Learn / Dopamine and Addiction: What’s the Connection?
Addiction changes how the brain functions. It especially impacts the brain’s “reward system,” which is largely based on dopamine. This hormone is responsible for our pleasure response, along with other important functions like memory, attention, and mood.
Understanding addiction is an important part of recovery. Knowing there’s a physiological reason for your addiction can relieve some of the shame around it, so you can move forward in your healing journey. And gaining perspective on what’s driving your behavior can help you make lasting change.
We can experience pleasure from all kinds of activities, whether it’s exercise or scrolling social media. Our brain’s reward system is responsible for that feeling, and the desire to seek more of it.
This system helped early humans survive by rewarding beneficial behaviors, like eating. When it’s in balance, it allows us to stay focused, motivated, and happy. Dopamine imbalance is linked to mental health issues, like depression, and substance use disorders.
Substances bypass the body’s natural dopamine production by directly flooding the reward system with it. Some substances do this more intensely than others:
Stimulants like cocaine can release up to 10 times the amount of dopamine your body would naturally produce.4
The first time a substance is used, it creates a direct dopamine response. This intensity of this varies from person to person. According to neurotheology specialist Dr. Cyrus H. McCandless, “you can never accurately predict how much reward you’re going to get.”5
Your brain remembers everything leading up to a reward, so it can repeat the experience. This drives the desire to use more of a substance. As dopamine levels go up, serotonin, which helps us feel satisfied, goes down. This creates a cycle of wanting more while feeling less satiated.
This cycle doesn’t just apply to substance use. Altered dopamine pathways are seen in behavioral addictions,6 including gambling, shopping, and sex.
Usually, brain chemistry returns to normal after a dopamine release. But continued substance use surges the brain with dopamine until it becomes overstimulated. Over time, the body wants to balance out, so it shuts down dopamine receptors. As a result, we won’t feel the same high from using the same amount of substances as before. This is how the brain builds tolerance.7
The reward system plays a significant role in these.
Substances artificially change dopamine production. This can signal to the brain that substances are more important than other natural rewards. Eventually, natural rewards become less exciting and the brain learns to value substances9 above all else.
Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s flexibility,10 also plays a part in addiction. We can get used to higher levels of dopamine following prolonged substance use. But an overstimulated brain no longer produces as much of it. Instead, it relies on substances.
It’s not possible to keep up substance-induced levels of dopamine at all times. Drops in dopamine levels can contribute to withdrawal symptoms:
For many people, detox is the first step in the recovery journey. As substances leave your system, your body and brain recalibrate. Low dopamine levels during withdrawal can make this process difficult. But thanks to neuroplasticity, we can nurture our brain chemistry back to normal over time.
Note: Depending on the substance, detox can be life-threatening and shouldn’t be attempted alone.
Each person has different levels of dopamine and dopamine receptors.11 The time it takes for the reward system to return to normal after prolonged substance use varies. Factors like the type of substance and level of use will impact recovery time. In general, it takes the brain up to 14 months to recover.
30 days of abstinence
90 days of abstinence
Brain scans in one study showed no significant difference in dopamine receptors following 90 days of abstinence compared to 30 days.13 This indicates that recovery is possible, but it takes time.
14 months of abstinence
The brain’s reward circuit, including dopamine receptor levels, returns to nearly normal after 14 months of abstinence.14
The human brain is capable of amazing things, including the ability to modify and change throughout your lifetime. For many, it’s comforting to know that changes to the brain caused by substance use disorder are reversible. Your brain can repair and heal, if you facilitate its healing.
Rehab can help you do just that. Learn more and compare your options in our directory of treatment centers.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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