A digital illustration of a dopamine molecule represents the feel good chemical in the brain

Simply put, addiction can be explained by a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) naturally found and created in the human brain. It affects several vital functions, including memory, motivation, mood, learning, and attention.

You may know dopamine as the “feel-good” hormone. Its presence helps us feel happy and high-functioning, while its continued absence can make us feel unhappy, lethargic, and generally “yucky.”

Most relevant to us in this situation, it affects the human ability to feel pleasure, rewards, and motivation. The right dose makes a healthy brain feel pleasure as part of the brain’s reward system. This reward system motivates the brain to tell us to do what we need to survive — eating, drinking, reproduction, good hygiene, and so on. This motivation helps our brains determine what to prioritize, ensuring we continue doing the things we need to keep our bodies and our species alive.

Your Brain on Drugs

This is where drugs and alcohol come in. When we use recreational drugs or mind-altering substances, our bodies are triggered to artificially boost dopamine production, giving us that euphoric feeling from drug use.

The dopamine response produced by mind-altering substances is more robust and longer-lasting than naturally-occurring dopamine triggers. The more often we artificially supercharge our dopamine like this, the more difficult it becomes to feel natural occurrences of dopamine in our brains. Essentially, we build up a tolerance to it, and it becomes increasingly challenging to feel happiness without the aid of drugs.

The impact of this restructuring of dopamine in our brains is that, as that drug of choice becomes the brain’s most reliable source of dopamine, the brain’s hierarchy of needs is restructured. Recall how we told you that dopamine helps us remember to do what we need for survival, like eat, drink water, and protect ourselves. When we teach our brains to think that dopamine levels come from drugs, we train our brains to believe that drugs are crucial to survival. This means that drugs gradually become more important in the addict’s brain than food, water, safety, relationships, or anything else a normal human needs or craves.

Now, think for a moment about your willpower. Say you were to be deprived of water for days in a hot, arid desert. Then, someone places a large glass of ice-cold water in front of you. How long would your willpower last if someone asked you not to drink it? You likely would not be able to hold off for long at all. Now replace water with your drug of choice and dehydration with withdrawals. The brain of an addict has been rewired to place even more importance on getting that drug back into their system than your brain in the desert wants that glass of water. A person in the thrall of addiction has no more willpower to resist that drug than a person dying of dehydration has to resist a glass of water.

Not only does this rewiring of the dopamine process prioritize the drug over all else, but it also makes all other things seem not worth the effort. If someone used to get little dopamine hits throughout the day from things like taking a hot shower, eating a balanced meal, and putting a fresh set of sheets on the bed, those dopamine hits are now virtually nonexistent in the face of the artificially created surge of dopamine released by their drug of choice. That decreased sensitivity to the dopamine from those actions decreases their motivation to complete those actions. Therefore many people suffering from addiction no longer have the willpower to perform daily tasks like showering, eating, or taking care of themselves.

Reclaiming Your Free Will

These discoveries showed doctors that addiction is not a moral failing as it once was believed to be; it is a fundamental disruption in brain circuitry — a disease. It robs people of their free will. The drug must be removed from the brain to help someone recover. It took time and effort to train the brain to think drugs were essential for survival, and it will take more time and effort to retrain the brain into forgetting that.

In people who have gone into treatment and are on the path to recovery, it is common to feel a lingering sense of numbness for some time in the first weeks and months of sobriety. It takes time for the brain to relearn what should and should not create dopamine and to restructure those priorities. In the meantime, some things can be done to help the brain in this healing process:

  • Eat a diet high in magnesium and tyrosine, including foods like chicken, almonds, apples, avocados, bananas, green tea, oranges, and tomatoes.
  • Exercise.
  • Meditate.
  • Get outside — spend time in nature absorbing Vitamin D from the sun.
  • Practice self-care with relaxing things that make you happy, like yoga, getting a massage or manicure, or reading a good book.

Removing mind-altering drugs from your life is the most critical component in healing your brain and getting dopamine levels back to normal. Because of how strong a drug’s hold can become on the brain, many people dealing with addiction need to remove themselves from the temptation of the drug physically. Our team is here to help you get started on the path to recovery and reclaiming your life. Give us a call to see how we can help.


  • (1) https://addictioneducationsociety.org/how-does-addiction-take-hold-in-the-brain/
  • (2) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22581-dopamine
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Dr. Brian Wind

Chief Clinical Officer
  • Doctorate-Level
  • 18 years in the field

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