How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect Neurotransmitters?

Drugs, both legal and illegal, work on the brain in various ways. One way is they change how neurotransmitters work. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay information between brain cells. Understanding the following about neurotransmitters and drugs can help you battle through addiction.

  • How do drugs affect neurotransmitters?
  • How does alcohol affect neurotransmitters?
  • Which neurotransmitters are involved in drug addiction?

What Are Neurons?

The brain is like a complex and intricate computer. But, instead of electrical circuits, the brain has cells called neurons. Neurons send messages back and forth in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system. 

To send a message, the neurons release neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapses and attaches to another neuron. This action signals the brain cells to do specific things, such as produce feelings of joy, anxiety, and anger. 

They also produce drug cravings in those struggling with substance use disorder. Substances such as alcohol, heroin, and Zoloft affect the neurotransmitters by creating euphoric feelings. However, they also have adverse side effects, such as depression, psychosis, and addiction. 

Neurotransmitters also regulate:

  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Emotions
  • Mood
  • Coordination
  • Ability to learn
  • Physical sensations

Neurotransmitters and Drugs: Do They Affect Each Other?

How drugs and alcohol affect brain cells dramatically depends on the type of drug or alcohol consumed. Most drugs bind directly to neurotransmitters. Additionally, multiple neurotransmitters can be affected at once. 

There are dozens of neurotransmitters. Our understanding of how the brain and neurotransmitters work and their effect on addiction continues to grow. Dopamine, for example, is an important neurotransmitter. It helps regulate:

  • Happiness
  • Anger
  • Aggression
  • Mood
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Learning
  • Attention
  • Motivation
  • Sleep 
  • Pain processing
  • Nausea and vomiting

How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

Opioids, heroin, alcohol, and other substances affect the brain’s output and use of neurotransmitters. While some drugs speed up the production of neurotransmitters, others slow it down. Furthermore, some drugs can even mimic neurotransmitters.

how do drugs affect neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters and Drugs: What Happens If You Stop?

Depending on the type and length of the addiction, it can take days, months, and even years to regain neurotransmitters’ normal production. Heroin, for example, mimics a natural neurotransmitter. It bonds to neurons, causing an increase in the production of other neurotransmitters such as dopamine. 

Another example includes an individual who misuses methamphetamines, for instance, will stop producing its own neurotransmitters. Additionally, high doses of meth over extended periods can have severe effects on the brain. As a result, it can take up to 4 years to produce natural neurotransmitters.

Which Neurotransmitters are Involved in Drug Addiction?

While dopamine plays a significant role in how substance use disorder forms, progresses, and ultimately recovers, several other neurotransmitters are also responsible. Keep reading to understand more about which neurotransmitters are involved in drug addiction.

Dopamine: Neurotransmitters and Drugs

Dopamine is often called the “grand-daddy of drug addiction” because it plays a role in nearly all substance addictions. However, it is most noticeable in cocaine, opiate, and meth addictions. Dopamine activates the reward processes in the brain. The constant use of drugs or alcohol can lead to cravings and addiction.

Endorphins: Neurotransmitters and Drugs

Endorphins are neurotransmitters for opiates such as heroin, morphine, Oxycontin, and Fentanyl. Opiate use disorder is thought to be the most powerful drug addiction because of the potent effect of endorphins on the brain.

Serotonin: How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

Primarily drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin are linked to serotonin. Serotonin affects sexual desire and desire during drug use. However, after an individual stops using, it can affect the healthy functioning of both. 

Serotonin affects individuals:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Aggression
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Confusion
  • Self-esteem
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bone density
  • Blood clotting

Norepinephrine: How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

The class of drugs, which includes speed, and meth interferes with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Cocaine also interferes with norepinephrine’s normal function. This interference can result in anxiety and other sensory processing issues. 

Glutamate: How Does Alcohol Affect Neurotransmitters

Glutamate is a dangerous and powerful neurotransmitter if released in large amounts. Substances such as alcohol, ketamine, PCP, and angel dust can trigger its release. This neurotransmitter and drugs can affect fine and gross motor skills and learning abilities.

How Does Alcohol Affect Neurotransmitters and How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

There are seven categories of drugs. Each class interacts with neurotransmitters in unique ways. 

Central Nervous System Depressants

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants are often called depressants. They increase the activity of GABA, which reduces brain activity and slows the heart and other organs. Commonly misused depressants include:

  • Alcohol
  • Barbiturates – Amytal, Butisol, Nembutal
  • Benzodiazepines – Xanax, alprazolam
  • Opioids – morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone

By depressing the brain and body, individuals experience:

  • Relaxation
  • Sleepiness
  • Euphoria
  • Mood swings
  • Increase in self-confidence
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Unconsciousness
  • Coma
  • Death

Central Nervous System Stimulants

CNS stimulants produce the opposite effect of depressants. For instance, stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy. They also increase dopamine and norepinephrine production. As a result, individuals feel a euphoric rush. 

