How Different Drugs Work on Your Brain and Body

Wednesday, August 10, 2022 | By Lisa Downing

Model of brain next to various pills poses the question of what effects drugs have on the brain

While all drugs work by getting into the brain and interfering with its chemical messaging system, each drug takes a slightly different path. There are several ways a drug can disrupt the natural messaging system in your brain and create its intended, albeit often detrimental, effect.

Depressants: Depressants are meant to have a calming effect, reduce anxiety, and induce relaxation. They slow down brain activity to eliminate racing thoughts, quick pulse, and rapid breathing. Some side effects of depressants are dizziness, confusion, slurred speech, poor concentration, fever, lack of coordination, and depression.

Depressants work with a brain chemical called GABA, slowing down brain function. By binding to the GABA receptors, depressants increase GABA activity, thereby inhibiting nerve transmissions. Depressants slow down brain activity, which affects all the systems in the body. With the brain working more slowly, vital functions also slow down.

Some common depressants are alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and sleeping pills.

StimulantsThe medical uses for stimulants have changed in recent years. They were once prescribed for various disorders, including respiratory problems such as asthma, neurological diseases, and obesity. As the dangers of stimulant abuse and addiction became apparent, the medical uses for the substances were limited to narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder, and depression.

The neurotransmitter associated with stimulants is dopamine, which is involved in pleasure, movement, and attention. When taken as prescribed, stimulants increase dopamine levels in the brain slowly until they reach a level that produces the desired effect. As recreational substances, stimulants raise dopamine levels quickly — much higher and faster than could ever be achieved naturally. The sudden increase in dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, produces a euphoric effect and increases the risk of addiction. By interfering with the reward system, large doses of stimulants can create intense cravings.

Physical side effects can include increased heart rate, body temperature, high blood pressure, decreased appetite, and difficulty sleeping.

Popular prescription stimulants include Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedrine. Popular street stimulants include cocaine, crack cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine.

Opioids: Derived from opium or synthesized to mimic certain substances found in opium, opioids were developed as pain relievers. They block pain by binding to specific receptor cells in the brain and central nervous system. With the opioids occupying the receptors, naturally occurring pain messages cannot get through.

Opioids send signals through those receptors that cause the brain to flood with dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Dopamine taps into the reward system in the brain and accelerates addiction. Meanwhile, breathing is slowed as part of the pain-dulling message. The most significant immediate danger posed by opioid overdose is a cessation of breathing.

Common prescription opioids include morphine, oxycontin, hydrocodone, and Percocet. The most common street opioids are heroin and fentanyl.

Cannabinoids: Cannabis is the active ingredient in the hemp plant used for marijuana. The substance has also been replicated chemically in attempts to synthesize a drug with the same effects. Cannabinoids produce a euphoric feeling and enhance sensory perception while creating irregular heartbeat, lack of focus, and memory loss. Long believed to be relatively harmless, cannabinoids have been more thoroughly studied. In the brain, marijuana and any other drug containing this compound kills cells, shrinks neurons, and causes DNA fragmentation.

There are at least 85 different compounds that are considered cannabinoids and are naturally occurring in marijuana. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the two that producers concentrate on. THC has psychoactive properties, and CBD is believed to calm the nerves and act as an anti-inflammatory. Commercially grown marijuana plants are designed to produce higher levels of these two compounds.

These drugs interact with the reward system in the brain. They increase dopamine activity, which is how they produce a euphoric feeling, and their actions in the reward system are similar to that of morphine or nicotine — two drugs known to be highly addictive.

Hallucinogens: This drug class is aptly named because it causes the user to hallucinate, hear sounds or see visions that are not real. Hallucinogens interfere with the brain messaging systems involved in sensory perception and send erroneous signals. They work primarily in the front part of the cerebrum, where mood, cognition, and perceptions are processed.

Hallucinogens mimic serotonin: a neurotransmitter used to regulate appetite, digestion, sleep, sexual desire, memory, and mood, to bind with specific serotonin receptors.

The effects of hallucinogens vary widely. Some users experience pleasant sensations and a deepened understanding, while others have anxiety-ridden visions of terror. Hallucinogens also produce other side effects, including sleeplessness, numbness, tremors, increased heart rate, nervousness, body temperature, high blood pressure, relaxation, and paranoia.

LSD is probably the most widely known hallucinogen. Some others include psilocybin, peyote, PCP, SalviaDivinorum, and MDMA.

What Happens When You Take Multiple Drugs at Once?

Polydrug abuse — taking more than one substance at a time — can compound the dangers of each drug. Drugs are hard to control, and once they get into your brain, there are effects and interactions you might not even be aware of. When you start combining drugs, the complications multiply.

Most drugs work on levels in your brain. Consider alcohol and blood alcohol content (BAC). When you drink alcohol, your BAC increases for a while. Eventually, the alcohol in your blood moves to your brain or is filtered out by your liver. Without a new supply of alcohol, your brain finally clears and returns to normal.

People who abuse alcohol may maintain a constant BAC, which has become the new normal for their bodies. Because it is “normal,” they don’t realize that there’s alcohol in their bloodstream — even before they have their first drink of the day. When they add another drug on top of the alcohol, they’re in danger of overdosing without even realizing it.

Many drugs deliver too much of a good thing to the brain’s reward system. Too much, plus too much, is dangerous. All of these pleasure sensations can accelerate the addiction process that much faster. An overload of feel-good chemicals isn’t going to feel very good when it wears off, and the subsequent low after the extraordinary high can be problematic.

How To Avoid Long-Term Damage

Over time, the side effects from these substances compound and can damage the brain and body in irreversible ways. Brain damage, heart and liver disease, wet brain, psychosis, and even death are all possible outcomes for the long-term drug user. The sooner you can stop your use, the better the prognosis, and the more likely you will be to stop or even reverse the damage already done.

Reach out to our team of experienced professionals today to see how you can control the vicious cycle of addiction and reclaim a life free of drug dependence.

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