What do Drugs do to Your Brain: Tips for Rebuilding Your Brain as You Recover From Addiction
Addiction recovery can be a long, unpredictable process, which is one reason people don’t jump right into it. Despite the dangers of drug abuse and addiction, the fear of the unknown process of recovery can hold people back from becoming clean.
In other cases, many sufferers consider themselves too far gone for help. Some believe they have damaged their health so badly that it cannot be recovered.
It is true that addiction causes serious damage to your body and your brain, and recovery doesn’t happen quickly, but recovering from addiction is possible. In fact, it could be the best, most rewarding thing you’ve done in your life. One common reflection from people as they complete their recovery is that they wish they had started sooner. The regret is that so much time was wasted on drugs when they could have been living this happy, healthy life. They just didn’t know how.
Not knowing makes new experiences scary. Since drug abuse affects your brain, it alters your perception of reality until there are many things you don’t know. Addiction recovery could not only rebuild your life and restore your health but also rebuild your brain.
How Drugs Affect the Brain
You may remember the old public service announcements featuring a hot frying pan with an egg dropped into it. The voiceover states, “This is your brain on drugs.” The message was clearly an appeal to drug users to quit before they did permanent damage to their brains.
The old notion was that you only get so many brain cells and that abusing drugs or alcohol killed those brain cells at an immeasurable rate. Even though it was believed that you only use a portion of your brain, the concern was that you might kill off so many brain cells that it would interfere with the cells you did use and your daily functioning would be altered or compromised.
More recently scientists have amended their understanding of brain function, and while there is still more to learn, the current understanding presents a different story.
The brain is a living organ just like the other organs in the body and just like the other organs, it serves a vital function: It is the control center for the central nervous system. The brain continues to grow throughout your life, shedding old cells and creating new ones. This means the possibility for change is always there.
The good news is your brain constantly creates new brain cells. The bad news could lie in how those new cells are created and what function they serve in the complicated thought mechanism. When a brain cell dies it is not necessarily replaced by the same type of cell. Growth in the brain creates change, and while under the influence of drugs, that change is not positive. Your brain has grown new thought pathways during your addiction that need to be replaced with healthier ones.
What Do Drugs Do to the Brain?
The brain uses a series of chemicals, neurotransmitters and receptors to produce thoughts. The neurotransmitters are produced in response to stimuli, and they travel through the brain jumping from cell to cell. The receptors are like a lock-and-key system which “reads” these chemical messages. Receptors are specialized to only accept certain neurotransmitters.
Drugs hack into this brain communication system and modify it. By mimicking certain neurotransmitters or blocking specific receptors, drugs change the way you think. The result in the short-term is what addicts call a high. Depending on their drug of choice, addicts might experience hallucinations, euphoria, sedation, stimulation or any other artificial sensation. The room isn’t actually spinning, but the chemicals in their brains are sending false signals to make them think it is.
Most people probably assume that when they come down from their trip, the brain goes back to normal. One of the problems with addiction, though, is that the addict would prefer not to come down at all. An addict may maintain a certain level of drugs in his system at all times, tweaking the dose for effect but never really getting clean. Over time his tolerance builds up and he continues to increase the amount of drugs in his system.
Like most parts of the body, the brain seeks balance. If you give it enough of a certain feel-good chemical, it will stop producing that chemical naturally in an attempt to maintain a balance. All of the brain chemicals adjust to the influx of artificial chemicals creating a new normal. Like a tree growing around a rope tied around its trunk, a brain works around the foreign chemicals in an attempt to continue functioning.
When you enter rehab and deprive your brain of those drugs you had been bathing it in, the brain takes some time to undo the changes. Detox is the first step in repairing the damage: It eliminates the toxins. But change can come slowly. The brain has to create new pathways for thought, readjust the levels of neurotransmitters it produces and re-learn to use the receptors that were blocked for so long.
The Effects of Marijuana on the Brain
The effects of marijuana on the brain have come under intense scrutiny in recent years as more states legalize marijuana for medicinal and recreational use. The marijuana grown today is unlike marijuana from past years. Today’s pot is grown for higher THC potency. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content in marijuana in 1995 averaged 3.5 percent; in 2013, it averaged 13 percent.
