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Dopamine and Addiction

What is Dopamine and How Does It Relate to Substance Abuse?

Dopamine drop, dopamine hit, dopamine rush, dopamine withdrawal. When we talk about this brain chemical, we often refer to it like it is a drug in itself. But it’s not a drug; it is a chemical that is present in all of our brains, and we could not survive without it. So why do we so often describe dopamine as a driver of addictive behavior? Why is it regularly associated with some of our most self-destructive impulses, and what role does it play in recovery? In this article, we explain in simple terms what dopamine is, how it works and what its role is in addiction of various types.

What Is Dopamine?

To start, let’s take a look at the bigger system in which dopamine is a part.

The Brain & Spinal Cord

As the most complex organ in the body, the human brain is responsible for all the decisions we make. It is responsible for the interpretation of information brought in by the senses, it controls our movements and behavior, it is the seat of our intelligence and spirituality, and it is the place where we feel, react, and respond to the events and activity going on around us. The spinal cord is the nerve center that carries the signals and messages from your brain to the rest of your body. Together, the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system – and this is the team that basically controls everything we do.

The Central Nervous System

The brain and spinal cord are primarily made up of cells called neurons and gila. Neurons are cells that receive, interpret and transmit information about the world around us and then tell the body how to operate, respond and react to that information. There are three types of neurons – sensory, motor and interneurons. Sensory neurons communicate information about the senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, feel). Motor neurons communicate information about voluntary physical processes – walking, talking, eating, etc. Interneurons bring messages back and forth between the two types of neuron systems. 

Gila cells basically function as the maintenance team for the neural network. They do not transmit information; rather, they support the neurons in their work by providing nourishment, protective fluids, structural support, etc.


In order to communicate messages along their networks, a neural cell will generate an electrical charge that releases a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitter can be one of numerous identified and unidentified types of chemicals that are responsible for various system processes. The neurotransmitter is released from the cell and sent over to the next neuron, where it then initiates a specific electrical signal within that neuron that releases its own neurotransmitter to be sent over to the next neuron and so on and so on, creating the messaging pathway that makes the foundation of our physical and mental processes.


The chemical messages that are transmitted along the neural networks belong to a few different families that science has uncovered so far. These chemical families include amino acids, monoamines, and peptides, and each individual chemical within the various families is responsible for controlling a particular brain or body function. 

Dopamine, which is connected to the brain’s reward center, is both a monoamines neurotransmitter and a hormone. As a neurotransmitter, it is responsible for anticipatory feelings of pleasure and arousal and has an impact on motivation, mood, memory, sleep, and learning. When neurons release dopamine into the brain and nervous system, feelings of pleasure soon follow. A lack of dopamine has been linked to the onset of Parkinson’s bi-polar and ADHD, among others.


Dopamine and Addiction

Because dopamine plays such a big role in letting us know that we are about to feel good, it is a very powerful motivator. When you do something that results in a dopamine release, your system will ask you to repeat that behavior. This makes it an important chemical in terms of reinforcement, habit formation, and addiction.

Dopamine, Cocaine and Meth

Drugs including cocaine and methamphetamines directly target the body’s dopamine system. Cocaine blocks the reabsorption of dopamine which allows it to linger longer in the cells, while methamphetamines both block reabsorption and stimulate the release of more dopamine.

Dopamine and Alcohol

Like cocaine, according to a study by Gaetano Di Chiara, M.D., alcohol can enter the brain and directly impact dopamine release, but in addition to that, alcohol also triggers a dopamine response through taste receptors in the mouth. This means, alcohol serves up a cyclical reinforcement, making it an extremely powerful addictive substance. The initial dopamine release happens with the gustatory system (the tasting response), and the second happens when the alcohol makes it way to directly impact the brain’s dopamine release system. This second release then acts as a new trigger to stimulate a craving from the gustatory system, and this cycle goes on and on. 

Moreover, the study also notes that alcohol-related dopamine release is non-adaptive, meaning it does not diminish over time and usage, unlike food, which loses its ability to trigger a dopamine response after repeated exposure. “As a result of the persistent dopamine release in the NAc shell in response to alcohol, alcohol-associated stimuli acquire an abnormal emotional and motivational significance that results in excessive control over the drinker’s behavior. This excessive control constitutes the essence of addiction.”

Dopamine and Food

Though the dopamine response to food is habituated (meaning over time, the body gets used to the stimulus and does not react with the same dopamine response that it does initially), food can still become an dopamine-related addiction because, like alcohol, studies indicate that with food there is also a double dopamine response – first at the point of ingestion and second when the food reaches the stomach.

Dopamine and Gambling

Even though it would seem that the winning of money would be the primary motivator behind a gambling addiction, according to modern research, rather than winning, the real motivator may be “reward uncertainty.” In fact, losing appears to contribute more to gambling addictions than winning does. Dopamine release appears to be bigger when a loss occurs because, scientists hypothesize, it is wired to an evolutionary response developed to help us operate and survive within unpredictable environments. Simply put, in situations where there is no guarantee of finding resources, the motivational center (dopamine) of the brain kicks in to provide incentive to keep looking. Gambling addiction may be maladaptive product of this process.

Dopamine and Recovery

Happy Woman Sitting

After detox, recovery has a lot to do with creating a lifestyle that encourage natural, healthy dopamine production. Just like there are a lot of substances that can cause unhealthy dopamine triggers, the opposite is also true. Good sleep, exercise, music, and mediation can all contribute to healthy dopamine regulation.  

Understanding the role that dopamine plays in addiction is empowering, but it is just one piece of the puzzle. Understanding the sources of those initial triggers before unhealthy dopamine patterns get set is also critical to lasting recovery. Trauma, mental illness, abuse, learning disabilities – these are all factors that can drive an individual into a quest for pleasure, numbness and relief from pain. Dopamine may be part of the physical addiction, but there is almost always a psychological component as well. At New Origins, we’re here to help our clients address all aspects of addictive behavior and arm them with the tools required to maintain sobriety over the long term.

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