Eli5: Why do people get withdrawal symptoms after not using drugs?



Eli5: Why do people get withdrawal symptoms after not using drugs?

In: Chemistry

Generally it’s because their body has adapted and gotten used to having the drug in their system. Remove the drug from the equation and their body is still trying to compensate for having the drug. Withdrawal is what occurs when their body has yet to readapt to not having the drug anymore.

The brain adapts to the presence of the chemicals that give the body the intoxicated feeling. It’s easiest to describe with heroine. Heroine binds with dopamine receptors in the brain, dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. Now in order for it to be intoxicating, heroin floods the brain and activates nearly every dopamine receptor. The brain is like “whoa that’s not normal” so it begins to prune the extra dopamine receptors to balance it out. So your body begins to feel more normal with more dopamine. Suddenly when you stop, your body isn’t sensitive enough for an average human amount of dopamine so the brain starts telling your body something must be wrong, you have too little dopamine. That is how withdrawal happens, and it’s a fate worse than death in the most acute cases. Making quiting even harder.

It’s not just illegal drugs. Prednisone is a steroid hormone commonly prescribed for various conditions. If you take it for too long, the body will stop producing its own steroids that are necessary for normal function. At this point suddenly stopping prednisone can have some very dangerous effects, which is why you have to be weaned off of it. The longer you’ve been on it, the longer the weaning time necessary to let the body get back in balance with its steroids.

If you consume the drug daily and for a while, the brain starts making these chemical changes to counter the effects it has on when taking the drug. So when you suddenly stop taking it, it throws the brain chemistry off balance and that’s what causes the withdrawals.