The human brain is an incredibly complex system of cells and chemicals – so complex, in fact, that researchers still have much to learn about its inner workings. The good news is that in recent years, scientists have determined that this remarkable organ continues to grow and change throughout the lifespan, even when damage is caused by substance abuse and addiction.
How Addiction Harms the Brain
In simple terms, the brain uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to send messages from cell to cell, with specialized receptors in place to interpret those messages. Scientists believe the brain contains about 100 different types of neurotransmitters, each with a highly specialized function.
Trouble begins when drugs and alcohol interrupt this carefully balanced system – especially the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that plays an important role in pleasure and reward, as well as sleep, learning, memory, attention and mood.
Dopamine is released every time you engage in pleasurable activity, including eating, having sex, running, or even watching your favorite sports team. However, pleasure associated with drugs and alcohol can trigger the release of up to 10 times more dopamine than natural rewards. Damage begins when the brain is flooded with abnormally high amounts of dopamine.
The brain works hard to adjust and restore balance, but the release of dopamine continues every time the substance is used. Soon, the brain becomes tolerant of the substance and pleasurable feelings are no longer possible; larger amounts of dopamine are needed to simply avoid painful withdrawal.
Damage isn’t limited to use of one certain substance, as all drugs eventually travel to the brain, including prescription medications and even over-the-counter aspirin or cough syrup.
Symptoms of damage to the brain may include confusion, poor concentration and memory loss, lack of coordination, low sex drive, fatigue, apathy, dizziness, depression, lowered cognitive abilities, hallucinations, aggression, violent behavior, mood swings and poor judgment. Long-term use of drugs and alcohol has been linked to a higher incidence of Parkinson’s disease.
How You Can Help
Most brain damage due to use of drugs and alcohol can be fully or partially reversed. Healing the brain takes time, patience and persistence, but there are things you can do to ensure the process moves along as smoothly as possible:
- Seek drug and alcohol addiction treatment or rehab, as there’s no way for the brain to heal while toxic substances are still in the body. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be for the brain to repair itself.
- Don’t attempt to detox on your own. Seek the help of a detox center or qualified treatment center.
- Learn mindfulness meditation or yoga, which can make you more aware of your thoughts and actions and help you learn less harmful ways of coping with stress and anxiety.
- Reward your brain with healthy activities that promote brain growth and development. There are countless ways of accomplishing this. For example, do puzzles, learn a new skill, take a class or play a musical instrument. Like a muscle, the brain becomes stronger with exercise.
- Read a good book or magazine, as reading exercises the brain and minimizes stress. You may find it difficult to concentrate at first, but with time, it will become easier to focus.
- Eat a healthy diet. It isn’t necessary to be extreme, but try to eat foods in their natural state as much as possible. Incorporate healthy oils and proteins such as fish, cheese, eggs or grass-fed meat. Include brain-healing foods such as broccoli, leafy green vegetables, oatmeal, wheat germ, celery, berries, beans, nuts and seeds or turmeric.
- Get enough sleep, as the brain has a harder time healing if you feel exhausted. People in recovery often need eight to 10 hours per night, and sometimes a nap during the day.
- Get plenty of exercise, but start slowly.
- Spend time with supportive friends and family. Make time for fun.