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Addiction and the Central Nervous System

Addictive drugs mostly affect the central nervous system, which includes your brain and spinal cord. They typically work by changing the way neurons interact with neurotransmitters, which are the chemical messengers that tell neurons what to do.

Most of the effects drugs have on the body have to do with changing the function of neurotransmitters. Even effects like changes in heart rate and blood pressure are caused by change in neurotransmitters because the nervous system mostly controls those functions. There are long term effects of drug abuse that are not directly related to the nervous system. For example, if prolonged excessive drinking has caused structural damage in the heart or hardening of the arteries, those will cause irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure, respectively.

The addictive aspects of drugs have mostly to do with the central nervous system and they take place on at least two levels. The first level is the balance of neurotransmitters. When a substance changes the level of a neurotransmitter, or changes how that neurotransmitter interacts with neurons, it affects your feelings and perceptions, but it also forces your body to adjust to the change in levels. For example, opioids intensify the production of dopamine in the brain, causing the feeling of euphoria. If you use them frequently enough, your brain starts to realize it’s producing too much dopamine and so it starts producing less. Now you need the opioid to feel normal and that’s how physical dependence forms. When you stop taking the drug, you are stuck with the abnormal balance of neurotransmitters, which makes you feel awful until your brain readjusts to normal levels.

Behavior is the second level at which addiction affects the brain. This actually happens on several levels and it’s related to physical dependence, although addiction can happen without chemical dependence, as we see with gambling, for example. Addictive behavior is complex and variable but perhaps the most important concept is that of triggers. Addiction creates deeply ingrained behavioral networks, or clusters of cues and actions. Anything–a person, a place, a feeling–that is associated with using can trigger a strong craving and perhaps a relapse. Often, people are not even aware of their triggers or why they behave the way they do.

Treating addiction is a complex process. Treatment needs to take place on the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social levels to be effective. It’s not only a matter of willpower or medication. Depending on your addiction, you have to bring different treatments to bear on the different levels of addiction.

Gardens Wellness Center can help you with an individualized plan for recovery. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.