Cocaine is a stimulant derived from coca leaves. First discovered and used as a medicinal tool after the creation of coca wine in the 19th century, cocaine today is an illicit drug capable of creating a powerful sense of joy and euphoria, followed by an extreme crash. It is highly addictive, and has an extensive list of side effects from cocaine withdrawal including paranoia, anxiety, irritability and insomnia.
Among the most common illicit drugs, cocaine can be counted as one of the most addictive. Breaking a cocaine addiction is not easy, in particular because of its nasty set of cocaine withdrawal symptoms. Secondly, because of its effects on the brain and the euphoric feeling it produces, cocaine carries with it very powerful and moderately long-lasting cravings.
The hours after a crash are particularly hard, as the cocaine craving is strongest. Research shows that even a single hit can alter the brain’s reward system for months – although there is no evidence that any drug can cause an addiction instantaneously, cocaine is one of the few substances that opens a person’s brain up to being susceptible to an addiction. To understand why cocaine withdrawal occurs and why its symptoms can be so severe, it’s important to understand how cocaine hijacks the brain and creates a physical dependence on the drug.
How Cocaine Creates An Addiction
There is reward system within the brain, called the mesolimbic dopamine system. In a few words, this system reinforces certain behavior necessary for survival by introducing a neurotransmitter into the system called dopamine. The release of dopamine to the brain’s cells induces feelings of joy and euphoria. Dopamine spreads by being released from one neuron to another through its dopamine receptors.
Food, sex, exercise and laughter all help us release dopamine. These are all generally pleasurable aspects of life, and they’re necessary for procreation, physical health and mental stability. So, all in all, the reward system reinforces good things.
Cocaine, however, manipulates this system. Cocaine is an alkaloid compound found within the coca plant, which has been used as a stimulant in South America for thousands of years. It binds to the transporter, a part of the neuron responsible for removing dopamine from the cell. Dopamine accumulates, creating a far more powerful emotional signal throughout the brain. In a way, cocaine functions like an extremely powerful antidepressant. However, unlike most antidepressants, its intensity also opens the door to physical dependence and cocaine withdrawal.
Continuous use of cocaine creates a cocaine dependence, wherein the brain becomes unable to normally process dopamine and facilitate feelings of joy without a dose of cocaine. Unlike an ordinary craving, like wanting to get some ice cream or grab a cup of hot chocolate to cheer yourself up, a physical dependence on a highly addictive substance like cocaine can quite drastically alter the way the brain perceives things and reacts to certain stimuli. The same dopaminergic pathways that facilitated the reward system and are central to the human concepts of learning, motivation and self-control, instead become hijacked by a single substance around which our mind revolves. Cocaine withdrawal creates a craving feeling akin to severe hunger or thirst. The danger of cocaine use truly grows exponentially when tolerance begins to set in.
Tolerance And Cocaine Withdrawal
Tolerance can be defined as an increasing resistance to the effects of a drug after continued use. Tolerance and dependence are separate from each other – one can develop a tolerance faster than a dependence can develop, and vice versa. The underlying cause for an increased resistance to the effects of a drug is related to the way the body metabolizes the drug.
Continuous use of a substance causes the cells to more efficiently work the drug through the system, effectively diminishing the amount of time it stays in the body. This encourages people to ramp up their consumption, which becomes inevitable when tolerance is coupled with dependence.
The logic that follows is that as you increase the dosage, you increase the risk of an overdose. Cocaine overdose is typically linked to heart failure, stroke, and other causes of death related to an abuse of stimulants. The longer someone uses cocaine, and the higher their tolerance (and subsequent dosage), the greater the long-term effects of the drug. As follows, this may also affect a person’s cocaine withdrawal period.
When the body’s cells begin to establish an affinity to a drug, as in tolerance, then symptoms of cocaine withdrawal begin to manifest. Withdrawal is any set of symptoms that occur when you cut off or slow down your drug use. With cocaine, the symptoms can get quite brutal. Cocaine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Restless behavior
- Increased appetite
- Physical discomfort (itching)
- Depressive thinking
Heroin and alcohol withdrawal is typically stronger, exhibiting brutal physical symptoms such as severe bowel movements, nausea/vomiting, fever and flu-like symptoms. Cocaine withdrawal is still very unpleasant. The cravings can last for months, while most other symptoms disappear within a week.
Getting Off Cocaine
Cocaine addiction is treated like many other cases of substance use disorder – through recovery treatment. While residential treatment is common, there are many ways to tackle post-rehab recovery such as a Houston IOP treatment program for people who need help to get back into life while sober – without relapsing.