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Healing Your Neurotransmitters After Drug Use

Last Updated on April 18, 2024 by Carol Gillette

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by Dr Michael Loes MD

Healing Your Neurotransmitters: Restoring Balance After Drug Use
The blood-brain barrier (in an undamaged state) gives protection, providing sanctuary for the brain.7 It has been designed to prevent toxic intrusions but does allow some molecules to enter that are essential to healthy brain function. However, when the BBB becomes damaged, or “leaky,” its protective ability becomes impaired, as in the case of multiple sclerosis.

Certain drugs, such as amitriptyline have been engineered to cause the BBB to become disabled, which is how the drug successfully enters the brain.8 Drugs can have devastating effects on your neurotransmitters across the entire central nervous system, which can then greatly impact your overall quality of life. The good news is that with time, commitment, and help, balance can be restored.1-6

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The Brain

The brain is like the switchboard of the central nervous system, an amazing construction on which biological life and health depend. We still don’t know everything about these marvelous, complex system interactions. Researchers continue to examine and learn about different aspects of the human brain and nervous system, including how hormones and other molecules function. More research is needed to understand the impacts of drug or alcohol dependencies and how to repair drug damage. We may live in a high-tech world, but our pleasure-reward system is as essential to our survival as it was to our early ancestors. Pain and pleasure are powerful drivers. A prime example is how the power of addictive drugs can leave us vulnerable to continuing damage. An article in Science Daily suggests that drugs amplify the pleasure receptors, playing a major role in the mechanics behind addiction.9 Whether these effects are accidental or engineered, it has been clearly determined that drugs or alcohol disrupt the delicate structure and chemistry of the brain and CNS.

Neurotransmitters: Their Vital Roles

There are more than 100 messenger neurotransmitters, natural chemicals, in the human body.10 Described here are the functions of some of these, and the potential effects of having a deficiency or an overabundance.11,12

  • Serotonin — This well-known chemical is most intimately connected to mood and emotions. Behaviors and natural chemicals traverse a 2-way street. Doing things that make you happy releases serotonin. A release of serotonin raises mood.13 Certain drugs can cause too much serotonin to be released and build up to abnormally high levels — a life-threatening condition known as serotonin syndrome.14 Between these 2 extremes lies a more perfect balance and harmony.
  • Dopamine — Dopamine is associated with motivation and is considered the “reward” molecule. Winning a big lottery prize or landing the job you wanted will likely foster a release of dopamine. Drugs such as cocaine produce an artificial overabundance of dopamine, resulting in the feeling that “everything” is rewarding, and other addictive behaviors, as well as paranoia and mania.15,16 A deficiency in dopamine levels is associated with Parkinson’s disease, irritability, aggression, lack of motivation. Further in this article, drug-free strategies to regain dopamine balance will be discussed.
  • Gamma-amino butyric acid aka GABA — GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for calming the nervous system. GABA deficiency is linked to panic attacks, stress, and the inability to calm down, rapid or uneven heartbeat, muscle tension, difficulty breathing, sweaty palms, and even the inability to understand or explain emotions that you are feeling. An overabundance of GABA can result in excessive, unrefreshing sleep and stroke. Benzodiazepines can become addictive due to their GABA-ergic effects.17 Diet and supplements are effective ways to efficiently re-balance GABA levels.
  • Noradrenaline — also called norepinephrine, is a stimulating neurochemical that supports alertness, learning, perception, and other cognitive functions. When you watch an exciting movie, or when you perform on stage, or you become alert to some threat, a surge of noradrenaline (and its close relative, adrenaline) flows. When noradrenaline is administered by injection, it can literally bring back the dead in the case of certain drug overdoses.18,19 Too much noradrenaline can cause panic, overstimulation, and even cardiac arrest.20 A bit like having money in the bank, noradrenaline is vital to overcoming stressful situations and can be supported with a healthy diet and other factors, which will be detailed below.
  • Acetylcholine — This neurotransmitter is thought to support learning and memory. A deficiency can lead to experiencing poor memory, loss of creativity, poor word recall, and a general lack of comprehension, slow your mental responsiveness, and can lead to difficulty recognizing people and placing faces, as in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.21 Too much acetylcholine is associated with cramps, diarrhea, muscle weakness, blurry vision, seizures, coma, paralysis, and other adverse effects. These symptoms can present after exposure to sarin, a toxic nerve gas, or after exposure to pesticides or insecticides due to a cholinergic crisis.22 The burden of toxicity in the body can be removed, a strategy that will allow the balance of this important neurotransmitter to be restored.

