Some people feel exhilarated by driving fast, hang gliding, or bungee jumping, but it seems that what they really enjoy is the dopamine rush that these types of activities can trigger. Of course, simply eating a square of chocolate or kissing your partner can produce sensations caused by a flooding of feel-good chemicals in the brain. And who doesn’t like feeling good?
Unfortunately, the trouble with feeling good is that it can be followed by a comedown effect. Feel-good chemicals in the brain like dopamine taper off, leaving individuals feeling a bit depleted after having just felt on top of the world.
In many ways, the psychological comedown associated with these potentially dangerous activities mimics what happens when people use drugs recreationally. Many of these drugs target the brain’s reward centers and cause a surge in feel-good chemicals like dopamine. The high that this reaction produces is not unlike the powerful buzz of excitement that a person can feel when they’re parachuting out of an airplane or scaling up the side of a mountain.
While people’s responses to dopamine—its surges and letdowns—can differ, the near-universal desire to experience heightened pleasure can inform an understanding of addiction. Most addictive substances will cause a dopamine spike. Understanding the chemical mechanism that drives people to abuse drugs can explain why overcoming substance addiction–or other forms of addiction–can be so difficult.
What Is Dopamine?
Known as the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine is a chemical messenger that relays signals between brain cells. This definition doesn’t readily explain the intense feelings of pleasure that the chemical can trigger and, yet, dopamine is much more complex than at first glance. The brain releases dopamine when it is expecting a reward. Anything you enjoy, including those risk-taking activities, can unleash dopamine, causing its levels to spike.
We can see dopamine at work all around us. Visit a playground. The first thing that a child wants to do while laughing their way down the slide is to get up and do it again. Once we understand on a chemical level that an activity will give us pleasure, we want to repeat the behavior. Once you learn that chocolate cake triggers your reward center, you want to eat it again. We learn both consciously and chemically what feels good and will, depending on circumstances, be willing to repeat those feel-good actions or activities.
How Dopamine Works Differently for Everyone
Dopamine works as a neurotransmitter in everyone’s brain, but our reactions to dopamine stimulants differ. We know this because many of us have a friend who refuses to ride roller coasters. The idea of bungee jumping fills some people with dread–not pleasure. And, believe it or not, there are those who, even after having chocolate cake, find it quite easy to say no to a slice without a twinge of displeasure. Why?
Studies out of universities like Cornell have demonstrated that some people are more sensitive to signals of incentive and reward carried by dopamine. This could be a biochemical marker underlining what some people have called an “addictive personality.” Of course, there are many factors that can drive addiction, and dopamine isn’t the only one. However, it can play a powerful role in the development of addiction as well as the challenges of recovery from addiction.
How Do Drugs Relate to Dopamine?
Lots of things can stimulate dopamine like sex, exercise, the nicotine in cigarettes, and recreational drugs like heroine or cocaine. While sex promotes the natural release of dopamine, drugs can trigger an abundant amount of dopamine. This abundance can lead to that euphoric feeling of pleasure. However, when you’re up that high and riding on a dopamine wave, you’ve got further to fall when that wave of dopamine diminishes—hence the crashing feeling that many drug users experience when their high vanishes.
Drugs trick the brain into chemically thinking that they’re good for us. If touching a hot stove released dopamine and triggered its feel-good response, many more of us would be walking around with burn bandages. Drugs are dangerous, but dopamine’s response tells our brains that they feel good–really good, even better than other things people typically enjoy like sex, dancing, or ice cream.
Is There a Way to Quantify the ‘Most’ Dopamine Releasing Drug?
In a recent NPR interview, psychiatrist Anna Lembke explained that each of us has a dopamine release baseline. When we engage in certain activities, our dopamine levels go up or down depending on the behavior or the substance we’re ingesting. This is what happens when some people find delight in riding roller coasters and others abhor it.
Researchers tried to quantify the amount of dopamine that gets released in pleasurable behaviors. So, if you enjoy eating chocolate, dopamine, on average, will rise about 50 percent above that baseline. Sex is likely to cause a 100 percent spike. Amphetamines, a class of drugs that includes meth, will trigger dopamine to surge above baseline at about 1,000 percent. Evidently, then, some drugs can flood the brain with pleasure, and this may help explain why many people addicted to drugs stop doing activities they formerly enjoyed because they just don’t produce the same high level of dopamine surge.
In a report, PBS referred to meth as “the mother of them all” in reference to drugs that produce powerful dopamine surges. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since meth is also associated with one of the highest relapse rates (roughly 93 percent). The report indicates that all addictive substances trigger a dopamine release, but at different amounts. For instance, alcohol will produce a dopamine surge on par with a cigarette. Cocaine, on the other hand, produces a much larger release of dopamine.
Dopamine Makes It Hard to Overcome Addiction
Our brains have not evolved or are equipped to handle these intense dopamine surges, which is why it can feel impossible to regulate drug use in the face of such chemically addictive mechanisms. When medical experts talk about how addiction changes the chemistry of the brain, they’re referring to the chemical changes that involve dopamine and the brain’s need to replenish those skyrocketing levels that drugs achieve.
However, overcoming addiction is possible. People who have powerful addictions can learn how to manage them. One reason is that dopamine isn’t the only factor involved with addiction. There are many elements that contribute to the development and management of drug or alcohol addiction. Learning to manage these elements can lead to the beginning of healing. Simply put, the brain may never forget the euphoria the meth or cocaine caused, but it may feel fewer and fewer cravings for that dopamine surge in time as more normal dopamine levels are maintained.
If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, it can seem impossible to stop using these substances, but treatment can help and has worked for thousands of people with substance problems. Contact FHE Health today for more information about treatment options and to begin safeguarding your physical and mental health.