What is Addiction?
A good definition of addiction is impaired control over a reward seeking behavior from which harm ensues. We repeat things we enjoy that give us a sense of reward and reinforcement. Drugs are particularly good at doing that because they provide a very concentrated form of enjoyment.
Drugs that are often misused activate a part in our brain that is referred to as the reward system. This part of the brain is the same region that responds to life-sustaining activities such as eating and sex. When drugs are misused, the brain becomes flooded with dopamine which controls movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. Because the overstimulation causes the user to feel pleasure and euphoric effects they continue to use the drug after as a way to try and reach that pleasurable feeling again. However, drugs alter the way our brain functions and the user will never be able to achieve the same original feeling again.
As a person continues to misuse drugs, their brain adapts to these surges of dopamine that the drugs are imitating and in turn produces less dopamine naturally, causing the user to not be able to enjoy things that once caused them pleasure. Because a person’s brain becomes accustomed to the drugs they do not feel the same amount of pleasure, this keeps the person searching for that feeling again by using the drug more frequently and in greater amounts.
What are opioids?
Opioids are a type of drug that come from the opium poppy or are synthetically made by a drug company. Opioids are depressants, which means they slow down the nervous system, including your breath. You can overdose on any opioid.
- Heroin – illegal
- Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®) – prescription
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®) – prescription
- Methadone – addiction treatment
- Buprenorphine – addiction treatment
Opioid Addiction and the Brain
Opioid addiction changes the way the brain functions permanently and is the only drug to do so. From the first time someone uses an opioid, either for pain reduction or recreationally, the opioid engages in an opioid brain receptor. When the opioid engages the receptor, it essentially turns a key. This is what reduces pain, or what gets someone high. There are three responses to having an opioid engage the receptor:
- The opioid sends a message throughout our body to tell us we are in less pain
- Our system doesn’t agree with it, so in turn we get sick and vomit, this typically is a response to improper binding.
- We have a warm, dreamy, euphoric high.
** All three of these reactions can occur at once.
When the opioid engages the receptor, this will cause our vital signs to drop (blood pressure, blood oxygen level, core body temperature). Our brain is a complex organ that doesn’t want our vital signs to drop, so in turn, it will auto adjust our body back to normal while the opioid is still engaged in the brain receptor. This creates a new normal in the brain that will never completely return to the previous level. Eventually when the opioid wears off, the new normal is not being met and the vital signs aren’t being maintained so your body goes into withdrawal. Someone can go into withdrawal after the first to third time using an opioid.