Commonly understood, the term “substance abuse” refers to all substances that affect a person’s state of mind and behavior. These substances include licit substances such as alcohol and tobacco, and also illicit substances such as cannabis, cocaine and LSD. Today we discuss the topic of substance abuse.
Current statistics on the prevalence of psychoactive substance abuse are shocking. Take Spain as an example: 91% of 15-year-olds have used alcohol and 64% have used tobacco. It is even more worrying if we look at statistics on substance abuse among 14-18 year olds. 66% of this group admit to having used alcohol and 37% to have used tobacco in the last month.
The processes of tolerance and sobriety are key considerations in understanding why substance abuse occurs. These two processes are closely related, as they are both substitute reactions in the body. But before we explain this, we need to understand what happens in our brains when we are under the influence of intoxicants.
Substance abuse and the reward system
This false release of dopamine under the influence of drugs causes our reward system to be activated. So certain situations are associated with a sense of pleasure. The brain thinks that the use of these substances is good for the body, when in reality they are really harmful.
That is, this extensive secretion of “false dopamine” also causes a serious imbalance in an individual’s homeostasis. This imbalance causes the body to activate regulatory mechanisms to correct it. This last step provides both tolerance and detoxification. We will explain these processes next.
Tolerance and withdrawal symptoms in substance abuse
The body’s regulatory mechanisms prevent internal imbalances from occurring through chemical regulation of the brain. Drug abuse is an example of a situation where this happens. Let’s look at what this is about.
Imagine you go to the entertainment every Saturday for a few drinks of any kind of alcohol. Because alcohol is a substance that mimics endorphins, your endogenous opioid systems will be overactive. This in turn causes dopamine secretion and a feeling of pleasure. If you repeat this behavior, your body will learn from it, and create a compensatory reaction for itself.
This involves tolerance. The following Saturday, when you go to the entertainment again, your brain will know in advance that you will be drinking alcohol, and that this is going to cause an imbalance. So your brain lowers baseline endorphins.
This will cause your endogenous opioid system to drop, but it will return to normal once you start drinking alcohol. Your subjective feeling is that alcohol has no effect on you. Therefore, you need to consume it more in order to get a compensatory reaction to decrease due to tolerance.
So what happens if you suddenly stop drinking alcohol? What happens to this compensatory reaction? Even if you reduce your alcohol consumption to a minimum or stop it altogether, the compensatory reaction will continue.
Let’s go back to the previous example, if you go for entertainment, but without the intention to drink alcohol, your brain will still think you’re going to enjoy it. Past experiences have taught this to your brain.
As a result, endorphin levels fall sharply. Because there is no compensation with alcohol consumption, anxiety results. This is known as withdrawal symptoms.
Tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are clearly symptoms of drug dependence. If symptoms of tolerance begin to occur, withdrawal syndrome will also begin to appear when drug use ceases.
In addition, withdrawal syndrome usually results in a person returning to substance abuse in order to feel better. Biological mechanisms need to be considered in order to understand the process of drug addiction.
Substance abuse is a global health problem. We need to understand that it causes numerous social, professional, personal and health problems. In addition to this, if we want to improve a person’s quality of life, it is essential to raise awareness of how intoxicants work so that people can understand the risks they involve.