Can Neurotransmitters Be Damaged?

Neurotransmitters play a vital role in the normal function of the brain and body. These naturally produced chemicals help to regulate moods, body movements, and coordination. They also affect appetite levels, motivation, stress levels, memory, and learning, even the ability to think clearly and make sound decisions. To put it simply, they are intricately involved in virtually every facet of your day-to-day life. Neurotransmitters impaired by drug abuse can become overstimulated, blocked, and exhausted, leaving insufficient quantities for proper function. What happens if neurotransmitters are drug-damaged? Drugs take over the regular functions of your neurotransmitters, disrupt communication, and inhibit the way your transmitters are supposed to perform. This condition is called drug dependence or addiction, where the body has adapted to the presence of toxic drugs, leaving neurochemistry in a tragic state of disarray.23

Drugs and Neurotransmitters

Your brain is naturally always changing. Introducing drugs to your system can influence these changes to be more dramatic and even life-threatening. Dopaminergic drugs such as cocaine highjack the neurons in the reward sector of your brain. This makes you feel good when you take the drug because it has now become the agent that releases more dopamine instead of the things in life that used to do that, such as hugging a friend or perhaps listening to music. The drug artificially provides an intense rush of good feelings. This change or “high” will only last a short time, but the actual change in your brain chemistry will last much longer. Your ability to handle cravings will become increasingly more difficult, and cravings will become more serious and demanding. Drugs impact the brain on many different levels, and the neurotransmitter affected may differ depending on the drug of choice.

Some examples include:
  • MDMA, more commonly known as “ecstasy” — This drug can dramatically change your neurochemistry from the first use. It most typically alters the ability of neurons to transmit serotonin, which is vital to many functions of the brain. Long-term use of ecstasy commonly results in deep depression, due to this neurochemical damage.24
  • Cocaine/amphetamines/methamphetamine — These drugs can affect the ability to feel pleasure, pain, and more. They also harbor the risk of your brain never completely healing. These drugs stimulate an overproduction of dopamine. Over time, these drugs can change nerve cell structure, causing long-term disabling effects. With proper treatment, these changes and impairments can be successfully resolved.25
  • Heroin/Prescription Opioids/Marijuana — These drugs mimic various natural brain chemicals and bind to their receptor sites instead of the body’s own chemicals. This interference disrupts the natural transmission and shuts down the normal production of neurotransmitters. Repeated or chronic abuse can lead to the brain becoming rewired as it struggles to try and maintain balance.

Healing Your Neurotransmitters

Unless the physical damage is irreversible, which is very rare, you can heal your neurotransmitters. Understanding what caused the damage helps lead to resolution. At this point you may be asking; how long does it take neurotransmitters to be restored? How long does it take to heal from trauma that may have long preceded drug use? How long does it take to restore the cells of the body to healthy levels through nutrition and toxin removal? The truth of the matter is that there are many factors that determine the rate at which your body and mind will heal. Some of the top factors include how long the drug was used, frequency and dose, quality of diet and nutritional deficiencies, toxic burden, any history of unhandled trauma, condition of the microbiota in the gut, and many other factors. How long it will take to restore a natural healthy balance is an individual measure. Motivation to heal can speed things up considerably and must be more robust than the motivation to continue to use. Proper treatment including neurotransmitter repair can help balance these issues.26

Healing Is About You

It will take time to rebuild the neural pathways and to accustom oneself to healthier choices, and may also depend on an individual’s age, genetics, mental health challenges, and general physical health.

We continue to learn more about the addictive properties of drugs every day.

