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Why Certain Drugs Are Addictive

Why Certain Drugs Are Addictive

If drugs like heroin, cocaine and alcohol couldn’t cause dependence and addiction, the problems of substance abuse and drug-related crime might not exist.

But in fact, the drugs that cause the most damage to your body, your family and your community have the highest potential for abuse and addiction. What makes certain drugs so seductive that even casual users seem to become addicted? The answer lies in the way these substances affect your brain chemistry.

Understanding Your Brain’s Reward System

Almost all addictive drugs act on the brain’s natural reward circuitry, changing the way you feel, act and behave as you become increasingly dependent on the substance of your choice. When you drink an alcoholic beverage, inject heroin, take prescription painkillers or snort cocaine, these substances alter the way your brain processes chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Each drug acts in a specific way to change the brain’s response to stimuli, but the end result is that the experience of using the substance is so pleasurable, relaxing or energizing that it triggers your internal reward system, making you want to repeat that experience again and again.

Over time, your brain gets used to the response, and you need more of the drug to achieve the same euphoric, hallucinogenic or sedating effects. By this time, you may be displaying addictive behavior like:

  • Compulsively seeking the drug
  • Continuing to use the drug even though it’s obviously causing harm to you or your loved ones
  • Lying, stealing or doing other things that hurt your sense of integrity in order to get the drug
  • Taking dangerous risks in order to obtain or use the drug

We can answer your questions about drug addiction and help you understand why it’s so hard to quit, even when drugs are destroying your life. Call our toll-free number for access to rehabilitation services that can help you recover from the crippling disease of addiction.

Am I Drug-Dependent or Addicted?

To understand why drugs are addictive, it’s important to understand the difference between dependence and addiction. Physical and psychological dependence and addiction aren’t necessarily the same thing. Wright State University defines dependence by:

  • A physical reliance on the drug that results in withdrawal symptoms if you can’t use the substance
  • A state of tolerance that demands larger quantities of the drug in order to satisfy your need for the substance
  • Strong cravings for the drug that prompt relapse when you try to stop using or drinking
  • The inability to control how much of the drug you use, no matter how much you want to stop or curb your habit

Understanding Dependence and Addiction

Dependence doesn’t always lead to addiction, but it may be hard to tell the two conditions apart, and some addiction specialists use the two terms interchangeably. Tolerance, withdrawal symptoms and compulsive drug-seeking behavior may characterize both states, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Drug addiction is often associated with consequences that are destructive to the individual and society, like increased rates of injury, accidents and crime.

It’s helpful to use the two terms separately when you’re dealing with habit-forming pain medications or other addictive substances that are used for medical purposes. Although many people who take opioid pain medication on a regular basis can become tolerant or dependent, they don’t necessarily display compulsive, addictive behavior when it comes to getting or using the drug.


The University of Maryland Medical Center estimates that approximately 18 million people in the US are alcohol abusers. If you have a problem with alcohol, you probably know how hard it is to stop drinking once you start. Alcoholics may intend to have only one or two drinks at a bar or party, then end up drinking all night and into the early morning hours.

What makes it so hard for some people to stop drinking once they get started, while others don’t have trouble cutting it off or avoiding alcohol altogether?

The answer may lie in a combination of brain chemistry and heredity. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters — dopamine, endorphins, GABA and glutamate — that affect your moods or influence the way your brain cells transmit messages. Although clinical research hasn’t confirmed that alcoholism is inherited, there is evidence that the condition is genetically related.

If you feel extremely relaxed, giddy, or content after having a few drinks, your brain cells are probably responding to the increased production of chemicals that affect your mood. At the same time, alcohol affects the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for emotions, judgment and impulsive behavior.

If you’ve ever gone from feeling happy and content to feeling angry and destructive when you’re drinking, you’ve experienced the direct effects of alcohol on your brain.

If you have a problem with alcohol, you may feel so good when you drink that you just don’t want to stop. Or you may have grown so accustomed to the way alcohol makes you feel that you can’t stop without experiencing anxiety, depression, tremors and other withdrawal symptoms. In either case, your brain’s reward system has been rewired to respond to alcohol in such a way that you become addicted.


