels of serotonin promote quality sleep.
- Appetite: Low serotonin levels are associated with overeating while activating serotonin receptors tends to decrease appetite.
- Digestion: Serotonin aids digestion by stimulating muscles in the gut.
- Memory and learning: Serotonin helps you remember things and learn new things. Low serotonin levels can impair memory and learning ability.
- Sexual function: Serotonin tends to affect libido (sexual desire). Low serotonin levels correlate with a high libido, while high serotonin levels can lower libido.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. When dopamine receptors are activated by something that gives you feelings of pleasure, such as exercise or a delicious meal, the release of dopamine encourages you to repeat that behavior.
Dopamine affects several mind and body functions:
- Motor control and executive function: Your body releases a small amount of dopamine to motivate you to do something you need to do. It continues releasing dopamine to keep you focused until you finish the task. This helps with learning, planning, and prioritizing.
- Motivation: Getting a dopamine reward for a behavior motivates you to do it again or continue doing it. People with low levels of dopamine have low motivation and difficulty concentrating. They may develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Mood: Healthy dopamine levels keep your mood stable. People with too little dopamine may suffer from depression, while those with too much dopamine may have symptoms of mania (as in bipolar disorder).
Many people call dopamine a “feel-good” or pleasure hormone. But according to Mental Health America, dopamine simply reinforces the behavior. It doesn’t produce pleasure; it produces cravings.
Your body releases dopamine when you do something that makes you feel good at the moment, which doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run.
For example, eating a lot of sugar gives you a rush that produces dopamine, but can lead to unhealthy eating habits. The same is true with addictive drugs and alcohol.
The Effects Of Alcohol & Drug Addiction On Serotonin & Dopamine
All addictive substances produce a surge of dopamine, and many raise serotonin levels, too.
Depending on your drug of abuse, you may feel relaxed or energized. These positive effects paired with dopamine reinforce drug-seeking behavior. Increased serotonin adds to the excitement or pleasure you feel when taking the drug.
Your brain naturally produces dopamine and serotonin because you need them to function and maintain a stable mood. You can increase your dopamine and serotonin levels through pleasurable activities like sex, exercise, or spending time with a friend.
But drugs produce much more dopamine than any natural source and they prevent the brain from reabsorbing it, allowing an excessive amount of dopamine that strongly reinforces drug-taking.
When you repeatedly increase dopamine or serotonin artificially with drugs or alcohol, your brain circuitry changes.
How Drug Abuse Leads To Drug Addiction
If you have a substance use disorder, your brain will realize that its dopamine and serotonin levels are higher than normal and respond by producing less of these hormones naturally to retain balance.
This is how tolerance develops. A drug or a drink will have more of an effect the first time than after a few weeks of repeated use.
Over time, tolerance can turn into physical dependence. You’ll not only need more of a drug for the same effect, but your body will also need it to function. If you stop taking drugs or drinking alcohol—or even try to cut back—you’ll have withdrawal symptoms.
Central nervous system depressants (alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines) cause physical drug dependence.
Addiction develops because your brain craves the good feeling from substance abuse but can no longer produce that feeling without drugs or alcohol.
Once your brain has adapted to drug abuse, its hormone levels are depleted. Without drugs, you won’t feel normal—you’ll probably feel worse than before you started taking them.
So, you take more to keep up with tolerance and avoid the empty feeling. Each time you use a drug or alcohol, dopamine rewards that behavior and rewires your brain so you feel like you can’t live without it.
Addictive Drugs That Affect Serotonin
The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that the effects of drugs and alcohol on dopamine are the key factor in addiction. Put simply: the increase in dopamine is why they are addictive.
Drugs that raise serotonin levels aren’t necessarily addictive. Research shows that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are non-habit-forming drugs that can help people who don’t produce enough serotonin naturally.
However, many addictive drugs cause your brain to produce serotonin, including:
- cannabinoids (marijuana)
- amphetamines (Adderall)
- methylphenidate (Ritalin)
If you take too many drugs that increase serotonin, you may develop serotonin syndrome. Some symptoms of this life-threatening condition are:
- rapid heart rate
- loss of coordination
- stiff muscles
Opioids and prescription stimulants are meant to maintain a balance between dopamine and serotonin at a healthy level, but when they’re abused, they’re dangerous and addictive.
Treating Alcohol & Drug Addiction
Addiction treatment teaches you how to naturally boost dopamine and serotonin. It’s possible to rewire your brain out of addiction. In many cases, healthy living can restore your brain function to where it was before substance abuse. And positive coping strategies can make it stronger.
Many people start abusing drugs or alcohol because they don’t know alternative ways of dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. Comprehensive treatment programs aim to resolve the root of these issues and give you tools to resist relapse.
Addiction also affects decision-making, self-control, learning ability, and physical health. All of these issues should be addressed in recovery.
At Ark Behavioral Health, we offer personalized care and evidence-based treatment options, such as:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- process groups
- family therapy
- yoga and meditation
- fitness options
- nutritional support
Reach out to one of our treatment specialists to take the first step in healing your mind and body. Contact us today to learn more.
Mayo Clinic - Serotonin Syndrome
Mental Health America - What Is Dopamine?
Mental Health America - What Is Serotonin?
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Drugs and the Brain
SurgeonGeneral.gov - The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction
The Scripps Research Institute - Serotonin Receptors and Drug Abuse
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