Abuse or addiction to drugs or alcohol affects millions of lives in the U.S. alone. It is a chronic, escalating, and relapsing condition hallmarked by drug-seeking behavior and use, despite adverse consequences that tend to accompany it. The most addictive drugs are often illicit, but not always. Some are legal for persons over a certain age to purchase, such as alcohol and products containing nicotine. Others can be obtained with a legitimate prescription and can be habit-forming, especially if taken long-term.
But what precisely makes an individual become addicted to a drug? Is it a lack of morals? Is it mental health issues or past trauma? Several factors can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. Sometimes, it’s as much about the person’s genetics and life experiences as it is about the substance of choice itself.
That said, let’s analyze the most addictive drugs in the world—substances that hijack the brain’s pleasure and reward center to invoke false promises of happiness and satisfaction. They are listed in no particular order below.
Alcohol is both a legal and culturally-important CNS depressant that produces relaxation, relieves anxiety, and reduces social inhibitions. When alcohol is ingested, endorphin levels are elevated, and dopamine accumulates in brain regions responsible for feelings of well-being.
As tolerance increases, alcohol users require ever-increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the same feelings of pleasure. The quest to maintain the sought-after effects of alcohol can lead to chemical dependence, and the physical and psychoemotional withdrawal symptoms of alcohol can be very dangerous.
Amphetamines are central nervous system stimulants typically available by prescription that can provide users with a burst of energy and euphoria. These substances instigate the release of “feel good” brain chemicals, especially dopamine. The effects are potent and induce pleasurable sensations in the brain’s reward center and are, therefore, responsible for the addictive properties of amphetamines.
Amphetamine withdrawal can result in “crashes.” When this occurs, the person becomes tired, depressed, anxious, or irritable and wants to continue using in a binge-like fashion to preserve the high and avoid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Amphetamines, such as Adderall and Vyvanse, are popular among college students and seek to stay awake and active for long periods.
Benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium and Xanax), also referred to as “benzos,” are commonly prescribed to treat symptoms related to anxiety, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, and other disorders. Although they work effectively for their indicated uses, these medications can be extremely addictive and very challenging to outcome regarding their use.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that benzodiazepines have a relatively short half-life, which causes many users to develop a tolerance rapidly in just a few weeks. Benzo withdrawal is often an elaborate process that requires a careful tapering schedule on a long-term basis to avoid dangerous symptoms.
4. Cocaine and Crack
Cocaine is a stimulant that rapidly inundates the brain with dopamine. Because its effects are very short-lived, cocaine can be extremely addictive. Cocaine actively impairs the brain’s ability to produce its own dopamine or close down the dopamine receptors, making unwanted withdrawal symptoms possible after just one use, which can readily motivate addictive behaviors.
Crack is a rudimentary type of cocaine produced using baking soda and its powdered form. Crack is typically smoked using a crystal-like rock, prompting a faster and more intense high than powder cocaine, which is commonly snorted.
The high from crack is remarkably brief, typically lasting only about 15 minutes, and can cause severe cravings. Crack withdrawals can result in depression, agitation, and insomnia, thereby motivating repeated drug use to relieve the symptoms.
5. Crystal Meth
Crystal meth, similar to cocaine, floods the brain with dopamine and mimics norepinephrine (adrenaline). This rapidly leads to neurons being altered and requiring more to function correctly.
Crystal meth withdrawal can be grueling and last for several days, with the sufferer on the verge of mental and physical breakdown. Addicts often experience memory loss, psychosis, hallucinations, and extreme depression, all of which can drastically increase the risk of suicide as a tragic means of escape.
GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) is a potent CNS depressant. There is minimal legitimate medical use for GHB, although it does initially induce feelings of relaxation and euphoria. However, high doses of GHB can induce sleep, coma, or death.
Repeated use can result in GHB addiction and, ultimately, withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, tremors, and sweating. GHB is also notorious for its use as a party or date rape drug used to incapacitate potential victims.
Heroin is well-known for being one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Copious amounts of research indicate that a single dose of heroin may be so intense that it may be challenging to avoid repeated use and addiction. Indeed, it is estimated that at least one-quarter of individuals who try heroin will become addicted.
Heroin induces feelings of extreme euphoria and numbs the brain and body. The heroin-induced oversaturation of nerve cells with dopamine causes them to become dysfunctional and exhausted. Because a heroin abuser can no longer feel normal without the drug, the chemical’s absence drives repeated abuse.
The addictiveness of heroin can also vary depending on its method of administration. For example, studies suggest that those who inject heroin intravenously have much higher physical dependence rates than those who smoke it.
MDMA, also commonly referred to as ecstasy or Molly, is a human-made hallucinogen that affects three neurochemical systems in the brain—serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline. While MDMA dependency has not been the subject of many studies, the available research has shown that the drug may indeed be addictive by nature.
Testing on lab rats has revealed that MDMA damages neurons that contain serotonin, and the damage can be long-lasting. People who regularly use MDMA experience rapidly increasing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation, including fatigue, depression, loss of appetite, and impaired concentration.
Studies have shown that tobacco use is the #1 preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the U.S. Unbelievably, an estimated 16 million are suffering from a significant illness caused by smoking. Nicotine, the active and addictive element of cigarette smoke, profoundly impacts the brain. Activation of receptors by nicotine can have adverse consequences for brain activity and contribute to its addictive potential.
Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, or nAChR, also known as ionotropic acetylcholine receptors, are exceptionally responsive to nicotine. For many long-term smokers, significant brain changes caused by repeated nicotine exposure lead to an addiction.
Oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin) or is a powerful synthetic opioid. Similar in some effects to heroin, OxyContin produces a euphoric high that is caused by activation of the brain’s reward center. Oxycodone use, like many other intoxicating substances, increases dopamine levels.
People who abuse OxyContin have sometimes learned that tampering with tablets allow them to snort, inject, smoke the drug, inducing an intense high not unlike heroin. Furthermore, crushing the drug for IV administration eliminates the tablets’ time-release properties, significantly increasing addiction risk.
In fact, recent studies have found that oxycodone may act as a gateway drug for heroin, which addicts may prefer as a less-expensive alternative to the prescription medication when they can no longer afford or otherwise obtain their drug of choice.
Treatment for Drug Addiction
Regardless of which substance an individual abuses, treatment is available, and recovery is very possible. Following detox, a process that helps the patient rid their body of drugs or alcohol, persons are urged to enroll in long-term rehab treatment in residential or partial hospitalization format.
Comprehensive, evidence-based treatment, such as that provided by Just Believe Recovery Center, has been shown to increase positive outcomes. All of our programs are customized to the individual and include clinically proven services, such as behavioral therapy, counseling, group support, aftercare planning services, and more.