Allowing adequate time for new habits to form, providing adequate education to make better life and health choices, neurotoxin removal, and following nutritional guidance to restore healthy levels needed can all work together to transform addictive biochemistry back to healthy neurochemistry.

Restoring A Healthy Balance to the Brain

Individual programming can determine the best route of restoring a healthy balance. Some drugs can be successfully stopped abruptly, and some require careful tapering or cross-tapering to lessen the shock on the CNS.

Supportive cessation therapies include:
  • Diet — We know that a proper diet can positively impact your physical health. A healthy diet also supports the overall health and balance of your brain and CNS functions. A proper diet and supplementation can provide the necessary and specific nutrient support needed to resume natural neurochemical production. Supplementation with IV treatments, amino acids, and other aids greatly support the process of safe and comfortable cessation and neurochemical rehabilitation.27
  • Exercise — Staying active is beneficial in recovery and can improve cognitive deficits that often accompany addiction, drug dependence, and in the various phases of recovery. Exercise invites rebalancing neurochemistry in a natural way.15,28
  • Meditation — As research continues, studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can lessen the risk of relapse. The ability to focus on your thoughts, and taking your rightful place again as the source for your own “happiness cues” can be highly therapeutic after the impacts and mind-numbing effects of drug use.29

Recovery Is Possible

Drug and alcohol abuse impairs the body and dismantles the delicate balance of neurotransmitter function. The good news is that with time, dedication, and the proper support, your neurotransmitters, your body, and your mind can find balance once again. While the journey may seem long, know that it is possible. At Alternative to Meds Center, we have helped thousands of clients find their personal path to sustainable, joyful recovery, and we’d love to help you along the way. Learn about our drug-free neurotransmitter rehabilitation services here or call us.


1. Sheffler ZM, Reddy V, Pillarisetty LS. Physiology, Neurotransmitters. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: [cited 2021 July 6]

2. Sulzer D. How addictive drugs disrupt presynaptic dopamine neurotransmission. Neuron. 2011 Feb 24;69(4):628-49. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.02.010. PMID: 21338876; PMCID: PMC3065181. [cited 2021 July 6]

3. Owen L, Corfe B. The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing. Proc Nutr Soc. 2017 Nov;76(4):425-426. doi: 10.1017/S0029665117001057. Epub 2017 Jul 14. PMID: 28707609.[cited 2021 July 6]

4. Marx W, Moseley G, Berk M, Jacka F. Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence. Proc Nutr Soc. 2017 Nov;76(4):427-436. doi: 10.1017/S0029665117002026. Epub 2017 Sep 25. PMID: 28942748.[cited 2021 July 6]

5. Matsuoka Y, Hamazaki K. [Considering Mental Health from the Viewpoint of Diet: The Role and Possibilities of Nutritional Psychiatry]. Seishin Shinkeigaku Zasshi. 2016;118(12):880-894. Japanese. PMID: 30620820.[cited 2021 July 6]

6. Patrick R, Ames B, “Vitamin D hormone regulates serotonin synthesis Part 1“,2014 Feb 20 [online] FASEB Journal [cited 2021 July 6]

7. Chen Y, Liu L. Modern methods for delivery of drugs across the blood-brain barrier. Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2012 May 15;64(7):640-65. doi: 10.1016/j.addr.2011.11.010. Epub 2011 Nov 28. PMID: 22154620.[cited 2021 July 6]

8. NIH authors, “Amitriptyline Improves Drug Delivery across the Blood-Brain Barrier,” ND [online] [cited 2021 July 6]

9. University of Michigan Health System. (2006, October 19). Pleasure And Pain: Study Shows Brain’s ‘Pleasure Chemical’ Is Involved In Response To Pain TooScienceDaily. Retrieved July 6, 2021 from [cited 2021 July 6]

10. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Chapter 6, Neurotransmitters. Available from: [cited 2021 July 6]

11. Sheffler ZM, Reddy V, Pillarisetty LS. Physiology, Neurotransmitters. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. [cited 2021 July 6]

