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How Drugs and Alcohol Disrupt the Brain’s Reward Center

Table of Contents

Addiction and the Brain’s Reward Center 

The brain’s reward center is the area most impacted by dopamine, often referred to as the “pleasure molecule.” When the reward center is triggered, we feel pleasure. Also, dopamine can cause us to feel more hopeful, more curious about life, and more willing to try something new. 

It is possible to overload the reward center of the brain. Dopamine receptors, when overloaded by some drugs, will shut down. For many who struggle with addictions, this creates a roller coaster of cravings. The first dopamine flood that is experienced when trying a new drug becomes the goal, but the brain, attempting to find balance, lowers the number of functioning receptors as well as their sensitivity. 

Those attempting detox and rehab may find that physical cravings are not the worst part of withdrawal. Because the brain has shut down the available dopamine receptors, a person may experience deep feelings of anxiety and depression in the early days of detox and rehab. Simple pleasures, such as sunlight on the skin and fresh air, will have little impact on them. Bringing dopamine receptors back online takes time; clients may feel very low while the reward center is under reconstruction during detox and rehab. 


The Function of Dopamine 

Our sleep quality can impact dopamine levels. The foods we eat can also affect our dopamine levels. There are many forms of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, that appear to be impacted by the brain’s ability to use dopamine. Because dopamine contributes to our ability to be curious about the world around us, low doses of dopamine in early childhood can impact our ability to learn as we grow up. 

When we enjoy good food or engage in exercise releases a dopamine flood. However, it is also important to note that dopamine does much more than give our brain a warm, fuzzy glow. Dopamine boosts our brain’s ability to store memories. It fuels our creativity. This chemical pushes us to make better use of our time, learn about our world, and boost our desire for a little more dessert. 

In a Healthy Brain 

Dopamine receptors activate when we note tasty food nearby. When that craving is satisfied, our dopamine levels go up, and our pleasure center lights up. However, the boost is short-lived. The first taste of chocolate cake is better than the middle bites because the highest release occurs when the craving is satisfied, not sated. 

Because this chemical makes us curious, wonders and questions also activate dopamine receptors, and dopamine production increases when the answer is found. Getting out into the sunlight and fresh air can be an excellent way to boost our ability to produce dopamine, as can regular exercise and quality sleep.  

The craving and reward cycle is a healthy way to keep our dopamine receptors fully activated for the best brain health. However, dopamine receptors can become overloaded by any pleasurable activity or substance, triggering the receptors to shut down. While food and exercise can also trigger this shutdown, the dopamine flood caused by some drugs is more likely to set off this protective reaction. 

 In the Addicted Brain 

If chocolate cake produces a teaspoon of dopamine, there are illegal drugs that produce a quart. These measurements are made up, but the overload risk is real. No matter how good the user feels, a brain overloaded with dopamine is in crisis. In an attempt to balance the experience, the brain will shut down the number and sensitivity of dopamine receptors. The next time the drug is used, the reaction will be dulled.  

Once dopamine receptors have been shut down or suppressed, it will take time to bring them back online. These receptors are fragile and may not return to full health once the flood stops. In the meantime, the user suffers. Damaged dopamine receptors and a lower ability to feel pleasure can contribute to terrible cravings, anxiety, and depression. 

When drug or alcohol users attempt to enjoy the same level of euphoria with fewer receptors, the body begins to develop an addiction making the cravings at times of withdrawal even worse. The brain is bereft of dopamine, the receptors are offline, and the body is also ill. 


How Does Pleasure Become Addiction? 

Another chemical commonly linked to addiction chemistry is serotonin. Serotonin is widely believed to be the primary mood regulator. While 10% of our serotonin production happens in the brain, 90% of this critical chemical is produced in the gut. While the brain seeks pleasure, dietary choices can fall by the wayside, damaging the health of the gut and putting our ability to maintain our mood at risk. When our attitude becomes uncontrollable, we may turn away from our family and friends. The choice to seek nothing but pleasure by using drugs and alcohol will become your primary goal. 

