How addictive a drug is depends on how it’s measured. The harm it causes, the way it affects dopamine, and the intensity of withdrawal symptoms can all be measurements of a drug’s addictiveness.
Some people are more vulnerable to addiction from certain substances based on their environment, genetics, and how they use the drug.
Generally, a substance is deemed “highly addictive” because most people become quickly addicted and it’s difficult to quit taking it.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, a study conducted by several researchers found that the top 5 addictive substances are:
Let’s explore why these substances are so addictive.
Heroin is an opioid drug that reduces pain. It works by slowing down the central nervous system and increasing dopamine levels in the brain (up to 200 percent in animal studies). As a result, it can make you feel relaxed and euphoric at the same time.
The more you abuse heroin, the more your brain relies on it to increase dopamine levels and promote relaxation. You eventually won’t feel the same thrill from healthy pleasurable activities, which will cause you to crave heroin.
Heroin addiction is often accompanied by a physical dependence, which means you’ll likely experience intense withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop using it. The withdrawal process can be dangerous and causes many people to turn back to drug use for relief.
Cocaine is a stimulant drug that blocks dopamine receptors and can increase dopamine levels up to three times the normal amount. This produces a pleasant feeling of euphoria along with a burst of energy. About 21 percent of people who try cocaine become addicted.
Crack cocaine is thought to be more addictive than powdered cocaine because it’s more potent. But both forms are dangerous, and their addictiveness can depend on how they are consumed.
Snorting powdered cocaine takes it directly into the bloodstream, causing an intense but fleeting effect. Smoking crack fills up the lungs for a strong but also short-lived high.
Because the effects wear off quickly, many people take repeated doses, which can increase the risk of addiction.
If you use cocaine regularly, you develop a tolerance, which means you have to increase how much or how often you consume cocaine to get the same effect. This makes it harder to quit.
Nicotine is the addictive substance in cigarettes. It also affects dopamine levels, which quickly rise as smoke is absorbed into the lungs and bloodstream. Animal studies have found that dopamine increases by 25 to 40 percent with nicotine.
“More than two-thirds of Americans who tried smoking reported becoming dependent during their life,” according to CNN Health. This equates to about 45 million people.
The fact that cigarettes are widely available may also contribute to the ranking of nicotine as one of the most addictive substances.
Barbiturates are sedative drugs used to treat anxiety, seizures, and insomnia. As central nervous system depressants, they help you relax and reduce stress in the body and mind.
These drugs are highly addictive because they can produce euphoria at a low dose and cause the body to quickly develop a tolerance. The overdose risk is high, as you need to keep increasing dosage for barbiturates to remain effective.
Because of their potential for abuse, barbiturates are rarely prescribed these days and are no longer widely available. This has reduced their addiction potential but unfortunately has caused some people to abuse less-potent benzodiazepines for a similar effect.
Alcohol may not seem like an addictive substance because it is socially acceptable and easy to get. Many people drink alcohol without becoming addicted to it or even abusing it.
However, alcohol affects the brain in the same way as addictive drugs—by activating the brain’s reward system. It increases the function of GABA, an amino acid that helps the brain stay calm.
About 22 percent of people who drink become addicted to this stress-relieving sensation and come to depend on alcohol both physically and mentally.
People with a severe alcohol addiction need to drink to get through the day, and their bodies may shut down if they try to stop.
Around 14.8 million Americans suffer from some form of alcohol use disorder. This includes people who binge drink (raise their blood alcohol level above the legal limit) or drink heavily (binge drink on five or more days a month), as well as those who are severely addicted.
Find Treatment For Addiction
Addiction alters your brain chemistry. The craving for drugs becomes stronger than the desire to avoid negative consequences to your life and health. Even if you want to, it can be nearly impossible to stop using them on your own.
You may need the support of formal treatment to overcome addiction. Treatment prepares you to resist relapse through behavioral therapy and a motivation to change your lifestyle.
To learn more about comprehensive addiction treatment at ARK Behavioral Health, reach out to one of our specialists today.