This increase in THC causes more rapid addiction as well as unsettling changes in the brain. Long-term effects were noted in an article in the Journal of Neuroscience as scientists scanned the brains of 40 young adults in the Boston area as part of a research study. About half of the group had never smoked pot, while the remaining participants were considered “light” users with no sign of dependence.
Among the light users, the effects of marijuana on the brain were noticeable on the scans. Areas of the cerebrum were visibly affected, especially the nucleus accumbens. This area is considered the “core” of the areas of the brain controlling motivation, pleasure, pain and common decision-making tasks. The shape, size and density of the nucleus accumbens was changed even by light marijuana use.
Other changes noticed on the brain scans included changes to the amygdala, a section of the limbic system. Changes to the amygdala can affect emotions, memory and especially the fear-response.
The long-term effects of marijuana on the brain seem to include a decrease in motivation, impaired memory and a certain level of paranoia that remains long after heavy use is discontinued.
Heroin Effects on the Brain
Long-term heroin abuse can wreak havoc on a person’s health, but it’s especially noticeable in the brain. Studies show that long-term heroin abuse changes the white matter in the brain, which is an alteration that’s not easily reversed. This can impair decision-making abilities and a person’s capacity to self-regulate behavior.
Heroin effects on the brain also include imbalances in both hormones and neurotransmitters. This causes intense cravings for heroin, and makes heroin withdrawal likely in heavy users. Hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances can be rectified over time once an addict gets sober.
How Does Tobacco Affect the Brain?
Smoking was once thought to damage only the lungs and perhaps the circulatory system, but now scientists know that tobacco affects the brain, too. A study of 500 participants revealed that the brains of smokers demonstrated thinning of the brain’s cortex. A thinner cortex makes processing memories more difficult and causes trouble with language and perception. The good news is that quitting tobacco products resulted in restoration of the cortex in most cases.
How Does Tobacco Affect the Brain? Smoking was once thought to damage only the lungs and perhaps the circulatory system, but now scientists know that tobacco affects the brain, too. A study of 500 participants revealed that the brains of smokers demonstrated thinning of the brain’s cortex. A thinner cortex makes processing memories more difficult and causes trouble with language and perception. The good news is that quitting tobacco products resulted in restoration of the cortex in most cases.
How Does Oxycontin Affect the Brain?
Oxycontin is an opioid, a powerful painkiller or narcotic prescribed by physicians to treat severe or chronic pain. It’s also one of the most frequently abused prescription medications in the nation. Oxycontin affects the entire central nervous system, including receptors that perceive pain. It can also affect the brain stem and other areas related to breathing and heart rate.
How Does Cocaine Affect the Brain?
Cocaine, a powerful stimulant derived from the coca leaf, affects the brain in many ways. First, like many of the drugs mentioned, it affects dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter. It prevents the re-uptake or recycling of dopamine, which increases the amount circulating in the bloodstream. This provides the “high” feeling from cocaine.
The long-term effect is that dopamine becomes less effective at making people feel good. With repeated cocaine use, higher doses are needed to trigger the same brain response. This leads to dependence, and then withdrawal comes once a person stops taking the drug.
How Does Ecstasy Affect the Brain?
Ecstasy is a little different from other drugs in that it affects several portions of the brain via three neurotransmitters. Serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine are the three known neurotransmitters affected, and scientists speculate that even more could be impacted by Ecstasy.
Ecstasy causes the brain to release large amounts of serotonin, the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter. With long-term abuse, the neurons related to serotonin can become damaged, leading to chronic low-level depression and difficulty finding joy in everyday life.
Heavy Ecstasy users can damage their brains directly, too. The cerebrum and cerebellums of chronic users have shown damage that results in loss of memory and motor function, as well as confusion. These changes may be permanent.
Ecstasy can also damage the brain stem. You’ll recall that this part of the brain controls automatic functions. One such function is maintaining your body’s temperature. Heavy, long-term Ecstasy abuse can damage this part of the brain stem, causing uncontrollable drops in body temperature that can be fatal.
How Does Meth Affect the Brain?
Meth, crystal meth, chalk and ice are all the same name for a drug chemically similar to amphetamine. It’s highly addictive, and knowing the answer to the question, “how does meth affect the brain?” can help you understand why.
Meth causes a significant release in dopamine, the pleasure signal. Over time, the entire dopamine system can become damaged from the frequent flooding of dopamine in the brain.
