Tag Archive: brain chemistry

  1. The Brain Circuitry of Substance Cravings

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    drugs chemistry

    Addiction is caused by cravings, as are most relapses. By the time someone emerges from treatment, they should know how to deal and live with cravings. However, most recovering addicts will slip–or relapse completely–within the first few months of graduating rehab. Cravings can be sneaky. The best way to beat them is to learn the trickery like the back of your hand. To do that, you have to understand brain circuitry at least a little bit.

    Reward and Motivation

    Human behavior is based on reward, obviously, but did you know that these reward-motivation connections can be be assessed on a physiological level? They occur in three specific brain regions: the nucleus accumbens, the ventral striatum, and the medial prefrontal cortex. By releasing certain neurotransmitters, the brain drives a process of learning that creates incentive salience–in this case, wanting more drugs or alcohol.

    People, places, sounds, smells–external cues, sometimes totally random-seeming, can drive cravings of any level, for any stimuli: gambling, sex, drugs, and even hyperpalatable foods like candy. People in a recovery clinic aren’t in the clear just because their drug of choice isn’t present; they will face those cues and cravings anyway.

    When someone completes treatment and returns to the real world, you might expect them to be in the clear, since the drugs are out of their system. Again, though, the seed is still in there, and more often than not, it’s something in our environment that drives us to feed it.

    So how can this powerful neurological addiction-driver be handled? By disrupting the activity in the pallidum, thus preventing the transfer of incentive value of cues paired with the reward.

    The Incentive Sensitization Theory

    Depending on a person’s neurobiological state, a person’s incentive salience may be subconscious. This explains why an addict may crave a drug, but also wish that they didn’t.

    Incentive Salience and Cravings

    Based on what we can see in the brains of other animals, many scientists attribute strong incentive salience to a conditioned stimulus cue that predicts reward. In one experiment, researchers inserted a lever into an experimental rat chamber for 10 seconds. After the lever was withdrawn, a food pellet was given. When food was given to the rats even when they hadn’t earned it, they still pressed the lever and bit the lever as if it were the reward itself. Then, by injecting clozapine N-oxide (CNO) into the ventral palladium, the ventral palladium was suppressed, which blocked the rats’ sign-tracking behavior.

    Apparently, inactivation of the ventral palladium disrupts the transfer of incentive value to obtain rewards. The ventral palladium plays a big role in the motivational behaviors underlying drug addiction. Within this small brain region, there may be some big secrets about triggers and cravings.


    Understanding addiction is the key to beating it. For more information on the mechanics behind cravings and relapse, call us at 949-637-5499

  2. How Dopamine Affects the Relapse Trigger

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    How Dopamine Affects the Relapse TriggerDopamine is one of several neurotransmitters that are produced in your brain and nervous system to respond to and regulate pleasurable stimuli. Dopamine’s role in drug addiction and alcoholism is prominent, including the risk of relapse.

    Man’s dopamine reward system is an evolutionary vestige that developed prior to man’s ability to use logic and reason. Scientists believe that dopamine level increases occurred in response to activities that benefitted early man. Eating nutritional foods or participating in procreation signaled to him that he should continue those activities for survival. Dopamine works within the brain’s reward center, ultimately communicating with the midbrain. The midbrain dictates the totem pole of survival needs like food, sleep, and reproduction. Eventually, using drugs and alcohol climbs to the top of this priority list.

    In the context of modern man’s struggles with addiction, the dopamine reward system works against an addict’s greater benefit. Cravings and symptoms of withdrawal act as strong signals to continue using drugs or alcohol. As a result, the cycle is perpetuated. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the production of dopamine, rewarding the brain with pleasure, leaving the body in need of more.

    The psychological need for more can remain for months or years after the physical and chemical dependency has been healed. For many young people in recovery, it is the psychological desire to use that leads to the physical cravings. Euphoric recall, for example, can prematurely trigger the production of dopamine in the brain. Essentially, this process convinces the brain it has already consumed drugs or alcohol. Consequently, the brain turns on symptoms of withdrawal, desperately wanting to feel that pleasure once more.  

