Dopamine has long been considered a “pleasure chemical” closely linked to the disease of addiction. When referring to a dopamine rush, many associates it with the brain’s natural reward system that activates key neurochemicals during activities that bring happiness or pleasure. The correlation between dopamine and addiction is extremely complex and not yet fully understood. However, what is understood is that ongoing substance abuse can severely impact the natural functioning of neurotransmitters like dopamine. Learning how long for dopamine receptors to heal can be vital to uncovering the spectrum of substance use disorder (SUD) and its long-term brain chemistry impact.
Drug use can result in an increase in dopamine in the brain. Science has shown that dopamine production may help to motivate individuals to continue activities promoting health and wellness. But studies also show harmful activities like consuming alcohol to excess, can also produce a dopamine response. The reward network in the brain can be triggered by various activities, including:
- Interacting with friends and loved ones
- Music and art
- Addictive drugs
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), this small list can all produce strikingly similar patterns of brain activity.
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are an essential function of the human brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical responsible for allowing the brain to communicate with the body. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment has helped scientists and researchers study our mind and body functions. Scientific advancements are a crucial factor in being able to understanding how the brain interacts with the environment.
Our biology is highly dependent on neurotransmitters. Using substances – especially long-term –can severely impact the natural balance of chemicals inside the brain. Prolonged alcohol or drug use can disrupt dopamine receptors. The good news is that when caught early, SUD treatment can help to restore chemicals throughout the body, including dopamine. But how long for dopamine receptors to heal after achieving sobriety.
First, let’s take a look at the physiological makeup of the brain.
Four Main Brain Chemicals
Neurotransmitters can cause a sense of euphoria and lead to substance abuse or dependence.
The four main neurotransmitters within the brain include serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and dopamine. These chemicals in the brain are known as neurotransmitters because they transmit neurological information throughout neural pathways. Each transmitter is associated with different functions and throughout the brain and the nervous system.
Unfortunately, neurotransmitters are severely impacted by ongoing alcohol and drug use. The chemical compounds within alcohol and other drugs can increase or decrease the amount of each neurotransmitter leading to numerous sensations and emotions. This interference can contribute to substance dependency and cause long-term damage to the proper functionality of neurotransmitters. Knowing how long for dopamine receptors to heal can depend on a variety of factors.
How do Neurotransmitters Work?
Neurotransmitters are an essential function of the mind and body. In addition to communicating sensations and emotional states, neurotransmitters also receive and relay sensory information from our surroundings. The ability to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell all occur because of neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters travel along hundreds of thousands of fiber-like strands within the brain known as neurons. Neurons act as a connector system within the brain, allowing the neurotransmitters to move smoothly and effectively.
Neurotransmitters will connect to the neuron through small arms that extend from the neuron. These dendrites tell neurons what to send.
Addiction & Dopamine
Addiction counselors and researchers have learned and developed several counseling techniques through the study of the brain. Further research has profoundly improved current medication-assisted treatments for addictive behaviors, as well.
One neurotransmitter is particularly influential in the development of addiction: dopamine. Addiction & dopamine are often associated with the euphoric experience when using drugs or alcohol as it is the primary neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward system. Studying and understanding dopamine is a crucial part of diagnosing and treating addiction.
How do drugs impact natural dopamine production?
According to the American Addiction Centers, regular drug use causes the brain to produce, absorb, and transmit less dopamine, resulting in chemical imbalances in the brain. Furthermore, when drugs are not active in the brain, dopamine levels can drop, causing severe withdrawal symptoms and powerful cravings. Drug dependence sets in and individuals feel compelled to keep taking drugs to avoid these negative emotional and physical symptoms.
Healing from these types of imbalance takes time and can often depend on the length of drug use and the phase of recovery.
Importance of Dopamine
The importance of dopamine is a critical, as a neurotransmitter, it is the main reward system chemical in our brain. Dopamine rewards our brain for completing small tasks, receiving a grade on an exam, thinking of a good memory, sex, and many other pleasurable experiences. Dopamine is also important as it can help with increasing mood, motivation, and attention.
Since dopamine is the main chemical in the reward system, it is also the main neurochemical activated when drugs or alcohol are introduced to the body. Natural levels of dopamine are healthy and can provide safe mental functioning, but when too much dopamine is in the body, it can have a powerful impact.
Common effects of elevated dopamine include:
- Elevated Senses
- Increased Sociability
- Increased Sex Drive
The euphoria caused by dopamine may increase the likelihood of addiction to a substance. While using drugs or alcohol, the increased dopamine can cause intense and enjoyable effects. Once dopamine decreases in the brain, the brain will go through a refractory period that can cause an individual to feel severe effects.
Some of the impacts of minimal dopamine include:
- Neuron damage
The effects of depleted dopamine levels are very uncomfortable and can lead many to develop a tolerance leading to more regular drug use. Tolerance and uncomfortable symptoms can amount to strong urges and other addictive behaviors.
When impacted by long-term drug use, how long for dopamine receptors to heal? Is it even possible?
Can Too Much or Too Little Dopamine Damage My Brain?
Yes. Having too much and too little dopamine reserves in the brain can cause severe and complicated mental and physical health problems. Dopamine has substantial changes in mental health and well-being. Possible changes from elevated dopamine levels include:
- Increased Risk-taking behaviors
- Addiction to other drugs
- Major depression
- Panic or anxiety disorders
Dopamine can also cause physical damage if not appropriately regulated. Possible physical injury may cause severe deterioration to neural pathways and perpetually insufficient dopamine levels and other chemicals in the brain. This can cause severe mental illness. Common mental illnesses associated with dopamine include:
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Hallucinations and delusions
- Bipolar disorder
What are Treatments for Irregular Dopamine Levels?
Dopamine does have different ways to be rebuilt in the brain. Other chemicals can regulate dopamine levels to healthy levels. These chemicals are known as dopamine antagonists. These antagonists can block dopamine receptors and can help with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Common dopamine antagonists include many prescription drugs such as:
Other medications can increase dopamine in the brain. These chemicals are known as dopamine agonists. Many illicit drugs are considered to be dopamine agonists as they increase dopamine levels drastically. Some common dopamine agonists include:
Agonists and antagonists can help in the treatment of addiction to drugs and alcohol. Research has found that it is not easy to adjust dopamine levels after extensive use of dopamine-heavy drugs. So how long for dopamine receptors to heal? On average, it may take approximately 14-months to achieve normal levels in the brain with proper treatment and rehabilitation.
AspenRidge Recovery: Colorado Addiction Programs
AspenRidge Recovery can help with long-term recovery and strategies to restore healthy brain function. First, we can assist by addressing problematic behaviors as they relate to substance abuse and underlying co-occurring mental health disorders.
AspenRidge is premier substance abuse and mental health treatment center. AspenRidge views mental health and addiction on a spectrum. They understand that one-size-does-not-fit-all” and will cater treatments to specific mental health and addiction needs.
AspenRidge Recovery offers various programs that are each tailored to meet individual needs. Our programs include:
- Day Partial Hospitalization (PHP)
- Day Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
- IOP for Professionals and Working Adults
- Outpatient Program
- Alumni & Aftercare Program
To learn more about our alcohol addiction treatment programs, contact us directly 24/7 with questions and concerns. Call (855) 281-5588