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  • Drugs and alcohol can cause or exacerbate mental health issues and conditions like anxiety, but there are also often many other factors involved.
  • That being said, substance use does play a major role in our mental health and the development of mental illnesses—and it’s all because of how drugs and alcohol interact with other chemicals in our body.
  • A big part of addiction is the release of feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine; people continue using to experience the influx of these positive emotions.
  • But while this immediate effect is a positive experience, the come down from drugs and alcohol is a rough one as we crash once the amount of chemicals drops.
  • Furthermore, drugs and alcohol weaken the mind and body, leaving us more susceptible to health issues all across the board.

While many know that drugs and alcohol play a significant role in mental health, it isn’t as clear what that role is: can drug and alcohol use cause mental illness? Or does persistent drug/alcohol use merely signify a mental illness. As it turns out, the answer isn’t so black and white. Stephanie Taylor, a licensed chemical dependency counselor, gives the basic rundown:

“There are many factors that cause mental illness: genetics, environment, biological and psychological. There is not a 1-to-1 correlation. Mental illness and addiction is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Some drug use can cause mental illness-like symptoms, but once the substance is out of their system the symptoms go away. At the same time, some drug use can trigger mental illness to show itself. Some diagnoses occur later in life and may show after a person has used drugs. There are people who do use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for their mental illness, but not everyone who has a mental illness abused drugs and alcohol. Mental health can’t be simplified to just cause and effect and drugs and alcohol can’t be completely vilified.”

Another question remains: how do drugs and alcohol have such a profound effect on our mental health? Mark Canadic, a certified holistic health coach, says it all comes down to how these substances react with the chemicals already in our body. He takes the wheel and delves deeper below:

“Drugs and alcohol can both cause and feed mental illness because of its interaction with the bodies’ microbiome and chemical pathways. Drugs and alcohol can create a dependency chemically because they artificially heighten our serotonin and dopamine levels causing us to feel great but what ends up happening is that our body sees this flooding of chemicals and starts to upregulate its receptors.

Then, when we are not under the influence, the amount of chemicals drops down but the receptors are still high causing a lack of activation of receptors and release of the good feelings. This cycle ends up giving us a roller coaster ride of emotions along with alcohol’s well known spikes and drops of blood sugar which will cause our stress hormone cortisol to spike and crash leaving us stuck in fight or flight mode and our body diverting its sex hormones for stress hormones.

On the microbiome level, drugs and alcohol will actually change the bacteria we have in our bodies because they naturally help us with the break down and detoxification of these substances. Not only can drugs and alcohol weaken us and leave us open to parasitic infection which can then further start to demand being fed by the simple sources of sugar that are in alcohol… but they also leave our hormones open to attack as is well known with alcohol’s interaction with testosterone. This leaves our moods much more fragile to upsets.

It also goes the other way. Mental illness often comes along with self-esteem issues and a desire to numb pain and avoid reality. Drugs and alcohol, if previously experienced as
providing a shortcut to these, can end up becoming crutches that feed the mental illness and create more imbalance.”

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is a staff writer at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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