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Neurotransmitters and their Role in Addiction and Substance Abuse

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers of the body. They are responsible for relaying messages from a nerve cell to another or other cells like muscle cells. They play essential roles in the very complex functions of the body as well as the seemingly simple ones – ranging from keeping our hearts beating to feeling sensations.

Neurotransmitters are activated when a drug is used. The response of these important messengers to the drug used is what gives the ‘high’ experience connected to drug usage and ultimately causing addiction. The response of neurotransmitters varies from drug to drug, hence the reason the euphoric feeling differs.


What Are Neurotransmitters?

Without neurotransmitters, the human body cannot function. They are chemical messengers transmitting messages from a neuron (nerve cell) to the destination cell, which could be another cell or other cells like muscle cells or a gland.

The body contains several systems, all of which work together to form a whole. The nervous system is one of the most important systems – it controls every function of the body. Messages are continuously sent within the body and the stimulus could be either internal or external.

What Body Functions Are Controlled by Neurotransmitters?

Some of the functions of the body controlled by neurotransmitters, especially as they affect their roles in addiction and substance use, are:

• Hormone regulation

• Sleep, healing, and aging

• Breathing

• Heart functions and blood pressure

• Muscle movements

• Senses

• Digestion

• Memory and thoughts

What Actions do Neurotransmitters Transmit?

The messages carried by Neurotransmitters depend on the specific Neurotransmitters. The three possible actions transmitted are:

Excitatory action: these Neurotransmitters (norepinephrine, epinephrine, glutamate, etc.) excite the neuron. Hence, the message is ‘fired off’ – implying the message keeps moving to the next cell.

Inhibitory action: these Neurotransmitters stop the message from moving further, unlike excitatory Neurotransmitters. Examples of Neurotransmitters in this category are: serotonin, glycine, and GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid).

Modulatory action: these neurotransmitters impact how other chemical messengers function. How cells interact at the synopsis is adjusted, and they are able to influence a larger number of neurons at once.

What are the Types of Neurotransmitters?

As of today, scientists say there are a minimum of 100 Neurotransmitters, with many more to be discovered. They are usually categorized according to their chemical nature as discussed below:

Amino acid Neurotransmitters

The majority of the nervous system functions are controlled by Neurotransmitters in this category. They include:

Glutamate: this excitatory neurotransmitter is the most common in the nervous system, and it is also the brain’s most abundant chemical messenger. How we think, learn, and our memory is significantly influenced by glutamate. If glutamate is not at the level expected, that is imbalance, seizures and dementia (among others) are possible outcomes.

GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid): it is an inhibitory Neurotransmitter and the most common in the brain as well as the entire nervous system. The activity of the brain is regulated by GABA, ensuring depression, anxiety, irritability, etc. Are not a problem.

Glycine: the spinal cord is a prominent area for this inhibitory neurotransmitter. Metabolism, pain transmission, and hearing are regulated by glycine.

Monoamine Neurotransmitters

They regulate emotion, attention, cognition, and consciousness. Hence, a lot of nervous system disorders are caused by abnormalities of monoamine neurotransmitters. They are commonly affected by many drugs taken by people. These neurotransmitters are:

Serotonin: this inhibitory Neurotransmitter aids in mood, pain, anxiety, sleep, appetite, and sexuality regulation. The imbalance of serotonin is associated with diseases such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, etc.

Histamine: motivation, feeding behavior, and consciousness are some of the body functions controlled by Histamine. Asthma, multiple sclerosis, mucosal edema, and bronchospasm are all associated with Histamine.

Dopamine: the body’s reward system is impacted by dopamine, hence pleasure, arousal, and learning are affected. Motivation, sleep, concentration, mood, and memory are also enhanced by dopamine.  Several diseases are associated with its dysfunction, including ADHD and bipolar disease.

Note: it is imperative to mention here that highly addictive drugs like cocaine affect the dopamine system directly.

Epinephrine: it is commonly called adrenaline. It plays a key role in the fight or flight response of the body to stress and fear. It works by raising heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, breathing, and blood flow to muscles. Attention and focus are also enhanced, allowing action or reaction to varying stressor. If too much in the body, epinephrine increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, among others.

Norepinephrine: also known as noradrenaline, it works like epinephrine. It affects alertness, arousal, attention, and decision-making.

Peptide Neurotransmitters

Endorphins: these chains of amino acids are the body’s natural pain reliever. How we perceive pain is influenced by endorphins. For example, pain is reduced when endorphins are released. It also has a euphoric effect. When low in the body, there is a higher risk for some forms of headache and fibromyalgia.


Acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter and aids the regulation of several important functions in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. The functions include: muscle contractions, libido, motivation, learning, memory, heart rate, gut mobility, and blood pressure.


What are the Roles of Neurotransmitters in Substance Abuse and Addiction?

Having explained what neurotransmitters are and how they work, understanding the roles of neurotransmitters in substance abuse and addiction is easier. According to experts as well as papers released by reputable organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, drugs don’t get anybody ‘high’, at least not directly. Rather, it is the effect of these substances on the chemical messengers, neurotransmitters, that causes diverse feelings (pleasure, euphoria, relaxation, etc.).

The natural processes of neurotransmitters are enhanced or impeded by almost all drugs and explained above, once this imbalance happens, a reaction or action is triggered, thereby causing euphoric effects, among others.

How do Different Drugs Alter the Processes of Neurotransmitters? 

