Neurotransmitters: Relationship to Addiction

Addiction is a "baffling, cunning and powerful disease," so the Big Book says. And yet, in a sense, it is pretty simple -- "People use substances to feel good." This "good feeling" comes when the person self-medicates, and gives their brain and body a boost that they often feel is missing. But how does it begin? Early deprivation, abuse, trauma, dysfunctional attachment and even genetics can all cause imbalances in neurotransmitters and can be a set up for addiction. Imbalances in key neurotransmitters, can lead to the feeling that something is missing that the abused substance seems to fit perfectly. 

The problem with self-medication or "go with the good feeling” approach, is that it often creates side effects that are as bad or worse than the original problem, and it often leads to greater imbalances in the brain and body when the substance is withdrawn. Detecting and measuring neurotransmitter levels, gives an accurate picture of the present state of the brain, as well as gives clues to how the addiction may have started, and what needs to be balanced to aid in the addiction recovery.

Neurotransmitter levels are a blueprint for our present mood, behavior, and overall functioning of our body, and can help to map the road to recovery.  Continual research has shown that our brain is constantly growing, and if given the proper material or building blocks, can heal itself in remarkable ways, even after years of addiction. Several neurotransmitters are key in this recovery process:

Inhibitory Neurotransmitters & Addiction

SEROTONIN is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is active in areas of the brain that bring calm, rest and well-being. Adequate amounts of serotonin are necessary for stable mood, and to balance any excessive excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters firing in the brain.  Low serotonin levels are also associated with decreased immune system function and with both anxiety and depression. Many recovering addicts are low in serotonin because of drug and alcohol use. To make matters worse, the stress of detox and recovery can make these already low levels go even lower.

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is often referred to as “nature’s VALIUM-like substance.”  When GABA is out of range (high or low excretion values), it is likely that an excitatory neurotransmitter is firing too often in the brain, which may cause anxiety or even panic.  GABA will be sent out to attempt to balance this stimulating over-firing. Alcohol, benzodiazepines and other drugs enhance GABA's effects, but at a cost. After an initial surge of GABA, the brain and the body will then experience low levels of GABA. "What goes up must come down" seems to be true in this regard. GABA levels that have been lowered by drug and alcohol use can be further lowered by the stress of detox and early recovery. It is necessary to maintain stable levels of GABA for the brain to rest and for natural relaxation to take place. This will aid the brain in adjusting to living without abusing drugs and alcohol.

Excitatory Neurotransmitters & Addiction

DOPAMINE is the neurotransmitter that is associated with focus, motivation, and addiction.  Dopamine is responsible for our drives and feelings of pleasure. Many drugs, even alcohol, and especially stimulants, boost dopamine levels, bringing with the increase, a sense of pleasure. But excessive amounts of dopamine also result in the pleasure experience decreasing over time. This down regulation of dopamine receptors decreases their sensitivity and in the end almost nothing brings pleasure. Long term abuse of substances that stimulate dopamine can also cause a depletion of dopamine over time, resulting in focus problems and an inability to feel pleasure.

NOREPINEPHRINE is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is responsible for stimulatory processes in the body.  When the body is healthy, this neurotransmitter helps us to get things done. It moves us and gets us going. However, during detox and in the early stages of recovery, norepinephrine levels are often elevated beyond what the body can handle comfortably. The body perceives this stress as being under attack and begins to "freak out”, which in turn leads to the brain’s "fight or flight" response. This can be compared to pulling an emergency alarm after which the body immediately goes into action. The Norepinephrine reacts with and helps to produce epinephrine and the "freak out" is taken to a whole new level. It is often at this point that recovery becomes difficult, because anxiety interferes with logical thinking and sanity.

EPINEPHRINE is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is reflective of stress. During detox and early recovery, many forms of anxiety occur resulting from increased epinephrine levels. Racing thoughts, racing heart, racing feelings, all can be like a loud ringing alarm clanging for attention. Post-acute withdrawal signs such as problems with sleep, problems eating, problems thinking clearly, problems with emotions, pains in the body, and general agitation and annoyance, can all result from this overactive system and hinder recovery.

Balancing the System 

While this is all very complex, the solution can be simple. Through neurotransmitter testing, Neurogistics can identify neurotransmitters imbalances, and with the Neurogistics Brain Wellness Program can aid the body's natural move toward balance or homeostasis. As the recovery process continues, the body, mind and spirit come into balance, sustaining recovery, and ultimately leading to a healthier balanced lifestyle.