Addiction is a driving force because it creates intense cravings. It is important to note that cravings are not always dangerous; when it’s hot and we’ve been working outside, craving water can keep us alive. Likewise, craving salt can help balance our electrolytes. However, chemical cravings cause a reordering of some of our most basic instincts and can lead to extremely poor choices. 

The chemistry of craving is doubly destructive when it comes to dopamine production. It is possible to boost your dopamine production through healthy means naturally. Building a healthy series of sleep habits and eating a diet high in low-fat protein can increase our dopamine production. Using an illegal drug can send dopamine production into overdrive, overloading the dopamine receptors. 

Taking the drug next time in the same dosage may produce the same amount of dopamine, but the brain will not be able to put that amount of dopamine to use because the receptors will have been shut down. They may be irreparably damaged or very slow to reactivate. Our expectation of dopamine pleasure minus our brain’s ability to receive the rush effectively may lead to increased drug intake. This bump-up in dosage can damage even more dopamine receptors. 

Once dopamine receptors are damaged, our brain’s reward center will take less pleasure in everything. Over time, this reward center may function at a much lower level. For example, the simple joys of walking the dog may do nothing in the reward center because, though dopamine is released, the brain can’t put it to work. Bringing dopamine receptors back online will take time. We will also need emotional support and a caring community to help us understand what has happened to our thought processes and how to rebuild a healthier life. Granite Recovery Centers helps our clients to understand past traumas better and align them to future goals. 


What Happens When Drugs Hijack a Brain? 

 The mammalian brain has a series of needs or triggers that keep the creature alive. Mammals need food, water, and protection from the elements. Higher functioning mammals also need to care for their young and to be part of a community. Preparing healthy food for ourselves and our families can give us a dopamine boost. Because dopamine is tied to curiosity, the ability to find just the right recipe or seek out the right ingredients can also be part of that dopamine production. Isolation and a feeling of uselessness, often experienced by the elderly, can be incredibly destructive to many people. 

When a human takes an addictive drug or engages in addictive behavior, the drug or behavior becomes the highest goal on that list of needs. In such cases, the desire and drive for the addictive substance can push other needs entirely off the list. For example, an addicted parent may neglect their child’s needs because the need for the drug is greater. In addition, because addictive drugs can impact dopamine and serotonin levels, addicts can also lose emotional control of their families and create an unsafe environment. 

Serotonin levels can also impact our ability to make good choices for our family in the future. While dopamine receptors shut down when overloaded with the pleasure chemical, there are indications that alcohol alters the function of serotonin receptors. For those at genetic risk for alcoholism, the ability to produce and process serotonin may already be altered. An overlying culture of shame may lead many to increasingly poor choices regarding alcohol use. 

The shaming culture around addiction can cause emotional harm when dopamine receptors are damaged, and our serotonin level is altered. As a result, we may believe we are weak or uncaring people. We may struggle to keep our family’s needs front and center. We may miss the simple pleasures that we used to enjoy. However, bringing dopamine receptors back online while still using an addictive substance is likely impossible. Both psychological and physical, detox will probably be necessary to reset and reactivate the brain’s reward center. 


Recovering From Addiction 

Dopamine production can have a serious impact on our future. Using drugs that bathe the brain in dopamine to the point that the receptors shut down can limit our ability to maintain a healthy brain as we age. Detox and treatment will not be easy, but taking the steps necessary to bring the brain back into balance is imperative. 

Good food, family, outdoor activities, and quality sleep can all be pleasurable. However, they will likely never produce an overloading flood of dopamine. Backing away from that expectation will take time. Part of the detox and rehab process involves giving the brain time to reset dopamine receptors to simpler, less destructive expectations.  

If you or someone you love is dealing with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, help is available. At Granite Recovery Centers, our team of doctors and addiction specialists can provide a range of services to help you get and stay sober. So reach out for the help you need today.