What does it mean chemically to be “high”?


What does it mean chemically to be “high”?

In: Biology

“High” can mean many different things. In terms of the chemical interactions happening in the brain, “high” is different for opiods (morphine, heroin, oxycontin, etc.), amphetamines (methamphetamine, various substituted amphetamines like pharmaceuticals, etc.), cannabinoids (THC is our star here), dissociatives (ketamine, DPH, dextromethorphan, etc.). For most drugs that have significant effects on the way you experience the world, the specific way in which those effects occur will be at least a bit different depending on the drug.

At the ELI5 core of it, though, is that drugs change the way your body either produces, uses, or disposes of various chemicals. Some drugs take the place of normal chemicals (alcohol, for example, substitutes for a relaxant/depressive chemical called GABA that your brain makes). Some drugs prevent your body from getting rid of chemicals it makes, increasing the effects of that natural production simply because more accumulates than under normal circumstances (SSRI antidepressants do this for serotonin).

Depending on the drug, the underlying body chemical and the way your body uses it will vary. “High” tends to mean that, when this happens, the change the drug creates has a significant impact on how you experience the world. High doses of alchohol tend to be very feel-good, relaxing, and eventually can impair thinking and movement (or, in extreme cases, impair automatic processes like breathing). Amphetamines tend to make everything very pleasurable, keep you awake, add motivation because of those properties. Opiods change your body’s operation in a way that feels very comfortable, relieves pain, makes things sublimely “okay.”

Ultimately, though, it’s just a matter of something you take altering how you normally work such that you *notice a difference*. That’s all “high” is, in varying forms and degrees.