Medical professionals and scientists continue to study the effects of addiction and substance use on the brain. One thing is certain: substance use (and especially prolonged substance use) can fundamentally change your brain chemistry. Some substances can significantly alter your brain chemistry in as little as one use, and even seemingly “harmless” substances can have a big impact on your brain chemistry with prolonged use.  

How Does Substance Misuse Change Brain Chemistry?

Your brain is made of billions and billions of neurons. As you grow and age, these neurons are connected by neural pathways that help us to learn everything from how to walk and talk to how to work algebra equations and build relationships with other people. The brain is a remarkable organ that changes and adapts as you grow and learn; your brain changes most between the time you are born and the time you turn 25. 

Included in this adaptation is an evolutionary behavior pattern designed to help early humans survive – the production of dopamine (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter) when an emotion, action, or event is pleasurable or satisfying. The same evolutionary trait that helped us learn that good food and exercise make our bodies feel good (and even helped us prioritize population growth) is central to understanding how substance use can alter the brain’s chemistry and have long-term effects on our mental health.

Alcohol and drugs affect your brain’s neurotransmitters – many emulating the effect of dopamine while some affect other neurotransmitters. Even into adulthood, your brain is still remarkably capable of changing and adapting. As it seeks balance between these affected neurotransmitters and normal functioning, your brain may reduce its production of dopamine. When the substance is no longer present in your system, your brain will try to correct the “problem” by urging you to use the substance again. Over time, this habitual adaptation can form unhealthy habits in the same way it was used to encourage life-sustaining habits and help you learn.

Parts of your brain most affected by substance misuse include the basal ganglia (the brain’s “reward system”, which can lose sensitivity to dopamine), the extended amygdala (which handles negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and irritability), and the prefrontal cortex (which governs decision-making and impulse control). Prolonged substance abuse can affect every part of your brain and have severe negative effects on your mental and physical health.

When Does Brain Chemistry Normalize After Drug Use?

Research on brain development and growth is still evolving. Not long ago, we thought that the brain stopped developing neural pathways and producing grey matter completely in adulthood. Now we know that the brain continues these activities for most of our lives. But brain chemistry and structure normalization, like holistic recovery itself, takes time, discipline, support, and patience. 

First, the brain must detox – which can take several days or weeks depending on the substances used. While certain parts of the brain will recover in a matter of weeks, others take several months or even years to recover. The structure of your brain and your brain cells will generally regenerate with continued health and wellness practices – like regular exercise and healthy hydration and diet.

Your neural pathways, on the other hand, take time and discipline to adjust to a healthy, sober lifestyle. Normal, healthy dopamine production depends on a wide variety of factors, but many medical professionals believe that your brain’s dopamine production will return to pre-substance misuse levels over a period of 90 days. It’s important to note that co-occuring mental health conditions can also impact appropriate dopamine production and that each individual should consult their physical and mental health professionals to rehabilitate their brains during recovery. This process means re-training your brain – and sometimes assisting your brain with prescribed medication – to develop healthy dopamine production and neural function.

You Can Recover – We Can Help

Fortunately, the brain is a magnificent and adaptable organ. With the right treatment and support, discipline to follow a recovery plan, and patience with yourself, you can recover from substance abuse, addiction, and substance use disorder. At Palmetto Recovery Centers, we help people seeking recovery with individualized treatment from caring certified medical and mental health professionals. If you or someone you know is experiencing addiction or substance use disorder, call us today to start a journey to recovery.