There is a reason addiction is so challenging to kick. Learn about the science of addiction, how it affects your brain, and how we can help.
There is a reason addiction is so challenging to kick. Learn about the science of addiction, how it affects your brain, and how we can help.

The complex issue of addiction affects millions of people worldwide. But have you ever wondered why some people get trapped in the cycle of substance abuse and addiction while others can simply walk away? The answer lies in how addiction affects the brain. 

By delving into the science of addiction and exploring its profound effects on the brain, you can begin to better understand addiction and why it is so challenging to overcome. We can also gain a deeper understanding of the struggles so many people face when dealing with substance abuse. With this knowledge, we can provide better prevention, treatment, and support for others affected by addiction.

Addiction Treatment in San Diego

The Physiological Effects of Substance Abuse On the Brain

The Physiological Effects of Substance Abuse On the Brain

When considering the science of addiction, it all starts when you ingest substances. Drugs and alcohol travel through your bloodstream and eventually reach your brain. Once there, they interact with various neurotransmitters and receptors, altering your brain’s normal functioning.

One of the key neurotransmitters affected by substances is dopamine, the natural brain chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. Drugs and alcohol can cause a surge in dopamine levels, leading to intense feelings of euphoria. This flood of dopamine is what causes your brain to associate substance use with pleasure, creating a powerful reward neural pathway. This pathway is something you need to re-route when overcoming addiction.

Drugs and alcohol also affect other neurotransmitters, disrupting your brain’s delicate balance. These other neurotransmitters include:

  • Serotonin: responsible for mood regulation 

The disruption of serotonin in your brain can contribute to developing depression and anxiety, common co-occurring mental health issues with addiction. 

  • Norepinephrine: involved in your body’s stress response

When norepinephrine becomes disrupted due to substance abuse, you can feel more stressed and anxious, further driving addictive behaviors in an attempt to feel better.

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate excitability in the brain

Drugs and alcohol can enhance the effects of GABA, causing feelings of sedation and relaxation. This can reinforce substance use as you seek to escape from stress or emotional pain, leading to the vicious cycle of self-medication and addiction.

These neurotransmitters regulate your mood, emotions, and behavior, and their dysregulation often contributes to developing addiction and makes it difficult to overcome. 

(But never impossible.)

How Drugs and Alcohol Hijack Your Brain’s Reward System

Your brain’s reward system, known as the mesolimbic pathway, is responsible for reinforcing pleasurable behaviors and ensuring their repetition. When you do things essential for your survival, such as eating and drinking, or engage in enjoyable social interactions, your brain releases dopamine, giving you a sense of reward and motivation. 

This natural reward system is crucial to life. However, drugs and alcohol can hijack it. Rather than relying on your brain’s natural reward system, substances directly stimulate dopamine release, causing an unnatural flood of this natural relaxing-inducing hormone into your system and creating an exaggerated sense of pleasure. 

How Drugs and Alcohol Hijack Your Brain’s Reward System

This is how addiction affects the brain. Over time, as you continue to use drugs and alcohol, your brain adapts to this artificial flood of dopamine by reducing the number of dopamine receptors or decreasing natural dopamine production. In turn, your brain becomes less responsive to natural rewards and more sensitive to drugs and alcohol. 

In other words, continually using drugs and alcohol trains your brain to rely less on your natural reward system and more reliant on substances to experience pleasure. 

The Impact of Substance Abuse on Your Brain’s Structure and Function

How addiction affects the brain doesn’t only apply to neurotransmitters. Repeated substance abuse can also have profound effects on your brain’s structure and function. Long-term drug or alcohol use can even change the size and connectivity of some areas of your brain, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. 

  • The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making and impulse control and can become significantly altered with continued substance abuse. This can impair your ability to make rational decisions and make it challenging to resist the urge to use drugs or alcohol. 
  • The amygdala helps process emotions and form memories and can also be affected by substance abuse. This can lead to heightened emotional responses and increased sensitivity to stress, making it more difficult to cope with triggers and cravings.
  • The hippocampus is crucial in forming memories and learning and can become damaged due to substance abuse. This can lead to cognitive impairments and affect your ability to retain information and make informed decisions.

The Science of Addiction and Its Long-Term Effects on the Brain

Chronic substance abuse can lead to structural and functional changes in your brain that persist even after you’ve achieved sobriety. That’s why it’s vital to get help for your addiction as soon as possible. 

Studies show that those with a history of addiction may experience cognitive impairments, including difficulties with attention, memory, and decision-making. These cognitive deficits can persist long after you’ve stopped using substances, making it challenging to rebuild your life. 

The Science of Addiction and Its Long-Term Effects on the Brain

But, again, not impossible. 

Addiction can also increase the risk of developing mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and psychosis. The co-occurrence of addiction and mental health issues, known as dual diagnosis, requires specialized addiction treatment in San Diego, which is something we offer here at BOLD Health. 

Don’t Wait To Get the Help You Need. Partner With Our Addiction Experts Today

Addiction is costly in so many ways. It deprives you of living a fulfilling life and wreaks havoc on your relationships, finances, and mental and physical health. As you have learned in this article, how addiction affects the brain is absolutely devastating, and sometimes, it’s irreversible.

If you struggle with drug or alcohol abuse and are looking for a way out of the shackles of addiction, contact our specialists here at BOLD Health. We provide high-quality addiction treatment in San Diego tailored to your specific needs. 

We’ll base your addiction treatment in San Diego on your historical, genetic, and structural makeup. In other words, we get to know and understand you from the inside out so we can effectively take a holistic approach to treating all of you, not just your addiction symptoms. 

BOLD Health

Whether you partner with us for alcohol rehab in San Diego or for other addiction services, we’ll walk with you throughout your entire recovery, no matter how long it takes. Your addiction treatment in San Diego at BOLD Health may include any of the following:

  • individual therapy
  • group therapy
  • detox
  • medication management
  • intensive outpatient program (IOP in San Diego)

Contact us for more information about our alcohol rehab in San Diego or any of our highly effective, evidence-based treatments. You deserve to live a better life, free from addiction.

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