How psychoactive drugs affect the brain

The word “psychoactive” simply means “affecting the mind or the brain.” All drugs are psychoactive to a greater or lesser degree. Even a cup of coffee – a mild stimulant – is acting upon brain chemistry. Drugs impinge upon our bodies, minds, and brains in profound and even mysterious ways. The allure of drugs is how they make people feel. The drug user wants to get high. People go to happy hour after work to drink and feel more at ease. But what is really happening and why can drugs be so destructive to our bodies?

The brain is a component of the nervous system. A “neurotransmitter” is a chemical that helps transmit messages from cell to cell within the nervous system. Also called “brain chemicals,” neurotransmitters are crucial to muscle control (voluntary and involuntary) and also influence our thought processes, memory, and emotion. They are integral to the relay of sensation and pain signals within the body. The Wikipedia page on neurotransmitters lists 42 “common” neurotransmitters. It is highly likely there are many more – common and uncommon.

How do drugs affect brain chemistry?

One of the neurotransmitters we hear a lot about in reference to drugs is called dopamine. Dopamine is often described as the “reward” chemical, the “pleasure” chemical, or the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It is apparently released when something good happens, makes us feel good and makes us want to revisit whatever triggered its initial release. What drugs do is artificially release dopamine. They trigger dopamine release when there may be no valid or natural reason for it. Why is this harmful? The drug induces a rush or overflow of dopamine. Opiate users even use that word: “rush.” The cells receiving the dopamine will start to shut down as a defense mechanism. It’s too much for them to handle. The drug user’s body builds up tolerance to the drug and it becomes harder and harder for them to get high. They crave the artificial dopamine release and seek more and more of the drug, or use harder and more potent drugs in their quest for chemical release.

Other physical effects of drugs

Drugs have other effects upon the systems of the body – the digestive system, the respiratory system. Heavy stimulants like methamphetamine are manufactured with other harsh chemicals and eat up a person’s internal organs. Just looking at the before and after photos of long-term meth addicts illustrates this fact. Opiates like heroin and even prescription painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin have the effect of eroding body tissue. One way this occurs is by draining the body of vital nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. This process can take place slowly or rather quickly – depending on which drugs are used, how much, how often, the physical make-up of the individual, genetics, and other factors.

From prescription to the street

A large number of psychiatric pharmaceuticals are marketed as remedies for “chemical imbalance.” While these drugs certainly do affect brain chemistry, their own advertising states bluntly that they – the manufacturers – do not know how the brain is affected by these substances. The theory that brain chemistry is somehow “balanced” is simply a theory. What is well-documented scientific fact is that a number of these drugs are just as addictive – or more so – than cocaine or heroin.

For example, psychoactive stimulants like Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall are all listed as Schedule II drugs under the United States Controlled Substances Act. This classification indicates high potential for abuse that may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. The drugs also come with a long list of documented “side effects”: Erratic or violent behavior; hallucinations; panic attacks; damaged blood vessels and internal organs (liver, kidney, lungs, brain); psychosis; suicidal thoughts or actions; coma; death.

Schedule II also includes morphine, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Why are the effects of morphine, cocaine, and meth called “effects” and the effects of Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall called “side effects”? The truth is that all “side effects” are really just the effects produced by these drugs. Why do people take them? They get prescribed them and/or they want to experience temporary euphoria – the same as any other drug, illicit or otherwise. The story of prescription psychoactive drugs is basically the same as illegal drugs. Heroin and cocaine were originally made in a lab by pharmaceutical companies and sold as valid cures. Ritalin is now a street drug called “kiddie coke.” One of the top drugs abused by high school kids in 2012 was Adderall. Why are these psychoactive drugs still on the market? Well, there’s a lot of revenue at stake; that could be the answer.

What can be done about it?

People use psychoactive drugs to get the dopamine rush and probably many other chemical reactions that the body perceives as “pleasure.” To fully understand all the science behind the effects of drugs upon the brain, we’d probably all have to study as neurologists. But suffice it to say that we can’t fool our bodies for very long. With the artificial rush of dopamine, the cells start to shut down, triggering a chain reaction of deterioration.

Drug abuse of any kind is a downward spiral. Drug education is a way to intercept youth and adults in a positive way so they steer clear of drug abuse. Holistic rehabilitation provides natural means of detoxification through the use of nutritional regimens and reconstitution of vitamins and minerals. For anyone addicted to psychoactive substances, a drug-free life could be just around the corner.

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