Dopamine and its effect on the brain

The key player in addiction
By Shelly Tichelaar, CEO & Executive Director, Ranch Creek Recovery

Yes, there really can be too much of a good thing. Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter in the brain that relays feelings of pleasure to the brain when we engage in an enjoyable behavior or activity. While human beings inherently rely on dopamine to reinforce survival behaviors such as eating and procreating, this brain chemical also happens to be the key player in addiction.

Out of Control Dopamine

Activated by such things as eating certain foods we love or engaging in romance, dopamine signals the brain that a reward is on its way. When we engage in these pleasurable activities, dopamine sends its chemical message to the brain — the association between the stimulus and the reward become hardwired, a process called conditioning. This stimulus and reward pattern allows the human species to survive.

But when it comes to drug or alcohol use, dopamine levels are released at five to ten times the normal level, flooding the mood center of the brain. The user’s brain associates the extreme rush resulting from the spiked dopamine levels with using the drug of choice, reinforcing the desire to repeat using it. Ultimately, the brain requires more and more of the alcohol or drug to achieve any feelings of pleasure at all, resulting in compulsive drug-seeking behaviors.

Dopamine and Addiction

Most drugs target the brain’s reward system, activating a surge of dopamine that overwhelms the brain. In response, the brain produces lower levels of dopamine and reduces the number of brain receptors.

Ongoing drug or alcohol use will eventually impact the brain circuits and neurons, potentially causing permanent damage in the brain. The user will attempt to achieve feelings of pleasure at any cost, ramping up dosage levels and frequency of use, further cementing the drug dependency. The increased tolerance to the drug and the elevated level of addiction can become life threatening.

Overcoming Addiction and Healing the Brain

Thankfully, the plasticity of the brain enables it to change and rewire itself. Just as addiction produces unhealthy brain pathways through the dopamine-driven reward system, new neural road maps can be developed using holistic methods such as mindfulness training and meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Basically, retraining the brain to respond differently to thoughts or triggers can, in time, change brain chemistry.

Changing ingrained neural pathways takes effort and patience. New behaviors have to be practiced and learned. New thought processes take time to become routine. Learning how to be present and utilize new relaxation tools takes practice. Over time, the pathways that were once active during addiction will wither up as new pathways are formed.

SMART Recovery meetings can teach you self-empowering tools and techniques that will help you to maintain the motivation to make the changes you choose in your life, while you also learn how you can control your urges.

Brain health can be improved concurrently with therapy by embracing a healthy diet that feeds brain cells. A strong association exists between nutrition and brain health, including cognitive functioning and mental health. Centering the diet around lean proteins like fish and turkey, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and pasta, nuts, and seeds will help restore brain health at the cellular level.

About the author: With 35 years of experience working in the behavioral health field, Shelly Tichelaar understands the needs of her clients. Shelly is the C.E.O. and Executive Director at Ranch Creek Recovery, a non-12-step, residential addiction recovery program in California. She provides high-quality treatment by keeping client caseload low, offering holistic and experiential therapies, and working closely with a highly experienced treatment team.

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