Amphetamine, or speed, and methamphetamine, or meth, have a similar chemical structure, and both are highly addictive. Amphetamine and meth are central nervous system stimulants. When you take speed, crank or meth orally, intranasally or intravenously, the drugs change your brain’s production of or response to neurotransmitters like dopamine. The over-production of chemical messengers that make you feel good creates a rush of euphoria.

Meanwhile, speed and meth activate the central nervous system, giving you a sense of super-human energy and intensified mental focus. These drugs can also promote weight loss, another factor that makes them so attractive in an image-obsessed society. When you first start using speed or meth, you may find that they make it easier to work, study, stay up all night or fit into your favorite clothes. But after repeated use, your brain becomes so accustomed to the rush of neurotransmitters that you need more of the drugs to get high or stay alert.


The sense of euphoria, self-confidence and energy that cocaine provides make this drug one of the most addictive substances around.

Once used in the medical field as a numbing agent and anesthetic, cocaine has the ability to reduce sensations of pain while generating feelings of intense pleasure. Cocaine exerts its addictive power on the central nervous system by changing the way the brain processes dopamine. After dopamine is released, cocaine keeps the brain cells from recycling the neurotransmitter, resulting in an excess of this “feel-good” chemical. In fact, you may feel so good after doing cocaine that you lose interest in most of your other activities or relationships.

Although the effects of cocaine are almost immediate — even more so if the drug is injected or smoked in the form of crack — a cocaine high doesn’t last very long. In general, a cocaine high lasts no more than 15 to 30 minutes, according to Medical News Today. Users must continue to take the drug repeatedly in order to maintain their high, which makes it an extremely expensive habit as well as a very harmful one.


Marijuana use is becoming increasingly common in the United States; between 2007 and 2010, the number of Americans currently using cannabis rose from 14.4 million to 17.4 million, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). As the use of marijuana for pain control, appetite stimulation and other therapeutic purposes becomes more widely accepted, casual and recreational use of this drug is becoming more commonplace, as well.

The Debate Over Marijuana Addiction

Addiction experts and users alike are debating whether marijuana is addictive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2008, marijuana accounted for 15 percent of substance abuse treatment admissions in the US. But many users report feeling physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using marijuana, such as:

  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

The active ingredient in cannabis, THC, stimulates receptors in your brain cells that generate feelings ranging from relaxation and contentment to giddiness and euphoria. If you use marijuana on a regular basis to take the edge off a frustrating day or mellow yourself out after work, you may begin to notice that you need to smoke or ingest more of the drug to get the same feelings. When you can’t smoke pot for a few days, you may start to feel frustrated, edgy and depressed. The pleasant sensations of marijuana use can retrain your brain’s reward system to respond favorably to cannabis use and to experience increased stress or anxiety when you can’t use the drug.

Opioid Drugs

The class of opioid drugs includes all drugs that come from morphine, from illicit drugs like heroin to prescription medications like OxyContin, Percocet and Dilaudid.

Opiates like morphine and heroin are derived from the opium poppy, while drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone are synthesized in a laboratory setting. Natural and synthetic opioids are both very powerful, and their potential for addiction is extremely high.

Opioid drugs are highly addictive because they behave very much like your body’s natural pain relievers: endorphins. Endorphins lock on to the opioid receptors in your brain cells to produce pain relief or feelings of well-being. Opioid drugs behave in the same manner, producing similar sensations at a more intense level.

Opioids like heroin can produce an addictive rush of euphoria, especially when they’re injected intravenously.

Once you become dependent on an opioid drug, you’ll experience severe withdrawal symptoms when you can’t take the drug or try to quit. Powerful cravings, shaking, sweating, nausea, vomiting, muscle and bone pain, irritability and agitation are among the withdrawal symptoms that make it so hard to recover from opiate addiction.

Regardless of the type of drug you’re struggling with, help is available and you can choose an private inpatient or outpatient treatment center. Contact us today to get connected to a program that can truly help you recover.

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