In healing addictions, the brain is the main organ we are focusing on. Brain health can make or break a recovery program. It is crucially important we feel better as soon as possible, and working with brain chemistry is of utmost importance to feeling better.
Addiction to a substance induces changes in brain neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) levels, as well as possible structural changes in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. There are two main groups of neurotransmitters, inhibitory and excitatory- their individual roles are profiled below.
This NIH article entitled Drugs and the Brain explains the general concepts in the science of drug addiction and brain chemistry.
In terms of structural changes to the brain itself, we have now seen MRI images of what people’s brains look like after chronic drug abuse, and it is frieghtening. Structural MRI studies have demonstrated that chronic drug exposure can actually enlarge or shrink some regions of the brain. Investigators using structural MRI have reported diminished cortical gray matter, most prominently in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), in alcoholic patients in treatment (Pfefferbaum et al., 1998). In another study, researchers showed that alcohol-dependent individuals had reduced whole brain, prefrontal cortical, and parietal cortical gray matter compared with controls (Fein et al., 2002).
Luckily, the brain possesses a high degree of neuro-plasticity, or the ability to re- program itself.
Neurotransmitters and Addiction
The neurotransmitter dopamine, as it is the primary reward chemical, is of special importance in the healing of addiction in the brain. Many of the substances we become addicted to produce a dopamine rush. Our brains are flooded with dopamine, we feel pleasure, and thus we are driven to seek out the substance again.
Eventually we wear out our supply of dopamine, and then the availability of dopamine receptors in the brain declines, as seen in the image on the left. Since dopamine is important to motivation and assertiveness, we suffer a lack of these qualities when it is lacking.
Amino Acids and their Relationship to Brain Chemistry
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Your body uses amino acids to assemble the 50,000 different proteins it needs to function – neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes. Certain amino acids are considered “essential”, as we cannot get enough of them in our diets alone. Certain of these essential amino acids can cross the blood- brain barrier, and are thus of primary importance in the treatment and prevention of many neurological conditions.
Amino acid supplements that are of primary importance in the treatment of addiction are L-Trytophan (and/or 5HTP), L-Tyrosine, DL- Phenylalanine, and L-Glutamine.
Vitamin B complex is of primary importance as a co- factor in the creation of all neurotransmitters. You need all of the 11 members of the B vitamin family for optimal brain health and stress reduction, so make sure to get a B-complex supplement with all of them. Learn about the other benefits of B vitamins.
The B’s are best taken with food — they can cause nausea when taken on an empty stomach — and early in the day.
L-Trytophan is the precursor (building block) for serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin helps to regulate sleeping and waking. Serotonin is one of the major inhibitory neurotransmitters in our brain, deficiencies of which can cause symptoms like nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia. Low serotonin levels are also associated with depression- our countries most popular medication is SSRIs like Zoloft and Paxil, which are Selective Serotonin Re- uptake Inhibitors, meaning they force the neurotransmitter serotonin to stay in the synapse much longer than it would ordinarily.
Serotonin levels have been shown to decline with age. After age 20, one of serotonin’s most common receptors starts to decline in the human brain. Known as 5-HT2A, it was shown in one study to vanish at about 15% per decade, which may be why depression commonly appears in middle-age. (Brain Research, November 1998). Supplementing with L-Trytophan can act preventively against age- related depression caused by low levels of serotonin.
We would prefer to boost levels naturally, however under certain conditions an SSRI may be therapeutic in recovery. We recommend a person wishing to cease an SSRI should only do so under the advice and careful watch of their physician. Supplementing with either 5HTP or Tryptophan (see resources below for comparison) can decrease side effects of withdrawal from these medications, as well as prevent symptoms from recurring. Your doctor, if he or she is up on things, will have a protocol for you to follow. Titering off the medications slowly, while gradually increasing the amino acid dosage to the maximum tolerated, using body weight as a ceiling in most cases.
DL-Phenylalanine is the precursor for the endorphin/ enkalphin neurotransmitter group. These are our brains natural pain killers and mood enhancers.
L- Tyrosine is used to manufacture catecholamines– major catecholamines are dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. We reviewed dopamine above, and epinephrine is also known as adrenaline, so that we all know is involved in the mediation of acutely stressful situations, then a return to normal. Supplementation with L- tyrosine can improve memory, mood, concentration, and energy.
L- Tyrosine provides the basis for the creation of Dopamine, which is of primary importance as THE reward chemical in the brain. Sex, chocolate, loud music, alcohol (at first) and many drugs will temporarily enhance dopamine, however the result is a long term deficiency. This is the basis of many types of addiction. Dopamine is fundamental to the function of our brain, without enough we go literally crazy. Schizophrenia is associated with an extreme dopamine imbalance.
“Pharmacological treatments support the idea that an overactive dopamine system may result in schizophrenia: Medications that block dopamine receptors, specifically D2 receptors, reduce schizophrenia symptoms.” – From The Dopamine Connection Between Schizophrenia and Creativity By ELIZABETH STANNARD GROMISCH
L-Glutamine is the precursor for GABA, a very important inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA deficiencies cause anxiety disorders, social anxiety, and sleep problems. Tranquilizers like Xanex ( a popular street drug) and Valium ( Mother’s Little Helper, from the “hysteria” diagnoses of the 50’s ) cause a spike in the levels of GABA, producing a feeling of relaxation and well being. GABA can also be taken directly as a supplement, although it probably crosses the blood brain barrier in limited amounts when taken orally.
A product I have found quite helpful is called GABA Calm, by Source Naturals– it is a lozenge that dissolves under the tongue, the quickest route to the brain. I get relief from these almost instantly. They come in mint and orange (yummy) flavors.