Mood Altering Drugs
Human beings have used mood-altering drugs – or drugs of potential abuse – for hundreds of thousands of years. People use these drugs because they produce quick surges of a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine, when released in the brain, makes people feel pleasure or euphoria, or, in other words,”high.”
Classes of Mood altering Drugs
Mood altering drugs don’t just effect dopamine, they also have many other brain effects. It is these other brain effects that help us decide what class the drug belongs to. There are four main classes of mood altering drugs: Stimulants, Opioids, Sedative Hypnotics, and Hallucinogens. The table below lists the drugs that fall into each of these classes.
Stimulants result in the release of varying amounts of norepinephrine or adrenalin, some other brain chemicals, in addition to dopamine. Stimulants can cause:
- dilated (widening) pupils
- increased attention
- increased reflexes
- increased blood pressure and heart rate
- increased alertness
- decreased need for sleep
- decreased appetite.
Opioids are natural or synthetic compounds related to opium, that effect the mu or morphine receptor in the brain. They can cause:
- constriction (narrowing) of the pupils
- dry eyes
- dry mouth
- sedation or sleepiness
- slowing of the heart rate and breathing rate
- decreased blood pressure
- pain relief.
Sedative hypnotic drugs work on the GABA (gamma-aninobutyrate) receptor system of the brain. GABA neurons are cells that excite and activate the brain, leading to wakefulness and at times even anxiety. These drugs tend to depress or quiet down GABA nerve cells, causing:
- relief of anxiety
- impairment of judgment
- bizarre behavior
- when used at too high a dose, coma or even death.
These sedative hypnotics range from relatively weak substances like alcohol to very potent ones like the “date rape” drug rohypnol. They can be especially dangerous because their strength gets increased when they are used in combination, which increases the chances of serious over-dose.
Hallucinogens alter perception as part of their central nervous system or brain effect. This group includes LSD, phencyclidine (PCP), marijuana, and a variety of plants. Hallucinogens cause a low degree of judgment impairment when users become intoxicated. The altering of perception seems to include many different effects such as visual distortions, spatial distortions, and loss of time perception.
The Continuum of Mood Altering Drug Use
Alcohol use and other drug use exists in our society as a gradual continuum. There are four different levels of use: abstinence, low risk or casual use, risky use or “substance abuse”, and chemical dependence or addiction.
Abistinence: People who abstain do not use any mood altering drugs, not even in low risk amounts. People who abstain are likely to have:
- Strong, relatively conservative or fundamentalist religious beliefs,
- Strong family histories of addiction (they may not want to take the risk of activating the disease in themselves), or
- The disease of addiction, and are in recovery and thus not using.
Low Risk Use: Low risk users use mood altering drugs occasionally. They do not binge, use only in socially acceptable situations, and have little, if any, evidence of health risk from their use. The Federal Government has published Sensible Drinking Guidelines for adult men and women that provide clear information about what drinking levels are associated with no detectable health risks.
One difference between low risk users and people with addiction problems is that “social users” never have to try to limit their use, make up rules around their use, or cut back on their use because of an embarrassing situation etc. People with addiction problems do these things in an effort to become social users.
Substance Abuse: Substance abusers use more alcohol than is considered “healthy,” or use any amounts of non-alcohol mood altering drugs. Substance abusers binge at levels that can be risky to their health, and use to levels of intoxication that significantly impair their judgment and moral values. They do not, though, meet the criteria for chemical dependence or addiction. Substance abuse is a behavior that many people participate in during their late teens and early 20’s. This behavior can evolve either into low risk use or addiction. Substance abusers have control over their use, unlike people who are addicted, and many people who abuse drugs don’t have problems caused by their drug abuse.
Although not a disease or illness, substance abuse is still responsible for a tremendous amount or pain and suffering in our society, including “date rapes” and other violence between young people, as well as destruction of property.
Many substance abusers “grow out of” using to risky levels. Some people who behave like “abusers” are probably addicted. People who are addicted will use more and more often over time, while others in their peer group use less and less often.
Chemical Dependence or addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. Addiction has nothing to do with a person’s morals, education, social class or ethnicity. It is a primarily genetic illness that runs in families. Doctors and other professionals use this definition: Addiction is characterized by the repetitive, intermittent, loss of control over the use of a mood altering drug that causes problems in a person’s life. Addiction is not defined by how much or how often people use – it is defined by what happens when they use.
People who are addicted will experience problems in these areas:
- close love relationships
- social relationships
- financial problems
- legal problems
- work problems
- medical or psychiatric problems.
Addiction causes overwhelming problems in our society. Some of the consequences of addiction include:
- Tobacco dependence – the leading preventable cause of death in America
- Fetal alcohol syndrome – the leading cause of preventable birth defects in our country.
- domestic violence
- child abuse, and
- childhood sexual abuse.
Addiction also costs our society money: The economic costs of addiction are estimated at 80-110 billion dollars per year.