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How Addiction Rewires Your Brain

Being addicted to illegal substances or even prescription meds affects every area of your life, including personal and professional relationships. Addiction also has a profound effect on your body and your brain, which is why it’s often so hard to quit, even if you want to. 


Addiction exerts a powerful, lasting influence on your brain, causing you to crave the substance, lose control over using it, and continue your addiction despite the negative consequences involving so many aspects of your life, health, and well-being. 


Richard E. Repass, MD, at Revolution Psychiatric and Addiction Treatment in Mercer Island, Washington, understands how addiction rewires your brain and offers a multifaceted approach to treatment that can loosen the grip of addiction in your life. 


Dr. Repass helps men and women of all ages overcome addiction with individualized treatment programs that address all aspects of your dependence on drugs or alcohol. Here, we explain how substances rewire your brain and why successful recovery warrants a multidisciplinary approach. 

Addiction hijacks your brain’s pleasure center

For many years, addiction was thought to be a problem for those who didn’t have enough willpower to “just say no” to drugs. Today, the medical community recognizes addiction as a chronic disease that changes the function and structure of your brain. 


We also understand that to break your addiction, you need to address all aspects of it with a combination of psychotherapy, medications, and self-care — all of which we provide through our addiction recovery programs at Revolution Psychiatric and Addiction Treatment. 


Much like you feel after you win a competition, achieve a professional goal, or eat a delectable dinner, addictive substances send a message to your brain that you feel good and enjoy the experience of taking the drug. In any of these pleasurable situations, your brain releases dopamine — a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is practically synonymous with how you experience pleasure.


Unlike a satisfying meal, a work promotion, or a personal achievement, though, addictive drugs flood your brain’s pleasure center with a rapid, large amount of dopamine. Your brain then remembers this quick sense of satisfaction, happiness, or high, and creates a conditioned response to the same stimuli time and time again. 


In other words, your brain likes the way the drug makes you feel and commits it to your memory so you want to feel that way again and again. And, the faster a substance helps your brain release dopamine, the more addicted you’re likely to become to that substance. 

How dopamine plays a role in learning and memory

As if it’s not enough to experience pleasure from an addictive substance, the release of dopamine also interacts with another neurotransmitter in your brain called glutamate. When this happens, the drug takes over your brain’s system of reward-related learning. This part of your brain links life-sustaining activities to the need for human survival, including eating and having sex. 


As a result of the pleasurable effects on your brain’s reward-related learning system, your brain begins to associate the drug with a need for survival. Addictive substances essentially overload the reward-based learning center of your brain, motivating you to regularly seek out the source of your pleasure. 

Your brain builds tolerance over time

To compound the problem, over time your brain builds a tolerance to the addictive substance. Your brain adapts to the usual amount of drugs it takes to become flooded with dopamine and glutamate, making you perceive the experience as less pleasurable than it originally was. 


You then feel the need to take more of the substance to produce the same pleasurable effects. Tolerance is simply your brain adapting to the substance — opioids, alcohol, nicotine — so that you need more and more of it to feel the type of high that comes with it. 


This vicious cycle of experiencing pleasure and building tolerance continues until eventually compulsion takes over. Even though you continue to experience less pleasure from the addictive drug, your memory of the desired effect motivates you — compels you — to continue wanting and needing the drug. 


This type of conditioning plays a role in the intensity of your cravings, as well, making it hard to quit on your own without medications and therapy that help retrain your brain. 


As part of our effective, multidisciplinary approach to helping you overcome addiction, we also offer NAD detox, a natural treatment that helps minimize cravings and restores balance to your brain’s neurotransmitters.

To learn more about addiction treatments and to get a personalized plan based on your needs, call our compassionate team at 425-243-5773 to schedule a consultation. You can also send us a message online anytime.

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