Stimulants include:

  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Ritalin


Hallucinogens produce different effects on different people. People often see, hear, or feel things that are not there. Also, the results of hallucinogens depend on the person’s mood and if they consume other substances. If a person has an adverse reaction, it’s known as a “bad trip.”

Hallucinogens and Cross Tolerance

When a person has a tolerance to one substance that heightens the tolerance of another substance, it is called cross-tolerance. Tolerance is when a person needs more of the substance to feel the initial effects. For example, LSD, a hallucinogen, can produce a tolerance to psilocybin or magic mushrooms. 

Central Nervous System Depressants

Dissociative Anesthetics

A dissociative anesthetic is a form of anesthesia. But, they don’t always involve a loss of consciousness. However, they inhibit pain and cause users to feel a disconnection from the world or themselves. 

Ketamine: How Do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

Ketamine has long been used as an anesthetic for people and animals undergoing surgery. It is also used as an antidepressant in hard to treat cases of depression. However, ketamine produces a long-lasting high that can last 24-hours.

Ketamine causes a surge in glutamine and GABA. It also affects serotonin transmitters. But, ketamine can be very dangerous. Because it is so strong, it is easy to use too much, leading to severe consequences including:

  • Psychosis
  • Ketamine cystitis – damage to the bladder
  • Cardiac arrest

Narcotic Analgesics and How do Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

These drugs cause extreme euphoria because they stimulate dopamine production and prevent the neurotransmitter from being reabsorbed. Narcotic analgesics include heroin, opium, methadone, and heroin. Furthermore, these opioids attach to opioid receptors, which changes the brain.

How Do Inhalant Drugs Affect Neurotransmitters?

Similar to alcohol, most inhalants slow down the brain. Users often experience slurred speech, euphoria, dizziness, and lack of coordination. Common inhalants include paint thinner, hair spray, and chest pain inhaler medication. 

Cannabis: Neurotransmitters and Drugs

The legal name of marijuana is cannabis. The use of cannabis in any form is believed to chemically and physically change the brain. Furthermore, cannabis increases dopamine production. 

The short-term effects include happiness and increased appetite. Although the effects are still being researched, long-term effects may consist of decision-making, memory, and focus issues. 

How Does Alcohol Affect Neurotransmitters?

Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance. To illustrate, the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) states over 14 million Americans over 18 struggle with alcohol use disorder. This number includes over 5 million or 4 percent of women. 

Neurotransmitters and Drugs

One reason alcohol is so addictive is that it stimulates dopamine production. However, the brain adapts to this dopamine overload with continued drinking. As a result, your brain quits producing natural dopamine. 

As these levels of dopamine plummet, so does a person’s mood. This drop can lead to an increase in drinking. And, as we know, an increase in drinking can quickly lead to an alcohol use disorder

Alcohol and Brain Equilibrium: Neurotransmitters and Drugs

The brain likes neurotransmitters to maintain balance or equilibrium. But, alcohol disrupts this balance by increasing GABA production. To balance this slow-down, the brain releases glutamate to speed back up. But, this only further damages the brain.

How Does Alcohol Affect Neurotransmitters and Recovery?

Alcohol use disorder can be difficult to treat due to the changes in neurotransmitters. Without neurotransmitter stimulation from alcohol, individuals start experiencing cravings. Without committing to inpatient addiction treatment, it is almost impossible to quit drinking. 

If you are struggling with alcohol use disorder, it is crucial to seek professional help.

Can Naltrexone Help Ease Alcohol Cravings?

Naltrexone is often used in medical detox to reduce the urge to drink. In severe cases of an alcohol use disorder, Methadone may be used. At the same time, both medications are also used in opioid use recovery

Neurotransmitters and Drugs: The Importance of Detox

The withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can vary depending on the severity of your addiction. For this reason, professional care in a medical detox program can be life-saving. In detox, you are closely monitored and given medication to prevent the following possible side effects.

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

After completing detox, treatment isn’t over. The preferred method of treatment is inpatient treatment. However, some people may only be able to attend outpatient treatment due to other factors. 

Repairing the Effects on Neurotransmitters and Drugs at Sana Lake BWC

There is not a quick fix in recovery; it takes commitment and hard work. But the reward will be great. You will build friendships and support systems along to help maintain Recovery for Life. Contact us today and find out about our various programs to fit your needs.