Serotonin and Drug Addiction

Serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter located in the brain that affects mood regulation and your overall sense of well-being. Its disruption can lead to depression and other mood disorders. A number of antidepressants and other drugs work to restore serotonin levels in the brain and increase happiness and create a stable mood. Many casual users of these drugs use them to elevate their serotonin levels to the point of creating a euphoric high. Excessive use of these drugs over a period of time can lead to drug addiction by creating a dependency on the drug for maintaining serotonin levels as the brain stops having the ability to produce the chemical naturally.

Legal medications that affect serotonin levels are often known as SSRIs or Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors. These medications are prescribed by a psychiatrist or physician to treat a diagnosed serotonin imbalance in the brain (depression). When taken as directed by a physician they pose little risk of addiction and have only a small risk of withdrawal if a person is stopping the use of them correctly. A high is not experienced, only a return to a natural state of wellbeing and a balanced mood. However, some SSRI’s when taken at a much higher and more frequent dosage than prescribed or used incorrectly (for example, crushed up and snorted or melted down and injected) do create that euphoric feeling. Illicit drugs like Ecstasy, MDMA, LSD, or ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms also create that euphoric high, often to the point of hallucinations.

Many people begin to “chase” this high after prolonged use because it disrupts the normal levels of serotonin to an extreme degree. Psychologically the euphoria experienced helps a person erase or ignore certain troubles in their life or feelings of hopelessness, despair and depression caused by an already present lack of serotonin. As the person “comes down” from the high these feelings return. After a while these bad feelings even start to increase after usage because the brain starts relying on the drug to produce serotonin for it and it forgets how to regulate serotonin in general. The reward pathways in the brain that tell you what you need become over stimulated and require more and more higher levels of the drug to be in your system to have any effect. Too much of these drugs in your system can lead to a serious condition known as serotonin syndrome. Serotonin syndrome is caused when too much serotonin builds up in a person’s system causing disruption of normal brain function. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, uncontrollable shivering, headache and heavy sweating. Severe cases lead to seizures, heart palpitations leading up to cardiac arrest, unconsciousness and death. Since a person taking these drugs is increasing the dosage or mixing them without the help of a professional, Serotonin syndrome is apt to occur at some point and often, if it doesn’t kill them first.

If you or a loved one is engaging in any of the behavior and/or experiencing any symptoms mentioned above, please do not hesitate to contact a counselor or drug addiction treatment center. Drug addiction has often been stigmatized in the past as a poor life choice but recently science is starting to establish that it is a chemical process that anyone can fall prey to (especially if serotonin and dopamine deficiency is common in your family). These conditions need correction and maintenance as they can lower your quality of life and cause death. These conditions and drug addictions are serious, but common and treatable. You are not alone; there is always someone willing to help you if you seek it.

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