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How Drugs Affect the Brain

Published on: December 26, 2018

Written by: Confirm BioSciences.

Drug abuse can throw your body (and your hormone balance) out of whack. A new study suggests a potential link between hormonal imbalance and substance abuse.

200 chemical messengers

The “euphoric” high obtained from drugs serves as a momentary escape from reality. Certain drugs are strong enough to signal the brain’s release of specific “feel-good” hormones, including:


  • Serotonin, for happiness and contentment
  • Dopamine, for confidence and achievement
  • Endorphins, for joy and relaxation
  • Adrenaline, for flight-or-fight response

How Hormone Imbalance Leads to Addiction

Drugs override the brain’s natural circuitry, which can have devastating effects on mental health. Our brains react to substance abuse by moderating the secretion of important neurotransmitters.

substance abuse hormonal balance

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in coordination, sleep, learning, mood, memory, and attention span. This hormone is triggered in response to positive outcomes or rewards, and leads to an increase in energy and happiness. Accomplishing normal day-to-day tasks moderately activates dopamine secretion.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol elevates blood glucose levels, suppresses immune system, and affects food metabolism. Cortisol is another neurotransmitter associated with drug abuse. This hormone is naturally produced in response to environmental stressors or low blood sugar, but drug abuse can exacerbate production.

Negative Hormone Feedback Loop

In most cases, persistent drug use creates a negative feedback loop where the brain reduces its natural production of feel-good hormones in the breaks between highs. Side effects manifest in depression, lack of motivation, lethargy, and lack of appetite.

Cortisol Production

People suffering from addiction tend to prioritize drugs above all else. Acquiring drugs leads to dangerous and stressful situations that can trigger cortisol release. An excessive amount of cortisol causes anxiety, weight gain, sleep disorders, and heart disease.


How Does Alcohol Affect Neurotransmitters?

Our brains release an unnatural amount of dopamine when alcohol is consumed which can lead to an uncontrolled lack of inhibition. This is one of many reasons why alcohol ranks high in terms of developing an addiction and/or withdrawal symptoms.

Chronic drinkers become physically dependent on dopamine secretion from alcohol. For this reason, many people turn to alcohol for immediate stress-relief, not realizing that alcohol has the opposite effect on stress.

How is Alcohol Processed by the Body?

How Alcohol is Absorbed in the body

Excessive alcohol consumption is perceived by the body as an external threat or invader. This stimulates an almost-immediate increase in cortisol levels, which leads to serious long-term problems if not managed. A regular cortisol test is a smart way to monitor hormone health.

How Do Drugs Affect the Endocrine System?

Insulin and glucagon are two vital metabolic hormones manufactured by the pancreas. Blood sugar levels are easily stabilized through a sustained balance of these hormones.

Insulin is secreted in response to elevated blood sugar levels shortly after we eat. This hormone enables cells throughout the body to receive glucose as an energy source.

When insulin is deficient, the pancreas secretes glucagon. This hormone signals the liver to release stored glucose as fuel for the body.is sugar a drug

Alcohol consumption can cause a sharp rise in blood sugar. More insulin is demanded in order to restore blood glucose levels to normal; however, sudden overproduction of insulin is known to trigger hypoglycemia.

Since diabetics cannot handle extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels, alcohol should be avoided whenever possible.

Adrenaline and Substance Abuse

Adrenaline, or epinephrine, is associated with the body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response. Under environmental stress, adrenaline primes the body for “battle” by increasing heart rate, constricting blood vessels, and accelerating breathing. These side effects create a physical phenomenon known as an “adrenaline rush”.

The flood of adrenaline is naturally addictive to some people. Drugs like cocaine and ecstasy are known to stimulate adrenaline, which makes them highly attractive (and addictive) to thrill-seekers.

What Causes Hormonal Changes?

Drugs can cause hormonal imbalances in both men and women. While female expression is dictated by estrogen and progesterone, male expression is dependant on testosterone.

brain drugs hormone balance

How Do Female Hormones Work?

Estrogen and progesterone secretion varies throughout a woman’s 28-day reproductive cycle. Towards the beginning of the cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels are low and stable. Estrogen rises during menstruation, while progesterone peaks after ovulation. In healthy women, the two hormones complement each other where levels of both are not elevated at the same time.

Estrogen can intensify the brain’s dopamine reward system, especially during menstruation. This means women who use recreational drugs during their period can experience an intensified dopamine response.

What is Hormone Replacement Therapy?

The link between neurotransmitters and drug abuse inspires research into hormone replacement therapy to address chronic hormone imbalance. 

Hormone replacement therapy is found to be beneficial for those seeking to overcome their drug or alcohol addictions. There are many types of hormone replacement therapy methods:

Types of Hormone Replacement Therapy

  • Birth control pills, for example, are often prescribed to successfully intervene with addiction. Since they contain a form of progesterone, exposure to drugs while using birth control can reduce dopamine’s influence on the body. Over time, the body weakens its desire to find and use illicit substances.
  • Testosterone therapy may help address brain fog, poor memory function, osteoporosis, or muscle loss. When taken in small amounts, testosterone can even work for women who are trying to recover from alcoholism.
  • Natural supplements and lifestyle changes can limit the desire for drugs. For example, regular consumption of coconut oil is known to regulate hormone levels, which can limit the desire for drugs.


Understanding the relationship between hormones and substance abuse could make serious headway in resolving the drug epidemic. Addressing a potential hormone imbalance could pave the way for a naturally improved sense of well-being which could eliminate the desire for drugs. Seek medical advice if you or someone you know is coping with hormone problems and/or substance abuse issues. 

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