Any form of substance abuse can have profound effects on the human body. While some may recover from the effects of an addiction completely, others may contend with long-term issues or permanent damage.
One of the most overlooked consequences of drug addiction is hormonal imbalance. The human body’s hormonal (endocrine) system regulates many physical and psychological functions, and it is crucial to address the relationship between hormones and addiction in recovery.
How Substance Abuse Causes Hormonal Changes
Homeostasis is a term referring to the state of balance and stability in the human body. The many hormones in the human body all strive to keep the body in homeostasis. Different types of stimuli produce various hormones to achieve this.
The body essentially responds to changes in the environment and a person’s actions. For example, high-stress work environments may lead to higher-than-usual levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Meanwhile, a warm embrace with a loved one may cause a surge of oxytocin, the body’s natural “happiness” hormone.
When a person has an addiction, his or her substance of choice will interfere with the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. Symptoms directly related to medical conditions and diseases are common indicators of a body that has fallen out of homeostasis.
The body must adapt to changing circumstances and foreign substances, sometimes producing unpleasant effects. Substance abuse enhances this problem and interferes with the body’s natural ability to maintain homeostasis.
Eventually, addiction will progress to the point where the person must have the drug in his or her system to feel balanced. This is untenable and invariably leads to severe physical and psychological damage.
Which Substances Are Most Dangerous?
Different forms of substance abuse will affect the body’s hormonal system in unique ways. Hormones and addiction also vary from user to user, so it is difficult to predict exactly how a person will experience the hormonal effects of an addiction.
Drugs that Affect Serotonin
Some substances affect the body’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is the “pleasure” hormone that creates pleasant feelings in response to certain stimuli. When a person artificially produces a serotonin surge by using hallucinogens or antidepressants, the body starts to lose the ability to manage serotonin levels on its own.
Drugs that Affect Dopamine
Many drugs interfere with the body’s dopamine levels, as well. Dopamine creates “reward” sensations, and many people struggling with addiction come to depend on the dopamine surge they feel after dosing.
Cocaine and heroin cause an intense surge of dopamine, and this naturally encourages addiction because of the surge of the “reward” hormone; the individual will seek out more doses to continue feeling the flood of dopamine. Eventually, they will start to only feel dopamine surges after using drugs, because the body grows accustomed to this cycle over time and starts to expect it.
Drugs that Affect Epinephrine
Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is the “fight or flight” hormone that floods the bloodstream in response to dangerous or extreme situations. Many people enjoy thrill-seeking activities like bungee jumping and skydiving to experience adrenaline rushes, but some illicit drugs can also cause a surge of adrenaline.
Eventually, an individual with an addiction may start to rely on regular epinephrine doses for a boost, while feeling drained without it. This ultimately interferes with the body’s ability to naturally regulate fight-or-flight feelings.
Dangers of Substance Abuse-Fueled Hormonal Imbalance
Drugs affect hormones in many significant ways, and it’s essential to acknowledge the risks of hormonal imbalance from addiction.
Some of the most significant symptoms of hormonal balance include:
- Mood swings
Moreover, these symptoms may cause an individual to delve deeper into addiction or explore “harder” substances for a bigger boost.
Hormonal imbalance can also lead to low sex drive, fatigue, sleep problems and problems digesting food. Over time, a hormonal imbalance will only worsen until the individual seeks substance abuse treatment.
There are many techniques that substance abuse recovery professionals can use to track at-risk patients and limit the risk of relapse. Additionally, substance abuse treatment is the time to address issues like co-occurring mental health disorders that may contribute to addictive behavior.
How Hormonal Imbalance Can Lead to Substance Abuse
While hormonal imbalance is a common symptom of substance abuse, it is also possible for a hormonal imbalance to lead to addiction. Some individuals struggle with hormonal disorders or may experience symptoms from required prescription medications.
Unless they address these hormonal issues, they may try to cope with illegal drugs or alcohol. For example, people who suffer from depression are at a generally higher risk of abusing drugs that boost dopamine and serotonin levels. An individual with depression may also self-medicate with alcohol to quell unpleasant feelings and to enjoy brief stints of artificial happiness while drunk.
Hormones and Relapse
Many people who struggle with addiction contend with the long-term health effects of substance abuse for several years after recovery. In some cases, hormonal imbalance also increases the risk of relapse.
An individual who recovers from addiction may need to stabilize his or her hormone levels with prescription medication or simply by avoiding illegal drugs and/or alcohol. A sudden change may cause hormone levels to go into flux, and the unpleasant side effects of this may be enough to encourage a relapse into substance abuse.
Treatment for Imbalanced Hormones and Addiction
During substance abuse recovery, a patient should not only receive treatment for his or her addiction, but also the physical and psychological effects of that addiction. This may include nutritional support, family counseling, holistic physical therapies and a host of other treatment methods.
Addressing a hormonal imbalance may be as simple as prescribing a hormonal replacement for some patients. Ultimately, the goal of any substance abuse treatment plan should be to address the patient as an individual and develop a long-term plan that limits the chances of relapse.
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