Temptation is a funny thing. Have you ever passed a KFC while driving and been overtaken by the smell of deep-fried chicken deliciously encased in fat? Better yet, perhaps a Burger King or McDonalds? Every neuron in your brain directs you to divert course, enter the drive thru and curb your insatiable desire. Whether its reaching into a bucket of KFC Extra Crispy or sinking your teeth into a Big Mac, washed down with an ice-cold Coca-Cola, we’ve all experienced “the urge” at some point. Where does this desire come from? Why does it affect us in such a profoundly physical way? At the end of the day, it all boils down to the power of dopamine.
The Urge (What Is Dopamine?)
Dopamine, also known as the brain’s “pleasure chemical,” is a complex neurotransmitter responsible for sending signals between brain cells to reward a particular activity. One of the key functions of dopamine is to provide sensations of pleasure. We engage in activities such as eating and procreating because our brain neurotransmitters have associated the behavior with a dopamine rush. The brain’s pleasure-reward system urges us to continually repeat these gratifying activities to increase dopamine levels in the brain, ensuring the likelihood for survival. Unfortunately, drug abuse also operates within the dopamine reward system. The same instinctive urgency that ensures survival also controls the desire for drugs and addictive activities.
The Surge (How Dopamine Affects The Body)
Back to fried chicken (or whatever makes your mouth water and mind do things that sexual desires and hallucinogenic drugs fuel). It has been scientifically proven that sugar and highly processed foods are as addictive as cocaine, heroin and opiates (did you notice I left out cannabis? That is a topic for another day).
When the sweet smell of fried food hits your brain, your pleasure center starts to fire. As soon as the food hits the back of your throat, dopamine is released. Similarly, when a user takes a drug to achieve a pleasurable feeling, dopamine is being released, producing a pleasurable effect that our brain wants to continue over and over again.
This leads into the debate over junk food and cravings versus hunger and survival. Endocrinologist Dr. Scott Isaacs will probably disagree, but I believe food is physically addictive in the general sense that you need to eat or you’ll die. Eating because you are hungry is not a bad thing. Neither is taking a prescribed medication for intractable pain. It’s also a good idea to take Lipitor to counteract the effects of my favorite bucket of fried chicken! We all have a fondness for things that are tempting, but hunger and cravings are two totally different responses. One is a physiological response for survival and the other is a learned response to a stimulus.
Chasing the Dragon (Dopamine and Addiction)
When you flood your system with dopamine, the stimulus is the same as using a mind-altering drug. When addictive drugs flood the brain with dopamine, we become conditioned to expect artificially high levels of the neurotransmitter. Over time, the user’s brain requires more dopamine than it can naturally produce, and it becomes dependent on the drug while never actually satisfying the need it has created.
Addiction occurs when the user relies all too frequently on overuse of drugs to achieve these sensations. The minute you inject yourself with heroin, the exact same receptor sites in the brain starting pumping dopamine into our limbic system, creating a wave of euphoria so intensely satisfying that you will never be able to emulate that first feeling again. Oh, but you will try, which is why we call it “chasing the dragon”. Just when you think you can grab the dragons tail and turn that pleasure memory on, you fall short. So short, that you will continually use “a little more” each time in search of that first great high. That is the dark and lonely road that leads to addiction. A road where sadly, no one cares how fast or what you drive.
Whether your affinity is for fried chicken or cocaine, the power of dopamine plays a role. Navigating this territory is tricky, which is why having a clear understanding of your risk is key to putting proactive prevention measures in place. The TITAN Group offers a full suite of drug diversion prevention solutions to help support all healthcare providers. Contact us today to learn more.
- Your Brain on Drugs: Dopamine and Addiction | Big Think.
I must make a disclaimer: I have been using drugs, buying drugs, investigating drugs, studying drugs for the past 32 years. I am a self-professed expert in all things drugs. 26 years with the DEA, combined with personal experience taking pain pills for a bad back gives me a perspective that is quite unique. Nothing in books or on TV can prepare one to deal with the devastating issues that surround drug addiction. Titan’s mission is to educate not only doctors and pharmacists, but the other side as well, in hopes that together we can end the story of opioid addiction once and for all.