The Dopamine Link


We hear a lot about the benefits of dopamine and its ability to make us happy and feel good about ourselves. Low levels of dopamine may create the desire within the body to find a substitute. Often this manifests as substance abuse, leading to addiction. But what exactly is dopamine and why do we need it? In understanding our need for this chemical agent, we might better understand our addictions.

What Is Dopamine?

Very simply, dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter found in our brain that is responsible for controlling our emotions and pleasure centers. Dopamine plays a vital role in the brain’s reward pathway, surging from the brain to the body and back again.  

In addition to emotional well-being and metabolism, dopamine also plays a key role in our sleep and memory functioning, which comes up in brain research, including dementia diseases.

Low levels of dopamine have been linked to mood disorders to include depression. Co-occurring with depression, addiction issues can result from long term self-medicating. The goal of self-medicating is to ease symptoms that may include low energy and sadness. However, attempting to create higher levels of dopamine through substance use can lead to a variety of problems. 

The Addiction Link

The power of dopamine to enhance our emotional state can quickly advance addiction symptoms. The current dialogue surrounding addiction swings from dopamine itself as the cause, to the high dopamine levels produced when the chosen substance is consumed being the cause.

Normal dopamine levels leave us feeling relatively good on an everyday, functioning level. During the consumption of substances, euphoria is reached according to the increase in dopamine.

Once the high is triggered, our brain rewards us, signaling this was good, so let’s have some more. This triggering of other desires and more intense euphoria naturally leads to increased usage and more creative consumption methods: snorting, smoking, and injecting.

Although there are many theories concerning what happens within our brain when addiction occurs, most experts agree: the main factor lies in dopamine being one of several chemical neurotransmitters controlling moods, motivations, and desires.

These chemicals and receptors become overly active when drug use occurs, leading to changes in our behavior. For example, we may find everyday living stressful and use drugs to self-medicate whatever symptoms we feel. At this point, we are at risk of developing an addiction.

Illegal drugs or misused prescription medications are not the only carriers of addiction risk. Nicotine in cigarettes also acts as a central nervous system stimulant. In other words, smoking triggers pleasure centers in the brain, leading to increased dopamine levels in the bloodstream. How often have you heard a work colleague say that they need a cigarette to relax?

Alcohol also affects dopamine neurotransmitters. While alcohol’s reward injection is physical, pleasure from alcohol and dopamine release creates psychological satisfaction. This psychological aspect leads to increased consumption, addiction, and the inability to stop using the substance.

Understanding the role of dopamine in the brain is not meant to undermine other factors that may play a role in our addiction; every situation is unique. However, recognizing our emotional drive to feel good can be a useful starting point in understanding our behavior and addictive urges.   

Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter found in our brain and is responsible for controlling our emotions and pleasure centers. Playing a vital role in the brain’s reward pathway, dopamine surges from the brain to the body and back again. The ability of dopamine to enhance our emotional state quickly advances addiction symptoms. This increases the odds of addiction. Surrounded by the sublime landscape of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the Detox Center of Colorado offers a solution-based transitional residence program aimed at accountability and recovery. Against a backdrop of clean, mountain air, we support your substance abuse or mental health recovery with a range of treatment and aftercare options. Call us at the Detox Center of Colorado at (303) 952-5035 today. 

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