12. Dfarhud D, Malmir M, Khanahmadi M. Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article. Iran J Public Health. 2014;43(11):1468-1477.[cited 2021 July 6]

13. Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugsJ Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007;32(6):394-399. [cited 2021 July 6]

14. Francescangeli J, Karamchandani K, Powell M, Bonavia A. The Serotonin Syndrome: From Molecular Mechanisms to Clinical PracticeInt J Mol Sci. 2019;20(9):2288. Published 2019 May 9. doi:10.3390/ijms20092288 [cited 2021 July 6]

15. Juárez Olguín H, Calderón Guzmán D, Hernández García E, Barragán Mejía G. The Role of Dopamine and Its Dysfunction as a Consequence of Oxidative StressOxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:9730467. doi:10.1155/2016/9730467 [cited 2021 July 6]

16. Gerner RH, Post RM, Bunney WE Jr. A dopaminergic mechanism in mania. Am J Psychiatry. 1976 Oct;133(10):1177-80. doi: 10.1176/ajp.133.10.1177. PMID: 970489. [cited 2021 July 6]

17. de Leon AS, Tadi P. Biochemistry, Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: [cited 2021 July 6]

18. Prokopová I. Noradrenalin a chování [Noradrenaline and behavior]. Cesk Fysiol. 2010;59(2):51-8. Czech. PMID: 21254660. [cited 2021 July 6]

19. Chen MH, Xie L, Liu TW, Song FQ, He T. Naloxone and epinephrine are equally effective for cardiopulmonary resuscitation in a rat asphyxia model. Acta Anaesthesiol Scand. 2006 Oct;50(9):1125-30. doi: 10.1111/j.1399-6576.2006.01141.x. PMID: 16987343. [cited 2021 July 6]

20. Hansel J, Ármannsson GS. Cardiac arrest due to accidental overdose with norepinephrine dissolved in crystalloid. BMJ Case Rep. 2020 Dec 9;13(12):e237643. doi: 10.1136/bcr-2020-237643. PMID: 33298492; PMCID: PMC7733087. [cited 2021 July 6]

21. Hasselmo ME. The role of acetylcholine in learning and memory. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2006 Dec;16(6):710-5. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2006.09.002. Epub 2006 Sep 29. PMID: 17011181; PMCID: PMC2659740. [cited 2021 July 6]

22. Adeyinka A, Kondamudi NP. Cholinergic Crisis. [Updated 2021 Feb 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: [cited 2021 July 6]

23. Licata SC, Renshaw PF. Neurochemistry of drug action: insights from proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging and their relevance to addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010;1187:148-171. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05143.x [cited 2021 July 6]

24. Guillot C, Greenway D. Recreational ecstasy use and depression. J Psychopharmacol. 2006 May;20(3):411-6. doi: 10.1177/0269881106063265. PMID: 16574715. [cited 2021 July 6]

25. Nestler EJ. The neurobiology of cocaine addictionSci Pract Perspect. 2005;3(1):4-10. doi:10.1151/spp05314 [cited 2021 July 6]

26. Köpetz CE, Lejuez CW, Wiers RW, Kruglanski AW. Motivation and Self-Regulation in Addiction: A Call for ConvergencePerspect Psychol Sci. 2013;8(1):3-24. doi:10.1177/1745691612457575 [cited 2021 July 6]

27. Grant LP, Haughton B, Sachan DS. Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004 Apr;104(4):604-10. doi: 10. [cited 2021 July 6]

28. Grant LP, Haughton B, Sachan DS. Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004 Apr;104(4):604-10. doi: 10. [cited 2021 July 6]

29. Priddy SE, Howard MO, Hanley AW, Riquino MR, Friberg-Felsted K, Garland EL. Mindfulness meditation in the treatment of substance use disorders and preventing future relapse: neurocognitive mechanisms and clinical implications. Subst Abuse Rehabil. 2018;9:103-114. Published 2018 Nov 16. doi:10.2147/SAR.S145201 [cited 2021 July 6]

Originally Published August 20, 2021 by Lyle Murphy

This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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