How does meth affect the brain? Scans show damage to the cerebellum, especially centers related to emotion and memory. The good news is that sobriety can reverse many of these changes, although some little glitches in memory processing may always be there for some recovered meth addicts.
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Rebuilding Your Brain in Addiction Recovery
How long it takes for the brain to recover from drug addiction depends on a lot of factors, but it does happen. Your drug of choice and the amount of time you have been abusing it have a lot to do with your recovery. The important part is that you have decided to begin this process.
Patience is the most important ingredient in successful addiction recovery. No matter who you are or what your story is, you did not damage your brain overnight, and you can’t heal it that quickly either. The human brain is an amazingly resilient and complex electrical and mechanical system containing 100 billion neurons and one quadrillion connections. It is designed to heal itself given the right conditions.
Here are some ways you can support your own natural brain healing during your recovery:
The habits of an addictive lifestyle tend to create malnutrition. Drug addicts are usually hyper-focused on getting their next fix, not on eating a well-balanced meal. Often the high-low cycle interferes with normal appetite, creating a bad habit of fasting and binging. Most drug abusers — or even most Americans — don’t binge on health food.
25% of the body’s nutrients are consumed by the brain, making good nutrition a brain-boosting habit. By filling the nutritional deficiencies in your diet, you are providing your body, and your brain, with the raw materials it needs to function optimally. Learning about proper nutrition and developing a healthy eating routine can be part of the self-care that recovery encourages.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by all of the nutrition fads circulating the internet. As you become more comfortable with your nutrition knowledge, you may choose to research a particular dietary philosophy — vegan, paleo, vegetarian or gluten-free, perhaps. But you don’t need to be that extreme to be healthy. There are just some basics you need to know to begin nourishing yourself back to health.
Your brain in particular will benefit from some healthy fats. The brain is made up of 60% fat, so it’s important to include fat in your diet, especially when you’re trying to rebuild brain cells and adjust thought patterns. Nuts, seeds and cold-water fish are good sources of brain-healthy fats.
The other nutrient necessary to rebuild your brain is protein. The amino acids in the protein you consume are used to create neurotransmitters — the “message” chemicals in your brain. Fish, meat, eggs and cheese are good sources of protein.
While working to improve your nutrition, you want to be sure you are not working against yourself. Processed foods are a major dietary downfall for many Americans. Foods that come in a box or a can, foods that are partially prepared for you, or other foods that are ready to eat are not a good source of nutrients.
Try to stick with food in its natural state — a whole potato rather than instant mashed potatoes or French fries, for example. Learn how to cook: It’s a good way to develop a new relationship with food and the connection between what you put in your body and how it performs.
The value of exercise in treating mental illness has only recently been recognized, so there are few specifics about how it works. However, developing a healthy exercise routine will help to support your recovery in a number of ways. Exercise helps reduce anxiety and depression and is another way of practicing self-care.
One of the goals of addiction recovery is to change your behaviors to stop using drugs. When you’re not going to the same places and hanging out with the same people, you will find there is a lot of free time. A healthy exercise routine helps fill that time, and a healthy body heals itself faster.
Your new exercise routine, however, cannot outpace your healthy eating habits. Recognize that your body has been depleted of important nutrients. You need to start slow with exercise. Simply developing a daily walking routine might be a good start. Just try to do a little more than you were doing before you started your recovery.
Recovery is all about reconnecting to yourself — the self who got lost in the drugs, drama and brain-altering binges. You’ll learn to listen to your body, too, and it will tell you when it needs more exercise or has had enough. In time you will learn to trust yourself, and you’ll know when to increase the exertion of your daily exercise routine.
The goal of exercise during recovery is to create a healthy routine to replace your unhealthy habits. Exercise is just one of the ways to support your recovery and help rebuild your brain. Be careful not to become too extreme with your exercise routine or it might become your new addiction.
Just as stress is considered the cause of everything bad, meditation is the popular solution to a stress overload. Meditation is actually an ancient spiritual practice, but it has resurged in modern life. The practice is based on the premise that clearing the mind of conscious thoughts allows messages from the subconscious to surface.
Meditation reduces anxiety and promotes patience, something you will need in addiction recovery. Meditation actually decreases certain neural pathways in the brain that carry anxiety. So the practice of meditation has a direct effect on brain healing. Its calming affect will help you deal with cravings, slowing your reactions to allow time for better decision-making.
