What Are Neurotransmitters? What Role Do They Play In Addiction?

When influenced by addictive substances, neurotransmitters can drive nerve cells to behave a certain way or prevent them from functioning correctly. Both of these actions can unintentionally contribute to addiction.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that send messages from one cell to another. The messages they send back and forth provide information to the body and brain. This process plays a significant role in our emotional health. Some neurotransmitters, for example, make us feel calm, while others make us feel excited. Other neurotransmitters motivate us to repeat specific actions. Messages sent by neurotransmitters can also affect how our bodies respond to addictive substances. Understanding neurotransmitters, how they work, and their role in addiction can help break the negative stigma surrounding substance abuse and motivate people who are grappling with an addiction to get the help they need.

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals that occur naturally in the body. Their job is to carry impulses from one part of the brain to another. They also help send impulses and messages from the brain to the rest of the body. The messages neurotransmitters send help keep our brains functioning by managing our breathing, heartbeat, concentration, and learning ability. Neurotransmitters also help regulate our mood and our emotions, such as fear, pleasure, and joy.

There are two main types of neurotransmitters: excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters make nerve activity stronger. These neurotransmitters send messages to elicit a specific action from other cells. When we touch something hot, for example, excitatory neurotransmitters quickly increase nerve activity to alert our bodies to the sensation of heat, causing us to remove our hands from the heat source.

Inhibitory neurotransmitters make nerve activity weaker or stop it from happening altogether. Unlike excitatory neurotransmitters, inhibitory neurotransmitters help prevent a specific response from other cells in the body.

Some neurotransmitters have modulatory responses, meaning they can send the same message to several neurons simultaneously. Due to the complexity of their work, these neurotransmitters operate more slowly than excitatory and inhibitory chemicals.

More than 100 neurotransmitters are working in our bodies, but some of the most common include:

  • Glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that plays a major role in learning, memory, and fine and gross motor skills such as walking, running, and grasping objects.
  • Serotonin, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps keep our emotions and moods balanced. Serotonin also helps control our sleep cycle, food cravings, digestion, and pain control.
  • Dopamine, a neurotransmitter commonly referred to as the “feel good” chemical. Dopamine, which has inhibitory and excitatory effects, helps regulate reward, motivation, and the way our bodies move.
  • Acetylcholine has excitatory and inhibitory effects. The neurotransmitter can cause muscles to contract but causes the heart rate to slow down.
  • Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, also known as GABA, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that can relieve anxiety and improve sleep.
  • Endorphins are inhibitory neurotransmitters that block the transmission of pain signals while promoting feelings of pleasure. The brain typically releases endorphins as a natural response to pain in the body, but aerobic exercises can also trigger neurotransmitters.

Despite their differences, most neurotransmitters operate the same way.

How Do Neurotransmitters Work?

To understand neurotransmitters, we have to understand neurons. Neurons are nerve cells found in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system. The average human brain has about 86 billion nerve cells. Each cell has a body, an axon, and dendrites.

  • The cell body controls the cell.
  • The axon extends out of the cell body and sends messages to other cells.
  • Dendrites branch out from the body and receive signals from other cells.

Even though the brain has billions of neurons, they don’t physically touch each other. Neurotransmitters help neurons communicate with each other. Here’s how.

  1. A neuron releases neurotransmitters through its axon.
  2. Neurotransmitters cross through a tiny space between two nerve cells.
  3. The second neuron receives the neurotransmitter through its dendrites.
  4. The second neuron responds accordingly based on the neurotransmitter it receives.

What Role Do Neurotransmitters Play In Addiction?

When people use drugs and alcohol, neurons in the brain alter how they release and receive neurotransmitters. Depending on the neurotransmitter that’s removed or received, activity in the central nervous system will increase or decrease. When influenced by addictive substances, these neurotransmitters can drive nerve cells to behave a certain way or prevent them from functioning correctly. Both of these actions can unintentionally contribute to addiction.

Dopamine Can Drive Nerve Cells To Desire Addictive Substances

Consuming large amounts of drugs or alcohol causes the brain to release an excessive amount of dopamine, triggering a rush of pleasurable feelings. Unfortunately, dopamine also links addictive behavior to pleasure, encouraging us to indulge in more pleasure-producing behaviors. When we act on these unhealthy addictive habits, we experience more significant dopamine surges. These surges can “teach” the brain to seek out drugs and alcohol, perpetuating substance abuse and addiction.

Unbalanced Levels Of Serotonin Stop Cells From Functioning Properly

Drugs and alcohol can also negatively affect our serotonin levels. When this happens, our mood and emotions can take a turn for the worse. Too much serotonin can make us anxious and depressed. Too little serotonin can lead to chronic fatigue, headaches, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. All of these conditions can compel us to turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to relieve our pain and distress temporarily. But the reality is that behaving this way can make substance abuse challenges worse and increase the risk of addiction.

Start Your Recovery Journey Today

The human brain is a highly complex yet fragile organ with many different processes. By changing the way nerve cells communicate with each other, drugs and alcohol can cause the neurons in our brains to behave in a way that perpetuates addictive behavior. But there’s hope. The brain can change for the better just as much as it can change for the worse. This means that the brain can be restored and healed. Our compassionate programs backed by evidence-based treatment and world-class brain science can help you say goodbye to addiction for good.

Let us help you get there. Contact us today to start or continue your recovery journey.

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