Neurotransmitters and Addictions

by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen

Neurotransmitters and Addictions

Substance abuse and addiction develop as a result of individuals altering their neurochemistry with chemicals and behavior that mimic or enhance the effects of neurotransmitters, temporarily satisfying a craving that is likely the result of an underlying physiological imbalance.

Scientific evidence has shown that even short-term chemical dependency will change levels of dopamine, serotonin, and/or GABA in the body resulting in loss of executive functions and memory recall, lack of sleep, mood swings, agitation, anxiety, depression, anger and/or fear. Commonly abused chemicals include nicotine and alcohol as well as recreational and prescription drugs. Addressing neurotransmitter imbalance(s) is key to treating substance abuse.

Most abused chemicals cause an alteration in dopamine levels, as dopamine is released in response to activities associated with pleasure. Dopamine is present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, cognition, motivation and feelings of pleasure. During activities required for life (i.e. eating or sex), the repetitive release of dopamine is the brain’s way of noting that an activity is worthy of remembrance and repetition. Overstimulation of this natural reward system results in the highly sought-after euphoria and repetitive behaviors associated with substance abuse.

If daily activities such as exercise and relationship cultivation release dopamine, why aren’t these activities more commonly noted as addictions in our patient population? Simply put, these activities do not stimulate nearly as much dopamine release as common drugs of abuse. These drugs, including cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine, work by amplifying the effects of dopamine and can release anywhere from 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that is associated with common daily activities.

The reward effect that results from substance use varies in the duration of onset, occurring almost immediately when illicit drugs are injected, and lasts far longer than naturally rewarding activities. These amplified results give motivation to continually seek stimulation via substance use and cause sustained changes to brain structure. Continual use can result in both decreased dopamine production as well as a decrease in the number of dopamine receptors. These changes result in tolerance and explain why chronic substance users eventually need more and more of the substance to reach the pleasure they seek. The incidence of drug abuse is staggering:

From the National Institute of Drug Abuse, in 2010:

  • 51% people >12 y.o. current alcohol drinkers (126.8 million people)
  • 23% people >12 y.o. participated in binge drinking (57.8 million)
  • 20 million people >12 y.o. used illicit drugs

  • In Americans age 50 – 54, the rate of illicit drug use increased from 2002 – 2007

Identifying and correcting neurotransmitter imbalances that contribute to, as well as result from, substance abuse is becoming a common foundational approach to recovery. Nutritional and amino acid therapies that support the regeneration of neurotransmitter pathways are now utilized concomitantly with additional treatment protocols following detoxification in support of improved sleep patterns and energy levels, decreased anxiety and severity of cravings, and an improved sense of overall well-being.

Easily identifiable with Labrix’s simple and noninvasive urinary testing, neurotransmitter imbalances can be identified alongside salivary cortisol, DHEA, and sex hormones for comprehensive, whole-health assessment of your patients.



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