It is largely well-known that substances like drugs and alcohol can negatively impact your brain and body. The overuse of substances can lead to substance use disorder which is caused by these changes in your brain. It can also harm your body, leading to potential long-term health problems.
Understanding how drugs impact your body and take control of your brain might help you understand how the consumption of substances can influence your decision-making and cause you to form bad habits. Substance use disorder is a chronic disease in the brain, so it’s important to understand how the brain works to know how substance use can alter it.
How the Brain Works
The brain is the essence of what makes you who you are. It is the primary communicator of your body and sends messages to your stomach telling you when to eat, to your eyes telling you what you see, and to your mouth telling you what to say. However, your brain does more than keep your body functioning. It controls your thoughts, decision-making, reactions, emotions, and everything essential to who you are as a unique individual.
Your brain communicates with your body through networks of neurons, which send messages from your brain by releasing neurotransmitters that travel from neuron to neuron. After the neurotransmitter completes its job, transporters recycle the neurotransmitters by bringing them back to their original neuron and shutting off the signal between them.
Your Brain and Substances
The consumption of drugs or alcohol can disrupt your brain’s ability to communicate by interfering with your neurotransmitters that send, receive, and process information from your neurons. Drugs similar to marijuana or heroin mimic the brain’s chemistry, making it easy for them to attach to an active neuron and send abnormal messages through the neural network. These drugs are also depressants, which means they depress or slow down the function of your nervous system, essentially slowing down the information going to and from your brain. Depressants may make you feel relaxed, less inhibited, less coordinated, and unable to concentrate.
On the other hand, substances like amphetamines and cocaine produce a considerable amount of natural neurotransmitters or prevent transporters from performing the recycling process. In both cases, the communication between neurons, which carry the information from and to your brain, becomes disrupted. Cocaine and amphetamines are both stimulants that speed up communication by speeding your central nervous system. Stimulants can make you feel more alert and confident and may cause anxiety, panic, seizures, stomach cramps, and paranoia. Substance use tends to affect three parts of your brain: the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.
The Basal Ganglia
The basal ganglia affects your motivation by producing feelings of pleasure from healthy activities like eating, sleeping, socializing, and sex. It is home to the part of your reward circuit that remembers pleasurable behavior causing you to repeat it. This occurs in the nucleus accumbens, which is a sub-region of the basal ganglia. The dorsal striatum is another sub-region of the basal ganglia that holds information on forming habits and routines. The use of substances can overpower the reward circuit in the basal ganglia due to the experience of a euphoric high.
When substances are used repeatedly, the sensitivity of your reward circuit becomes dull, making it difficult for you to experience pleasure from anything but the abused substance. The intense release of dopamine from the substance may also cause you to crave the substance. Dopamine remembers the euphoric experience making it easier for you to repeat the activity absentmindedly or without thinking.
The Extended Amygdala
The extended amygdala is responsible for feelings of stress, anxiety, irritability, and unease, as well as your behavioral responses to these feelings such as “fight or flight.” Increased substance use causes an increase in sensitivity which is related to withdrawal after a substance high fades and contributes to substance use disorder by causing you to seek the substance again. You may find yourself seeking the substance as a way to relieve yourself from this intense discomfort.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the executive function of the brain because it is where the brain prioritizes tasks, manages time, and makes decisions. This part of the brain is also important for regulating a person’s emotions and impulses. Since this part of your controls your impulses, decision making, and self-control, the prefrontal cortex makes it easy for someone to repeatedly use drugs compulsively. This part of your brain is the last to develop, making teens more vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder.
Using legal or illegal substances can significantly affect your brain and increase your chances of developing a substance use disorder. The more you use the substance, the more numb your reward circuit becomes to the substance’s stimulation of euphoria, which will cause you to use more of the substance more frequently. Shoreline Recovery Center understands that substance use disorder is a chronic disease of the brain, and we are proud of our judgment-free treatment environment.
Our professionals use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), among other types of treatment, to help you reshape your prefrontal cortex and rewards system to replace cravings for unhealthy substances with healthier activities and sustenances. At Shoreline, we are dedicated to creating a treatment plan specific to your needs, and we value peer support and friendship. If you or a loved one is suffering from substance use disorder, please feel free to reach out to us at (866) 278-8495 to learn more about our programs.