Many addicts are unable to read because they have lost their ability to concentrate for extended periods of time due to increased anxiety, insomnia and other side effects of drug abuse. As your addiction recovery progresses, you will find yourself better able to focus. Reading is a good activity to reduce stress and exercise your brain, supporting its healing.
Reading is a visual activity in which your brain takes in visual cues and translates them to ideas. Visual processing takes place in the occipital lobe of the brain while the parietal lobe translates words into thoughts. Exercising these two areas of your brain with reading can have a direct impact on your brain’s recovery from addiction. The occipital lobe aids in decision making, something that is severely impacted by drug addiction, and the parietal lobe is involved in storing information. Exercising the parietal lobe helps rebuild memory.
Although some would say that playing video games is a potential impetus for a downward spiral that could end in addiction, the games themselves can be helpful to the brain. Video games sometimes get a bad rap because of their violent content and the antisocial behavior that some gamers exhibit. During addiction recovery, however, games can be used to exercise your brain and increase mental sharpness.
Although there is no research specifying the results of video games on brain function, a connection can be made. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence to the connection led two major game makers to launch games specifically designed as brain exercise. Rather than simply increasing hand-eye coordination, these games require high-level thinking that asks players to apply rules, make predictions or classify items.
Addiction is often accompanied by insomnia or other sleep-disturbing side effects which contribute to poor health and brain function. Sleep plays an important part in the healing process because it is when your body shuts down activity and focuses energy on repair and maintenance.
This is true for the brain, as well. Sleep is necessary for proper neurological functioning which is why you feel groggy or even uncoordinated when you have a sleepless night. A 2013 study suggests that sleep clears the brain of toxins, revealing an even more important role for sleep in helping your brain recover from drug dependency.
There is no precise prescription for how much sleep is enough, but you can tell when you are not getting enough sleep. Developing a daily routine that includes eight to 10 hours of sleep per night is a good way to support your brain during addiction recovery. You may even find that once your anxiety subsides and you can get a restful night’s sleep, you could use a nap during the day as well.
Helping your brain recover from drug addiction takes time and depends on a combination of variables. Although so much of recovery requires time and faith, having some healthy practices that support brain function will give you some feeling of control over the process.
The Role of Therapy in Brain Recovery
When we talk about your brain during recovery, we can hardly ignore a discussion of psychotherapy, specifically behavioral therapy. The goal of most recovering addicts is to change one behavior: the one that leads them to take drugs. Addictive behaviors are attached to mental and emotional processes in your brain, so recovery can’t really take place without some form of psychotherapy.
A number of different therapy modalities apply to addiction recovery, and no one method is better than the others. As people progress through recovery, they begin to figure out what works best for them. The only universal rule is that some form of counseling is needed to help your brain recover from addiction.
Group therapy, individual counseling and support groups are all effective forms of therapy that are available for addiction recovery. Most psychotherapies involve talking about your actions and learning to recognize the feelings associated with those actions. By addressing the feelings and their root cause, most people can begin to alter their actions or change their conditioned response to certain stimuli.
Regardless of what type of therapy you engage in or how your counselor or group leader directs the sessions, the result is brain work. By engaging in conversation about your addiction, listening to others explain their feelings or seeking a better understanding of your own actions, you grow new thought pathways in your brain. Even experiencing the emotions you covered with drugs for so long is a form of brain exercise. Through therapy you will be teaching your brain how to process thoughts and emotions in its new, normal drug-free state.
How to Start Rebuilding Your Brain
Addiction recovery is hard work with a tremendous reward — it can give you your brain back. When your system is clean and your body and brain are built back up to optimum health, you will feel better than you ever thought you could. Recovery affects your whole life, so it involves coordinating a lot of ideas and therapies at the same time. Making the decision to get started can be overwhelming, but the process itself doesn’t have to be.
When you’re ready to begin this vital journey toward healing, contact 12 Keys to get started. We can answer all of your questions about addiction and recovery from years of experience helping people just like you. Each individual is unique and your situation is probably different from others, so we provide individualized programs to meet your specific needs. We can help you end your addiction, regain your health and rebuild your brain.
Your brain, and indeed your life, is a precious gift, and at 12 Keys we want to help you recover from drug addiction so you can think clearly again. We provide a number of different therapies to help you regain your health, rebuild your brain and put your life on a better path. We have all the support services you need to break free of your addiction and begin living a happy, healthy, substance-free life.