Stimulants may be one of the most common psychoactive substances in the United States. Each time you pour a cup of coffee to prepare for the day, you’re flooding your brain with a stimulant drug. Caffeine is just one relatively mild stimulant in a list of dozens of drugs that are used for therapeutic and recreational purposes. Cocaine, meth, and amphetamines are examples of more powerful stimulants that can lead to greater consequences when they’re abused.
From caffeine jitters to days without sleep, different stimulants may have different effects on the human body. However, they do have some similarities. Learn more about stimulants and their effect on the brain and body.
Each stimulant may work in the brain in unique ways, but they all serve to excite the central nervous system and can cause a lift in mood, energy levels, or increased focus. The way a stimulant achieves this in the brain may vary from one substance to the next. However, they all seem to influence dopamine activity in the brain, either directly or indirectly. Dopamine is one of several “feel-good chemicals” in the brain. These chemicals can influence your mood and are closely tied to reward and motivation. Dopamine, in particular, serves a multitude of functions involving motor control, motivation, arousal, reinforcement, reward, nausea, and executive functions.
Some stimulants, like caffeine, indirectly influence dopamine without binding to receptors. Instead, caffeine binds to another type of receptor (adenosine) that has formed a bond with dopamine receptors. Cocaine directly influences dopamine, but not by activating dopamine receptors. Instead, cocaine blocks a process called reuptake, which is when a transmitter reabsorbs and recycles a chemical. Cocaine binds to and blocks dopamine transmitter reuptake, causing dopamine to build up and bind to more receptors. Meth does the same thing, except it also increases the amount of dopamine that’s released in the first place.
Stimulants are used for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Because dopamine is tied to reward and motivations, stimulants can cause a feeling of empowerment and euphoria in the people that abuse it. Amphetamines and other stimulant medications can also increase your focus and motivation to complete a task. That can help with attention deficit disorders like ADD and ADHD. However, some people use them as cognitive performance enhancers. Students on college campuses sometimes use prescription stimulants to increase wakefulness when pulling an all-nighter, to increase focus to retain more study information, and to boost test scores.
However, stimulants can cause multiple short and long-term side effects in the human body, especially when they are abused.
If you take a stimulant, it will start to have immediate effects depending on how fast the substance reaches your bloodstream and then your brain. Coffee takes about 10 minutes to be absorbed into your bloodstream through your intestines and then reach your brain. On the other hand, cocaine that’s snorted will start to take effect within seconds. Milder stimulants will also cause more subtle effects than powerful drugs like cocaine. Mild medications and caffeine may cause jitteriness, wakefulness, insomnia, and maybe some irritability. Some people also experience heart palpitations and increased blood pressure. In fact, if you’re someone who struggles with high blood pressure, cutting down on caffeine might help you keep it under control.
More potent substances like cocaine and meth can cause more intense acute effects. You may also experience some of the same side effects that you would with weaker stimulants to a greater degree. For instance, irritability may be more like severe agitation.
A stimulant binge is common in recreational crack cocaine and meth use, which is when a person will use for up to several days without sleep. This can worsen side-effects and cause stimulant psychosis, hallucinations, and potentially dangerous cardiac symptoms. People with weak hearts or heart disease are at risk of sudden cardiac death caused by a stimulant’s effects on the heart.
Binging and repeated stimulant use can cause you to develop chemical dependence, which is when your brain and body come to rely on the drug to maintain balanced brain chemistry.
Stimulants can cause some long-lasting effects on the brain and body if you use them chronically for enough time. Stimulants generally have the most significant impact on a person psychologically. Stimulant abuse can cause long-lasting anxiety or depression, that can be difficult to overcome without help. Stimulants can also cause psychosis symptoms that are usually temporary. However, if you are predisposed to a disorder like schizophrenia or another mental health issue, heavy stimulant use can trigger long-lasting psychological symptoms.
Powerful stimulants like methamphetamines that flood the brain with dopamine can also damage dopamine receptors, which leads to a disorder called anhedonia. This neurochemical issue can mean that you can’t feel pleasure from normal activities besides meth use. This can lead to deeper meth addiction or severe depression. In fact, meth users and people in recovery from meth use have a higher likelihood of experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions.
Stimulants can also cause addiction because of its effects on the limbic system, which is tied to the reward center of the brain. The limbic reward system, which is also called the dopamine reward system, is typically affected in some way by the chronic use of psychoactive substances of abuse.
Stimulants that have a powerful influence on dopamine activity in the brain can also impact the limbic system. The limbic system is designed to respond to natural activities like eating, drinking, and sex because those activities are necessary for basic survival. The brain learns to encourage you to repeat those things through compulsions, which become like second nature. Stimulants can trick your limbic into treating drug use as these basic survival activities. As a result, you may feel compulsions to use that get out of control.
Addiction is a chronic disease that is very hard to get over on your own. But with the right treatment options, it’s treatable, and you can achieve life-long freedom from drug addiction. Through detox and an addiction treatment program, other issues related to stimulant use can also be treated. Through medical detox, stimulant withdrawal can be treated, alongside any other physical problems that may present alongside a stimulant use disorder. After detox, psychological symptoms like depression can be addressed while you go through treatment for substance abuse.
Effective addiction treatment will address a variety of issues that are directly and indirectly related to addiction, including medical needs, psychological needs, social problems, legal issues, and financial instability. Addiction treatment will also take you through therapies to help teach you how to safeguard your recover and deal with stress and triggers without using.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder because of a stimulant, there is help available. To learn more about how addiction treatment might be able to help you achieve lasting recovery, speak to an addiction treatment specialist at Ocean Breeze Recovery. Addiction can be difficult to overcome, but with the right treatment. Call any time to hear more about how addiction can be treated with personalized therapies.
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National Institute of Mental Health. (2016, March). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
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