The Link Between Serotonin and Drug Use

November 8, 2022
Anna Jankowska, LCPC

By Anna Jankowska, MA, CEAP, SAP, LCPC

Anna Jankowska is a mental health, addiction, and substance abuse counselor with over 17 years of experience and has specialized training and skill in working with individuals, groups and communities to improve mental health outcomes. NPI number: 1598843526

People who use drugs have lower levels of serotonin than people who don’t. At least, that seems to be the consensus among scientists who study addiction. But what exactly does that mean? What is serotonin, and why does it seem to be linked to drug use? The discovery that certain drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline act as substitutes for serotonin was a big step forward in the field of pharmacology. These drugs are known as “serotonin antagonists” because they reduce or block the effects of serotonin. By doing so, they allow researchers to see a snapshot of how much available serotonin there is in the brain at that moment. This article explores what we know about serotonin and drug use — and why it matters in addiction treatment and prevention programs.

What Is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which means it’s a chemical that facilitates communication between one part of the brain and another. There are many different types of neurotransmitters, but serotonin is one of the most studied. Serotonin is also the name of a particular “receptor” that receives the signal from serotonin and translates it into some other physiological response. (Researchers aren’t sure whether serotonin is a neurotransmitter or a receptor, or how it works exactly, but they do know that one or both are involved.)

Serotonin works by sending signals between nerve cells or neurons. When serotonin binds to receptors on neurons it causes changes inside those cells that can affect how they send messages to other neurons. This process affects various functions including emotions, digestion and sleep cycles. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and anxiety disorders while high levels are associated with improved moods and increased happiness.

The Link Between Serotonin and Drug Use

Drug abuse has been linked to changes in serotonin levels due to its ability to alter receptor activity within neural pathways involved with reward processing systems like addiction behaviors or compulsive drug seeking habits. Drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine cause dopamine release which then increases serotonin release through interactions between these two neurotransmitters; this increase leads people who abuse drugs into more intense highs followed by deeper lows when their effects wear off, leading them back into using again for another “high” feeling but ultimately creating a cycle of dependency on drugs for pleasure rather than just relief from pain or stressors.

How Drugs Manipulate Serotonin Levels

How Drugs Manipulate Serotonin Levels

The term “serotonin antagonist” doesn’t just refer to the way drugs work when they’re inside the body — it also describes the way they affect serotonin levels when they leave the body. When people use drugs, their serotonin levels drop as the drugs are metabolized inside their bodies. Yet when the drugs leave the body, serotonin levels don’t immediately start climbing back up. Instead, it takes about 10 hours for serotonin to start returning to normal.

That means that if you take drugs on a Friday night, you might not start feeling normal again until late Sunday. This temporary drop in serotonin could explain why people often crave the drugs they take — their serotonin levels are temporarily too low, so they feel dissatisfied and unhappy. When you use drugs, you’re effectively taking a serotonin antagonist that temporarily blocks your brain from producing serotonin. Once the drug wears off, your brain has yet to produce enough serotonin to return to normal levels.

Serotonin and Addiction Risk

Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression, anxiety, impulsivity and other mental health issues which can increase the risk for developing an addiction. Research has shown that people who suffer from depression are twice as likely to become addicted than those without it due to their increased vulnerability when it comes to coping with stressors such as loneliness, boredom or trauma. Additionally, individuals who struggle with impulse control disorders like ADHD are at greater risk for substance abuse because they often lack the ability to regulate their own behavior in situations where drugs or alcohol are present.

Other Health Effects Linked to Drug Use

The link between serotonin and drug use doesn’t just apply to people who are at risk for addiction. It also applies to people who are at risk for other disorders related to drug use, like liver disease. There are a few reasons why people who use drugs like alcohol and opioids are more likely to develop liver disease. Some of these reasons are biological, while others are social. These biological explanations are based on the fact that many drugs are metabolized in your liver. The more you use drugs, the more likely you are to develop liver disease. A social explanation of drug use and liver disease comes from the fact that some drugs are more likely to be used by people with lower incomes. Poorer people may have less access to healthcare and therefore less access to treatment for liver disease.