    Relapse typically occurs in response to stressful triggers. Remaining acutely aware of the fact that dopamines play a role in increasing their relapse risk is a mindful tool for recovery. Part of the recovery process is learning to recognize and manage triggering situations. Alcohol and drugs are no longer the solution to uncomfortable situations, thoughts, emotions, and experiences.    


    Sustain Recovery Services in southern California offers extended care services to young adults and adolescents in the early stages of recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. Our unique structured program takes place in our luxurious homes. Each day our clients are educated on how the disease of addiction works in the mind, learning practical life skills to help them manage day to day activities. Please see our website or call us at 949-407-9052 for more information.

  3. Endorphins and the Secret of Runner’s High

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    enorphins and the runner's highSedentary people often have a hard time understanding how intense physical activity can make them feel good. They see runners and other physically active people wincing, gasping for air, and walking slowly and painfully after an exercise session. They cannot answer the question, however, of why those physically active people return time and again to activities that look painful and uncomfortable to the sedentary observer. The answer is that intense physical activity can bring about a euphoric sensation known as “the runner’s high”.

    What are Endorphins?

    For many years, researchers have connected the runner’s high to increased endorphin levels that they saw in the bloodstreams of individuals who participated in high-intensity activities. Endorphins are natural painkillers that are released when a body experiences stress or pain. They are also released to reinforce enjoyable events, such as a good meal or sexual activity. Endorphins share certain chemical structures with morphine, and in some ways they create a similar effect. Yet recent research has revealed that endorphins in themselves are not entirely responsible for the runner’s high.

    Endorphin molecules are large and complex, and as such they do not pass easily between the blood-brain barrier. Individuals who do exercise have been found to have increased levels of another neurotransmitter, anandamide, in their brains, and that anandamide seems to lead to higher endorphin levels in their bloodstreams. Anandamide is a form of a cannabinoid that has a similar structure to the effective compound in marijuana. This does not suggest that exercising creates the same kind of high that can result from smoking a marijuana cigarette, but a body’s natural chemical reaction to exercise and the pleasurable sensations realized as a result of that exercise is such that the same pleasure centers and receptors are involved.

    The Secret of the Runner’s High

    The secret behind a runner’s high may very well involve a number of different factors. In addition to causing the release of endorphins, anandamides, and other feel-good neurotransmitters, exercising floods a person’s body with energy-inducing norepinephrine. Regular exercise helps a person to lose weight and to look and feel better, leading to improved energy levels and higher self-esteem. Individuals who exercise regularly can (at least in the eyes of sedentary individuals) have insufferable levels of energy and is coupled with bragging about various athletic feats. A distance runner can gasp through a race and walk gingerly for several hours or days after a race, but even before the pain subsides he is planning his next run to chase after the runner’s high. Science might not fully understand it, but regular runners vouch for the reality of what they experience.

    People who are dealing with depression or anxiety, or who are trying to break a drug addiction or alcoholism habit, might find that running or other vigorous exercise are the perfect tool to aid in their struggles. Because vigorous physical exercise can put a sudden strain on a sedentary person’s heart, he or she should not jump into a running program or other exercise regime without first consulting with a physician. Weeks or months can elapse before the first inkling of a runner’s high makes its appearance, but once it does appear, a person can get hooked on an active and healthy lifestyle.  


    For suggestions and more information on starting a running or exercise program,, please call Sustain Recovery Services at (949) 407-9052. Our staff can direct you to pursue the best path to start your own quest for the runner’s high.

Sustain Recovery changed my life in a way I never considered remotely possible. I arrived in a place where I knew nobody. Sustain Recovery gave me tools so that I never had to be alone again. I learned how to live like an adult and have genuine relationships with other human beings. I gained a sense of self respect, love, and pride from the challenges I was given by staff. I was able to work through the recent loss of my father and I achieved my goal of not taking any psychiatric medication.
I learned that life is an endless balancing act. I have to continually work on myself and my relationships with the people in my life. The staff at Sustain Recovery are all incredibly experienced and spiritual. They were available to me whether I wanted their help or not. Through their efforts and experience, I experienced the inner workings of having an intimate, loving relationship with a loving creator.
Sustain Recovery is “home” for me. I discovered a loving, caring family that helped launch me to a place I would have never dreamed and, if I would have dreamed it, I would never have believed I would be able to accomplish it.

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