Serotonin and Addiction Explained
Serotonin is a chemical that occurs naturally in the body and carries signals between nerve cells. It is predominantly found in the stomach but also in the central nervous system and brain. Serotonin has an impact on several functions in the body including digestion, blood clotting, bone density, sexual function and mood. While certain aspects of how it works are under debate, it is widely thought that the chemical plays a key role in drug use and addiction.
What Is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays many roles within the body, with the most important behavioural impact being the regulation of impulsivity and aggression. It also helps to ease anxiety and stress, as well as contributing to learning and memory. The most prescribed medications for people who are suffering from mood disorders such as depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs increase serotonin levels in the brain and ease negative symptoms.
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Serotonin and Addiction
It is thought that most drugs of abuse have a significant impact on serotonin activity and receptor functions. Changes in the carefully balanced neurotransmitters in our brains can lead to modifications in brain circuitry and affect the way a person derives pleasure. Some scientists believe that the amount of serotonin in an individual’s brain can be a causing factor in developing an addiction in the first place.
Drugs that Affect Serotonin Levels
It is widely understood that most drugs have an impact on serotonin levels due to its prolific influence on the body and mind. Serotonin plays a key role in impulse regulation, which plays an important part in the development and maintenance of an addiction. The neurotransmitter has a complex impact on most illicit and legal substances:
- Alcohol: Alcohol has been found to cause an increase in serotonin in people’s brains. The quantity of this increase varies depending on how prone to anxiety a person is. People who show a preference for alcohol have a marked increase of serotonin in their hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and emotion.
- Opiates: Drugs such as heroin and morphine have been found to cause an increase in levels of serotonin during intoxication. After intoxication, supplies of serotonin are severely depleted which can be a contributing factor towards repeating the behaviour.
- Cocaine: Cocaine has been found to have a profound impact on serotonin levels in various sections of the brain. Two hours after withdrawal, serotonin quantities have been seen to decrease to significantly lower than before drug use.
- Amphetamines: While amphetamines have been shown to increase serotonin production in the brain, prolonged use over the course of a few weeks doesn’t lead to significant unavailability after intoxication.
- Cannabis: THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, causes a complex reaction with the serotonin system. It has been seen to have an inhibitory and excitatory impact on the neurotransmitter.
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