Dopamine: commonly known for its reward processes, dopamine plays a role in the abuse of almost all substances, though stronger in some like opiates, meth, and cocaine. Its consistent stimulation significantly increases the risk of powerful drug addictions. 

Endorphins: these Neurotransmitters are associated with opiate drugs, including pain medications. Endorphins are very potent. Hence, opiates are often considered as the strongest type of drug addiction. Oxytocin, morphine, heroin, and fentanyl are some of the substances endorphins act as chemical messengers for. 

Serotonin: hallucinogenic drugs are mainly associated with serotonin. It alters sleep and libido in the period of active use. The withdrawal symptoms increase the risk of major alterations to the healthy level of these essential functions. Some examples of these drugs are ecstasy (MDMA), philosophers stones, psilocybin mushrooms, and LSD.

Norepinephrine: meth and cocaine are examples of the substances associated with norepinephrine. Anxiety and altered sensory processing are some of the effects of interfering with normal norepinephrine functioning.

Glutamate: large release of glutamate is potentially dangerous and is associated with alcohol, ketamine, and angel dust, among others. Learning and fine and gross motor skills are functions that are at the danger of being affected. 

Anandamide: this chemical messenger is specifically associated with hashish and marijuana. When the normal processes of anandamide are altered, there is enhanced risk of memory issues. 

Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid: the processes of GABA are altered by tranquilizers and sedatives and its effects are potentially dangerous because of its CNS-repressing behavior and sedative action. 

Can Neurotransmitter Disruption Cause Death?

Every drug, prescribed or not, taken alters the processes of the body’s neurotransmitters. This is not always a bad thing. For example, a person with a poor night’s sleep can get a morning boost from caffeine. However, when the substance or/and environment isn’t safe, there’s an increased risk of fatality. Long-term or irreversible damages can equally be done to the brain.

Is Fentanyl (painkiller) Dangerous?

Though a pain medication, Fentanyl is very strong, about a hundred times stronger than morphine. Therefore, any misuse can be very fatal. When used according to prescription, it is very helpful for people with prolonged and severe pain. 

When Can I be Said to be Addicted to Prescribed Painkillers? (Dependence vs Addiction)

The body may develop dependence on a prescribed drug even when taken at the right dosage and frequency. This is particularly true for highly addictive drugs like painkillers. However, dependence isn’t the same as addiction. Addiction sets in when you are violating the dosages and frequency as well as getting it elsewhere. Therefore, whenever you are taking more than the prescribed dosage or using it more often than prescribed or the thought of doing so becomes compelling, talk to your doctor. 

Can Anyone get Addicted to Drugs?

Often, we assume certain things are not for us without realizing we are also susceptible to them like everyone else. Drug addiction is a good example of things people often think can’t happen to them. While people with factors like personality traits and a history of addiction are more exposed to the likelihood of addiction, it is important for everyone to be aware of the possibility of addiction. This awareness makes it easier for you to recognize the signs when they start showing up. For example, if you are on painkillers, you must be careful not to cross the line.

How does the body gets affected from addiction?

Addiction is a complex brain disorder that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. This disorder not only affects the brain, but also has profound effects on the body, both physically and mentally. When drugs are used, they hijack the brain’s reward system by artificially increasing the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and motivation. 

Over time, the brain adapts to the constant influx of dopamine and becomes less responsive to natural sources of pleasure. This leads to a downward spiral of needing higher and more frequent doses of the drug to achieve the same high, eventually resulting in damaging effects on the body, such as organ damage, increased risk of infections, and changes in mental health. 

In addition to the deleterious effects on the individual, addiction also takes a toll on families, communities, and society as a whole. To learn more about the impact of addiction on the body, check out this article.

How is Hyponatremia related to Addiction?

Hyponatremia, or low levels of sodium in the blood, can be related to addiction in several ways. First, some substances of abuse can cause an increase in water retention in the body, which can dilute the sodium levels and lead to hyponatremia. 

This can be particularly dangerous for individuals who also engage in excessive water consumption during their substance use. Additionally, certain medications used in addiction treatment can also lead to hyponatremia as a side effect. 

This highlights the importance of proper medical monitoring during addiction treatment to prevent and address any imbalances in sodium levels that may occur. Further research is needed to better understand the relationship between hyponatremia and addiction, as well as to develop effective treatment strategies for individuals with both conditions. For more information on the relationship between hyponatremia and addiction, click here. 

Get help for your Addiction

Addiction Treatment at Olympic Behavioral Health offers help and support for those struggling with addiction. Taking the first step can be difficult, but it is crucial to call for assistance. Our facility in West Palm Beach provides comprehensive addiction treatment programs to guide individuals towards recovery. If you or your loved one is battling addiction, reach out to Olympic Behavioral Health today.

Olympic Behavioral Health Drug Rehab

Olympic Behavioral Health Drug Rehab in West Palm Beach is a place where healing begins. With compassionate professionals and a state-of-the-art facility in West Palm Beach, we understand that overcoming addiction is challenging. The first step is calling us, and we will provide the help and support you need on your journey to recovery.

Adam Siegel
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Adam is the lead addiction therapist at Olympic Behavioral Health and has been in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Adam earned his associate degree in Applied Science for Chemical Dependency Counseling from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, in 2009 and became a Certified Addiction Counselor in 2016. He is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work Program at Florida Atlantic University to obtain his MSW. Adam is also in long term sobriety which allows him to relate with patients on a deeper level.

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