Articles

Addiction and the Brain 

Nov 15, 2021

One of the most critical parts of recovery for someone with addiction is restoring the function of the brain. Much of the harm that’s been done can be reversed. It’s important before starting treatment to understand how the brain may have been affected by years of substance use, the impact of withdrawal on the brain, and how sustaining your recovery can help boost the brain’s healing.

Addiction impacts the brain in multiple ways, depending on the drug of choice and the amount used. In general, addiction alters moods, emotions, and behaviors by changing brain chemistry. Withdrawal from substance use during detox and treatment can impact the brain as well.

Symptoms can include anxiety and depression as well as memory loss or trouble with concentrating. Treatment and sustained sobriety can help reverse some of the negative impacts of substance use on the brain.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

A substance use disorder can have a significant impact on how the brain works. Just think about how even a few drinks changes your perception and judgment. The impact is much deeper for someone whose brain has experienced years of serious drug or alcohol misuse.

The brain functions normally with a delicate balance of chemicals. A change to these chemicals can alter how the brain works. Certain functions of the brain can be disrupted. It can show up in how a person perceives the world around them and how they behave.

What changes in the brain? Long-term addiction can affect the cerebral cortex for starters. This part of the brain affects decision-making, problem-solving, and planning. Thinking becomes challenging for someone with addiction.

The brain stem gets impacted by addiction, too. This is a part of the brain that regulates your breathing, sleeping, and heart rate. A change to any of them can be problematic. A serious change can even be life-threatening.

Addiction also affects the part of your brain regulating behaviors needed for survival. It’s the limbic system which controls your behaviors and emotions. It also processes memories, which can be impacted and lost to heavy drug or alcohol use.

Individual drugs impact the brain uniquely. Marijuana produces a mellowing effect but can disrupt short-term memories. It does this by changing a part of the limbic system known as the hippocampus. A high concentration of cannabinoid receptors in this part of the brain makes it vulnerable to heavy marijuana use.

Opioids work differently. They bind to the brain’s opioid receptors in the limbic system. The result is a release of dopamine. Dopamine regulates moods and enhances pleasure. The release of dopamine can be powerful and may reinforce a person to repeat the opioid use to achieve the same effect over and over.

Benzodiazepines block impulses between nerve cells in the brain and produce a calming effect. They slow down the central nervous system and can produce feelings of euphoria when taken in large doses. Once addiction sets in, consuming higher doses of benzos can lead to extreme confusion, lowered levels of coordination, coma, and even death.

Withdrawal and the Brain

Withdrawal from drugs leads to numerous changes to the brain. The levels of biochemicals being produced changes, for example. These new levels can have an impact on how the brain functions and how you think, feel, and see the world around you.

The brain needs time to adjust during the withdrawal process. During this process, you may see the onset of multiple symptoms. Some of them could be new. Others may overlap symptoms seen in your substance use disorder or a co-occurring mental health disorder.

The list of withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety and depression as well as mood swings. You may begin to feel cravings for the substance you were using. A feeling of general restlessness may begin. Struggling with memory and concentration during withdrawal are common, too. Insomnia may be an additional issue during this period.

The impact of withdrawal on the brain can be influenced by numerous factors. The type of drug and amount used are two factors. Your own medical history and any underlying conditions can contribute to the withdrawal process for the brain.

If you have attempted to quit using before, the latest withdrawal experience may not be similar to the previous ones. It’s important to be prepared to manage the symptoms safely and effectively. Some people may face more severe neurological side effects than others.

Regardless of your history of withdrawal, a medically-supervised detox is always recommended. Under the care of professionals, you can move through withdrawal while monitored 24/7 and have symptoms managed. In some cases, withdrawal may include anti-addiction medications such as Suboxone or Vivitrol.

Addiction Treatment and the Brain

Treatment is a first step in allowing the brain to heal from the effects of addiction. Over time, the brain can recover while sobriety is maintained. The duration of healing time may differ from person to person.

One way addiction treatment’s impact on the brain can be measured is by looking at brain metabolism. Imaging technologies allow medical professionals to measure brain energy metabolism during rest and activity. It can be used to compare the brain of someone addicted to opioids and a healthy brain, for example.

In someone addicted to cocaine, the levels of dopamine will appear high around the time treatment begins. If measured after more than a year of sobriety, those levels will return a more normal amount.

While addiction treatment can help improve brain function, it does not guarantee the reversal of all damage to the brain. Helping someone with addiction sustain sobriety long-term is only part of the solution. A treatment program can introduce other strategies for repairing the brain. At Origins we teach mindfulness-based activities to help regulate stress, emotions, and mood.

Beginning a regimen of daily exercise as a way to practice self-care, work towards fitness goals, and improve brain health also helps.

Origins Recovery Center is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration.

We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety.

For information on our programs, call us today: 844-232-3833.

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