The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a brain disease. But what, exactly, are the long-term effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain? To answer this question, we first need to understand how certain drugs interact with the brain — and how people can help their brains to recover. Many people won’t be able to break free from addiction on their own. Fortunately, an Orange County drug rehab like Clear Life Recovery can help.
How Different Drugs Affect the Brain
There are some commonalities between drug effects but also many differences. A person with an alcohol use disorder will have a very different set of long-term consequences than someone who uses heroin, for example. Importantly, all of these drugs are harmful to cognitive health — just with a few key differences.
Alcohol’s Impact on the Brain
Alcohol, despite its legal status, can be harmful to the brain and body. Alcohol works within the brain as a central nervous system depressant, slowing the body’s automatic and life-preserving functions. The central nervous system includes both the brain and the spinal cord, and damaging this system leads to negative effects.
Specifically, alcohol affects GABA receptors within the brain.1 GABA serves to calm the central nervous system down, slow your heart rate and breathing, and provide a relaxed sensation. When people drink alcohol, GABA becomes more effective at this task.
However, when people become addicted to alcohol, their central nervous system becomes accustomed to the relaxing effect produced by the drug. The brain responds by accelerating central nervous system activity, making people feel “normal” only while they are under the influence.
This can also lead to severe alcohol withdrawal seizures if somebody suddenly stops using alcohol, which can be fatal. If you are attempting to quit alcohol use, it is imperative that you reach out to an Orange County drug rehab for help.
Methamphetamines’ Impact on the Brain
Methamphetamines are powerful stimulant drugs. Taking methamphetamines causes several effects on the central nervous system, including:
- Elevated heart rate
- Increased focus
When people use methamphetamines, their brains release large amounts of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.2 After extended use, stores of these neurotransmitters run out. This leads to the common experience of a methamphetamine crash.
Dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are responsible for several different effects. This includes the feeling of reward, a sense of energy, and even contentment. But as always, the brain adjusts to the new levels of these neurotransmitters after just a short period. A person with a methamphetamine addiction may not experience these feelings unless they are actively using the drug.
Opioids and the Brain
Opioids include drugs such as:
All of these drugs affect the brain in a similar fashion. Like alcohol, opioids are central nervous system depressants. However, they target different receptors that lead to a unique set of consequences.
Opioids affect opioid receptors, which are found throughout the entire body.3 These receptors are most associated with pain relief and pleasure and are responsible for the euphoric effects of opioids.
Repeated use causes the body to react to the constant pressure of opioids on this neural substrate. This frequently leads newly sober people to experience opioid withdrawal and feel like they cannot enjoy life’s everyday activities.
Neurocircuitry of Addiction
While this list of addictive substances is by no means exhaustive, there is one common thread between all addictive substances: the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s chemical messenger that signals reward. The use of every addictive substance leads to a flood of this neurotransmitter, which causes people to seek out the substance repeatedly.4
Over time, the entire reward system can depend on the substance to function. This follows a simple process:
- Dopamine floods the brain when drugs are used
- The brain becomes accustomed to high levels of dopamine
- The brain pares off excess dopamine receptors in a process known as downregulation
- Regular events, such as playing sports or spending time with friends, no longer feel rewarding
As a result of this process, people return to drug use over and over again. Many people may need the help of an Orange County drug rehab to break free from the cycle of addiction.
Long-Term Negative Effects of Drug and Alcohol Use on the Brain and How Orange County Drug Rehab Can Help
As you can see, the range of ways that drugs and alcohol affect the brain is extensive. The consequences of this drug use are severe and can lead to long-term effects, such as:
Impaired Brain Functioning
Impaired cognitive functioning is perhaps the most reported side effect of drug use. Specifically, people with a history of substance use disorders perform worse than others in impulse control, memory, and delayed gratification.5
Lower Brain Volume
Drugs such as alcohol can lead to significant brain shrinkage over time. Researchers have discovered that even a single drink daily leads to a lower brain volume, which is associated with cognitive decline.6
Damaged Reward Networks
The reward network in a person with substance use disorder can take significant time to recover. In that period, people may feel uninterested in their daily activities, have excessive levels of boredom, and lack motivation.
Chronic drug use can often lead to the development of mental health disorders, such as:7
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
These disorders can be present before a person develops a substance use disorder — but substance use can also lead to these disorders. An Orange County drug rehab can provide dual-diagnosis treatment for mental health concerns and addiction.
Does an Addicted Brain Recover?
Fortunately, the brain is remarkably resilient. A person experiencing the long-term effects of drug use can recover most or all of their brain function, provided they can get and stay sober.
Finding Treatment at an Orange County Drug Rehab
At Clear Life Recovery’s Orange County drug rehab, our team is dedicated to helping people break free from substance use disorders and build healthier lives in recovery. Our team understands the long-term effects that drug use can have on the brain and has several tools for helping people regain their cognitive functioning. When you’re ready to begin treatment at our Orange County drug rehab, fill out our confidential online form or call today.