What is a Drug?

What is a Drug

What Is A Drug?Simply put a drug is a substance that has a physiological effect when taken into the body through a variety of routes.Everyone is born with vulnerabilities. For some it’s addiction, and for others it may be diabetes or heart disease. Studies have shown that genetics explain approximately 40-60% in drug addiction.

Drugs and Your Brain

There are several different types of drugs, but first let’s examine how drugs affect the brain. The brain communicates through electrical messages, called neurotransmitters, and each brain cell can have 7,000 interactions with other brain cells. Neurotransmitters in the brain are responsible for producing chemicals. Drugs and alcohol mimic brain chemicals such as “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Sometimes people already have the “feel good” chemicals in their brain and they want to feel even better, but there is considerable evidence that people with substance use disorders have disturbances in serotonergic functioning as well as deficiencies in dopamine (Hersen, Turner, & Beidel, 2007).

Routes of Administration

There are four main ways people take drugs: oral, snorting, inhaling, and intravenous (IV). Regardless of the route the substance ends up in blood and is delivered to the brain.

  • Oral – When pills or alcohol is taken orally the substance is absorbed into the blood through the stomach and intestine. Sometimes addicts chew or crush pills so they are absorb more quickly.
  • Snorting (insufflation) – When drugs are crushed and snorted the substance is absorbed through blood vessels in the nasal passage.
  • Inhaling – Drugs are smoked or heated and the vapor is inhaled, or chemical vapors are inhaled or “huffed” When a substance is inhaled it goes through the lungs and is absorbed directly into our circulatory system. This type of high is quick and intense, but does not last as long.
  • Injecting – “Slamming” or Intravenous IV – Because the drug is injected directly into the vein using a needle, this produces a more intense high because it hits them all at once. No matter what the method of getting the drug into the body, the central nervous system is mostly affected by drugs.

The Seven Types of Drugs

Drugs can be split into 7 different classes, and each class creates different experiences for the user. The first class of drug is called

1. Central Nervous System Depressants. These drugs slow down the What is a Drugoperations of the brain and the body. Examples include alcohol, barbiturates, and GHB (Gamma Hydroxybutyrate). This class also includes benzodiazepines, or anti-anxiety pills, such as Valium, Xanax, and Thorazine.

Alcohol and benzos slow down, or “depresses”, the central nervous system. Over time the liver becomes more efficient at detoxing alcohol and benzos, so it has less of an effect on the person; which means that the person’s body has built up an increased tolerance. Tolerance is when someone has to drink or use increasingly more alcohol or drugs to feel an effect. Unfortunately, even with an increased tolerance the lethal dose of drugs or alcohol doesn’t go down; it can kill you just the same with or without a tolerance to it.

Alcohol and benzos withdrawal appears around 72 hours after the last use and is evidenced by increased anxiety, irritability, insomnia, loss of appetite, and hyper arousal because the central nervous system is no longer depressed, or slowed down. Alcohol also affects brain functioning, and adolescent drinkers have been shown to have different brain activation patterns during spatial working memory tests compared to adolescents who do not drink alcohol, and one study showed that non-abusing teens demonstrated a decrease in verbal memory with the onset of drinking (Hanson, 2011). Alcohol and benzos are the two things that are the most dangerous to stop using and are the only two drugs that can kill you if you stop taking them cold turkey.

2. Narcotic Analgesics (Opiates), more commonly called opiates because they work by Opiate Addiction Plantbinding to opioid receptors in the brain. A Narcotic Analgesic relieves pain, induces euphoria and creates mood changes in the user. Examples include Heroin, Morphine, Lortab, Hydrocodone, Vicodin, OxyContin, Opium, Codeine, and Demerol.

Opiates are the most powerful pain killers and create feelings of happiness as well as drowsiness. They can also cause nausea, force the respiratory system to slow down, coma, and even death. Withdrawal symptoms include feeling dysphoria, sweating, aches, pains, a decrease in pain tolerance, and a runny nose. It can resemble the worst flu ever and the onset is between 12-24 hours from last use, and typically lasts 5-7 days.

Although illegal drugs get most of the attention in the media, overdose deaths from prescription drugs surpassed any other illegal drugs including cocaine and heroin in the last 10 years in America. Pain killers caused 15,000 deaths in 2008 compared to 4,000 in 1999.


3. Central Nervous System Stimulants. These accelerate the heart rate and elevate the Stimulantsblood pressure and “speed-up” or over-stimulate the body. Examples include Cocaine, Crack, Amphetamines, Methamphetamine, diet/weight loss pills, Nicotine and Ritalin. These drugs create an intense arousal of the central nervous system and they are highly addictive. People using stimulants experience euphoria, excitement, increased heart rate, an elevation in mood, they feel like they are king of the world and it takes away all fatigue. Crack is the most addictive form of cocaine because it is a very fast high, but is short lived and lasts only 5-10 minutes. Withdrawal symptoms include intense fatigue and prolonged sleep because when they are taking the drug they don’t sleep, and have increased appetite.




4. Hallucinogens are the fourth class of drug and they cause the user to perceive things differently than they actually are.Hallucinogens Examples include LSD, Peyote, Psilocybin (mushrooms) and MDMA (Ecstasy). Hallucinogens give a feeling of opening up, feeling affection, connectedness with people around them, an elevated mood, high self-esteem, experience intense colors, and is often called the “love drug.” Higher doses can produce anxiety, panic, and depression.

This drug depletes the brain of serotonin, which is a chemical that helps to regulate our mood and body temperature, social behaviors, memory and learning, sleep, and appetite. With prolonged use this classification of drug can cause brain damage and one study found that seven years after stopping hallucinogens clients still showed symptoms of brain damage. It can also cause heart attacks and strokes. This drug is rapidly absorbed and the effects start approximately 30 minutes after taking it and peak 1-5 hours after taking it and it takes another 1-5 hours to come down off of it.




5. Dissociative Anestheticsdissociative anesthetics are the fifth class of drug and these drugs inhibit pain by cutting off the brain’s perception of the pain. PCP, ketamine, and DXM (Dextromethorphan) are examples of Dissociative Anesthetics. PCP can be snorted, smoked, injected, or swallowed in pill form. DXM is a cough suppressant and found in over-the-counter cough and cold medications; which makes it more accessible.



6. InhalantsInhalents which include a wide variety of breathable substances that produce mind-altering results and effects. Examples of inhalants include plastic cement, paint, gasoline, paint thinners, markers, canned air “dust off”, hair sprays and various anesthetic gases.






7. Cannabis which is the scientific name for marijuana. The active ingredient in cannabis is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, Cannibisor THC. There are different ways to use marijuana and THC; people can eat it, drink it, or smoke it. It creates feelings of relaxation, euphoria, increase in appetite, loss of coordination, and the five senses appear more vivid; including memories, touch, tastes, sounds and sight. Marijuana is stored in the fat cells, so 2-3 weeks after stopping use one may still show signs of mild marijuana side-effects because the fat cells can slowly release THC that it has stored. Consequences from using marijuana may include a decrease in executive functioning and dysfunction in the frontal part of your brain; this means they have poorer task performance and slower reaction times.


Changes in neuropsychological functioning over 10 years following adolescent substance abuse treatment. Hanson, K., Cummins, K., Tapert, S., Brown, S. Psychology of addictive behaviors (2011) vol 25(1), p. 127-142