Prevention Strategies To Reduce Drug Use

One way to increase natural serotonin production is through exercise. Exercise releases endorphins into the body which act on the same receptors as serotonin does in the brain; thus increasing its availability naturally without any external substances like drugs or alcohol being introduced into your system. Regular exercise also reduces stress hormones such as cortisol which can contribute further towards reducing cravings for drugs or alcohol due to its calming effects on the mind and body alike.

Another strategy for preventing drug use involves eating healthy foods that contain tryptophan – an amino acid found in protein-rich foods such as eggs, fish, nuts and seeds – which helps produce more serotonin within our bodies naturally when consumed regularly over time. Eating regular meals throughout the day will help maintain stable blood sugar levels while avoiding processed sugary snacks that cause sudden spikes followed by crashes in energy levels; this could lead people towards using stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines instead of healthier alternatives like fruits and vegetables during these dips in energy level caused by unhealthy snacking habits.

It is important to get enough restful sleep every night. Lack of quality sleep has been linked with higher rates of addiction relapse due to decreased self-control when tired; therefore, getting at least 7 hours per night should be considered essential if you want to stay away from addictive substances like drugs and alcohol altogether.

The best way to prevent drug use is by addressing underlying mental health issues before they become problematic and seeking help if needed. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found effective in helping people manage their thoughts and feelings related to drug use so that they can make healthier choices about how they cope with life’s challenges instead of turning towards substances for relief from distressful emotions or situations. Additionally, support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provide a safe space where individuals struggling with addiction can connect with others going through similar experiences while receiving guidance on how stay sober over time through sharing stories and providing emotional support one another during the recovery process.

Treatment Options For Drug Abuse & Mental Health Issues

When it comes to treating both drug abuse and mental health issues simultaneously, there are several different approaches depending on individual needs. These include psychotherapy sessions, medication management, residential treatment programs, detoxification services, 12 step programs, dual diagnosis therapy and family counseling. The goal is always tailored towards helping clients gain insight into why they began using substances initially so that long-term strategies can be developed which will enable them to live healthy lives free from addictive behaviors moving forward.

How Do Drugs Affect Serotonin Levels?

Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine have been found to cause an increase in serotonin levels in the brain. This can lead to feelings of euphoria and pleasure that reinforce drug use behavior. When these drugs are taken, they trigger a surge of dopamine which is responsible for creating feelings of reward and pleasure. The increased serotonin also leads to decreased anxiety, improved mood, enhanced focus, and increased energy levels.

However, long-term use of these drugs can cause a decrease in serotonin levels over time due to the depletion of neurotransmitters from frequent drug abuse. As a result, when someone stops using the drug or reduces their dosage significantly there may be withdrawal symptoms such as depression, irritability, insomnia or fatigue due to low serotonin levels in the brain.

How Does Low Serotonin Increase Risk of Addiction?

Low serotonin levels have been linked to a variety of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. When someone is struggling with these conditions, they may be more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their emotions. This can lead to an increased risk of addiction, as the person may find that using substances provides temporary relief from their symptoms.

Additionally, low serotonin levels are associated with impulsivity and poor decision-making skills. People who struggle with impulse control may be more likely to make rash decisions when it comes to drug use, such as taking higher doses than recommended or using more often than intended. Poor decision-making skills can also contribute to an increased risk of addiction by making it easier for someone to choose drugs over other activities or responsibilities in life.

Finally, people who suffer from low serotonin levels tend to experience feelings of hopelessness and despair which can further increase the likelihood that they will engage in substance abuse behaviors in order to escape these negative emotions. This cycle can quickly spiral out of control if not addressed properly through treatment options such as counseling and medication management.

It is important for those suffering from low serotonin levels or any form of mental illness related issue to seek professional help before turning towards substance abuse as a coping mechanism. With proper treatment plans tailored specifically for each individual's needs, recovery is possible even after years of struggling with addiction due to the underlying cause being addressed directly at its source rather than just treating the symptoms on the surface level alone.

Bottom line

The link between serotonin and drug use is important to understand, especially if you’re at high risk for addiction. By keeping your serotonin levels high, you can protect yourself from the cravings that can come from temporary dips in serotonin. This could be as easy as making sure you get enough sleep or eating more foods rich in serotonin, like fruit and dairy products. It could also mean finding ways to reduce external stimuli and minimize the amount of stress in your life — two things that can drain your serotonin levels.

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