Feel the Vibe. Recovery Awareness Day 2024
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“Feel-Good” Hormones and the Disease of Addiction

Addiction to substances like alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and cannabis used to be described as “chemical dependency,” suggesting that these substances simply hijack the brain promoting further misuse. In recent decades, neuroscience revealed that reality is far more complicated. 

“We are all chemically dependent,” declared Ward Blanchard, MA, MBA, CCS, LCAS, the founder and CEO of The Blanchard Institute provocatively during his recent Family System Workshop presentation. He was referring to a group of hormones in the human body nicknamed the “feel-good hormones” because of the happy and, sometimes, euphoric feelings they can produce. They are important neurotransmitters, which means they carry chemical messages between nerve cells. 

The four hormones involved in mood regulation and motivation are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.

DOPAMINE

Dopamine is a crucial element in the addiction cycle described by US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in his landmark report on addiction in America. ‘Dopamine is most notably involved in helping us feel pleasure as part of the brain’s reward system. Sex, shopping, smelling cookies baking in the oven—all these things can trigger dopamine release,” wrote Stephanie Watson on the Harvard Health blog in April. 

The feel-good neurotransmitter is also involved in reinforcement. “One of the most primitive parts of the brain, the reward system, developed as a way to reinforce behaviors we need to survive—such as eating,” wrote Yale Medicine specialists in 2022. “When we eat foods, the reward pathways activate […] dopamine, which, in turn, releases a jolt of satisfaction. This encourages you to eat again in the future.”

Repeating a pleasurable behavior—getting high—prompted by the motivator dopamine is at the heart of the addiction cycle. “When a person develops an addiction to a substance, it’s because the brain has started to change,” explained the Yale specialists. “This happens because addictive substances trigger an outsized response when they reach the brain. Instead of a simple, pleasurable surge of dopamine, many drugs of abuse—such as opioids, cocaine, or nicotine—cause dopamine to flood the reward pathway, ten times more than a natural reward.”   

The brain remembers this surge of pleasure. “All addictive substances have powerful effects on the brain,” wrote Dr. Murthy in 2016. “These effects account for the euphoric or intensely pleasurable feelings that people experience during their initial use of alcohol or other substances, and these feelings motivate people to use those substances again and again, despite the risks for significant harms.”

In the workshop, Ward Blanchard called this “society’s nemesis.” While dopamine motivates us toward our goals and needs and helps us “get stuff done,” it also has the potential to form “neural connections that DO NOT help us survive.” 

ENDORPHINS 

These hormones are our bodies’ natural pain relievers, typically produced in response to stress or discomfort. Levels may also increase when you engage in reward-producing activities such as eating, working out, or having sex.

Endorphins activate your body’s opioid receptors (the word is a contraction of “endogenous morphine”) and relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. “About 20 different types of endorphins exist,” wrote Stephanie Watson on Harvard Health. “The best studied of these is beta-endorphin, which is the one associated with the runner’s high. We also release endorphins when we laugh, fall in love, have sex, and even eat a delicious meal.”

These natural opioid receptors can get overwhelmed by substances such as morphine, heroin, oxycodone, or fentanyl causing a euphoric rush much more powerful than the runner’s high—and much more addictive. 

 SEROTONIN

This neurotransmitter hormone helps regulate your mood as well as your sleep, appetite, digestion, learning ability, and memory. Serotonin can ward off depression, naturally boosting your mood. “When you feel happy and all seems right with the world, you’re feeling the effects of serotonin,” Watson wrote

This hormone can boost your self-esteem and build confidence; Serotonin elicits compassion for oneself and others. As Blanchard explained during the workshop, it activates feelings of gratitude and serenity, promoting social and moral cognition, empathy, and good judgments. 

In cases of major depressive and anxiety disorders (significant drivers of addiction), serotonin levels are low. These conditions are frequently treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors because SSRIs increase the extracellular level of serotonin by limiting its reabsorption (reuptake) into the presynaptic cell. In other words, serotonin is an antidote for depression, anxiety, and addiction. 

Many treatment programs utilize self-esteem building, gratitude, and relationships to counteract the effects of addiction which is often built on a foundation of self-loathing, desperation, and loneliness. 

OXYTOCIN

Frequently called the “love hormone,” oxytocin is essential for childbirth, breastfeeding, and strong parent-child bonding. It helps promote trust, empathy, and bonding in relationships. Oxytocin levels generally increase with physical affection like hugging. Our bodies produce oxytocin when we’re excited by our sexual partner, and when we fall in love. That’s how it earned the nickname “love hormone.” Like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, oxytocin promotes positive feelings.

In a healthy person, all four are well-balanced and regulated by natural brain function. Powerful psychoactive drugs can disrupt this homeostasis. Attempts to self-medicate mental health conditions like trauma, depression, and anxiety with repeated unnatural dopamine surges ultimately intensify the pain they were supposed to suppress. 

Blanchard pointed out that two of the hormones, dopamine and endorphins, are “selfish” because they induce individual feelings of euphoria while the other two, serotonin and oxytocin, are “selfless” because they are about altruism, bonding with other people, and healthy relationships. 

This explains why people with addiction often behave selfishly and why relationships are crucial in successful treatment approaches. Addiction is a disease of isolation and despair. It is also a disease that profoundly impacts the entire family of the identified patient.

Our family-centered approach is designed to educate, support, and empower families to play a crucial role in the recovery journey. Family members need to understand the complexities of addiction and their role in the recovery process. The Family System Workshop is part of that approach. 

The Blanchard Institute cultivates a safe, comfortable environment for clients and their families across North Carolina. Our admissions process is discrete, confidential, and non-invasive. Call us at (704) 288-1097—our experienced admissions specialists will guide you through the process and treat you with the dignity and compassion you deserve.

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