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The Top 10 Most Addictive Drugs: An Introduction

Posted on April 25, 2013 in Research & News

The Top 10 Most Addictive Drugs: An IntroductionAnyone who has become addicted to a chemical intoxicant will be facing one of the most daunting challenges of her life if and when she finally decides to make a concerted effort to overcome her dependency. Drugs and alcohol encase their victims in a physical, emotional, and psychological prison, and while escape is possible, the path to freedom is steep, rocky and filled with treacherous detours.

But even though recovery from any type of chemical dependency can be difficult, with some drugs making the long successful return to sobriety will require the prospective pilgrim seeking deliverance from addiction to undertake the most harrowing and horrific journey imaginable. Because of their inherent chemical characteristics, these drugs can cause radical neurological changes, and, as a result, the level of dependence they create in their users can be exceptionally strong. So while any type of addiction will require hard work to overcome, anyone who is unfortunate enough to become dependent upon one of the world’s 10 most addictive drugs will have to invest every ounce of determination, energy and willpower she possesses if she expects to have any chance at achieving a sustainable recovery.

The rankings here are based on the work of a team of scientists and addiction specialists in Amsterdam who graded a long list of drugs for their addictive qualities based on a range of objective criteria related to their chemical profiles and potential physiological effects. Some may disagree with this list and feel that other substances should be included, or that the order should be changed, but until someone comes up with another set of standards more precise than those used by the Dutch team, this top ten list seems to rest on fairly solid ground.

And now, the top ten most addictive drugs, presented in reverse order of perniciousness:

10. GHB:  Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is a club drug that depresses the central nervous system, causing a pleasant relaxed feeling that users come to crave over time. Part of the problem with GHB is that the body’s tolerance for it is affected by alcohol consumption—the more a person drinks, the more GHB she will need to take to get an intoxicating effect, and it is this devilish connection between these two substances that tends to send GHB users tumbling over the cliff into addiction. Once the brain comes to depend on the presence of large amounts of GHB, it will react very poorly to its absence, causing users who attempt to break their GHB habits to suffer through some terrible withdrawal symptoms, including insomnia, anxiety, dizziness and vomiting.

9. Benzodiazepines:  Benzodiazepines, such as the anti-anxiety prescription drugs Valium and Xanax, function by magnifying the effects of a natural chemical called GABA, which works to combat anxiety by reducing the excitability of neurons in the brain. But when tolerance to the presence of benzodiazepines builds up, any attempt to stop taking them will cause the fledgling addict to experience exaggerated versions of the conditions they were originally prescribed to counteract, i.e., severe anxiety and panic attacks (in some instances, benzodiazepine withdrawal can cause seizures or lead to death). For addicts, just the fear of these awful symptoms can be enough to keep them enslaved to their benzodiazepine of choice for years.

 8. Amphetamines:  Drugs like Adderall and Dexedrine mimic the effects of naturally produced pleasure-causing chemicals like dopamine, gradually creating a dependence that can be quite difficult to overcome. Withdrawal symptoms can include depression, anxiety, and extreme fatigue, and these low energy states are often so overwhelming that the addict feels powerless to accomplish anything without the assistance of amphetamines.

7. Cocaine: Back in the 1970s, many people were convinced that cocaine was not addictive and could be consumed in significant quantities without serious consequence. But in fact, the presence of cocaine in the brain causes confusion in neural receptors and inhibits the natural production of dopamine, which the brain needs in order to thrive. Once dopamine production has been reduced below a certain level, the brain will come to crave cocaine as its replacement, and a brand new cocaine addict will have been created as a result.

6. Alcohol: Alcohol may be legal, but no one should be fooled into thinking the alcoholic is facing an easier path to sobriety than the drug addict. The affects of alcohol on the human nervous system are profound, and this will inevitably lead to addiction in a high percentage of those who choose to drink heavily on a regular basis. The cravings associated with alcohol dependency are intense, and in some cases even dangerous, as those going through alcohol detoxification have been known to suffer from seizures, lapse into comas, or even die.

5. Crystal meth, or methamphetamines: Produced from industrial and household chemicals, crystal meth is a hyped-up strain of amphetamine that mimics the effects of dopamine and another important neuro-chemical called norepinephrine. Through a positive but ultimately destructive feedback loop, the continued consumption of methamphetamine will cause neurons to release more of these two substances until the brain becomes saturated with—and addicted to—these pleasure-causing chemicals. But all of this extra stimulation will eventually destroy a significant number of neurons, and when they die the brain will need more and more crystal meth to make up for the sudden deficit of naturally produced dopamines and norepinephrines. And this of course causes the addiction to methamphetamine to deepen and intensify, as the habitual crystal meth user can no longer function without copious amounts of her favorite home-brewed neurotoxin.

4. Methadone: The good news about methadone is that it can be taken—under medical supervision—as a substitute for heroin, and once the body adjusts to its presence it will lose its capacity to cause euphoria. The bad news about methadone is that it is in itself a highly addictive substance that can cause horrific withdrawal symptoms, and this is why methadone maintenance is considered a dubious form of treatment for heroin addiction by many counselors who work with substance abusers. But whether or not one approves of substituting methadone for heroin as a form of drug treatment, there is no disputing that methadone is a supremely addictive substance; and in the final analysis, being addicted to any drug is never a good thing.

3. Nicotine: Through its ability to mimic the actions of ordinary neurotransmitters, nicotine interferes with the operation of certain receptors in the brain, thereby inhibiting the production of vitally needed neurochemicals. If nicotine consumption is continued over time, the brain will become dependent on it to replace what it no longer can produce on its own, and this substitution is the basis for the intense type of addiction that nicotine is capable of causing. To understand just how addictive nicotine really is, it is only necessary to contemplate one shocking statistic—despite the fact that people have been warned over and over again for decades about the extreme dangers of smoking, there are still hundreds of millions of active smokers all across the planet, and one out of every five deaths that occurs worldwide each year is connected to smoking.

2. Crack cocaine: The scourge of the 1980s, crack cocaine is unfortunately still around, creating instant addicts and ruining lives. As is the case with powder cocaine, the brain’s cycle of dopamine production is thrown out of whack by the ingestion of this form of the drug, but because the cocaine is smoked rather than snorted, it is absorbed in the bloodstream more quickly and causes a much greater rush. Crack is cocaine in its purest and most demonic form, and the severity of the addiction it causes has already become the stuff of legend.

1. Heroin: Even after all of these years, this infamous opiate is still the king of the addiction mountain, so destructive to minds and bodies and lives that some medical specialists actually choose to treat heroin addicts by encouraging them to become dependent on another drug that can take its place (the #4 substance on our list). Opiates like heroin are able to connect with a number of receptors throughout the body, recreating the effects of soothing endorphins and ultimately causing an extreme form of dependency that is associated with intense withdrawal symptoms. It is said that heroin addicts would kill or steal or sell their own children if that was what it took to get their next fix. About 25 percent of all people who try heroin end up addicted to it, which illustrates just how much immense evil power is locked up inside this chemical substance.

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