While it is commonly known that alcohol and drugs don’t mix, this is especially true for the class of psychoactive drugs. Psychoactive drugs are chemical substances that alter behavior, thought processes, and overall mood. These drugs carry the greatest risks when they are mixed with alcohol.
To best understand how the combination of alcohol and psychoactive drugs can alter a person’s mood, it is necessary to know more about the drugs and the effects that they have on the brain.
Interestingly, alcohol is classified as a depressive psychoactive drug itself, so combining it with any other psychoactive or depressant drugs can exacerbate the effects of both substances.
Psychoactive drugs fall into the following sub-categories: depressants, stimulants, opiates and opioids, and psychedelics.
Depressants depress activity in the central nervous system, leading to sedation and decreased physiological activity throughout the body. Alcohol, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines are drugs in this category. All of these can be legal substances, with alcohol being non-therapeutic while the others are considered to be therapeutic.
- Alcohol, a depressant psychoactive, slows down brain activity by increasing the activity of GABA neurotransmitters. This results in altered inhibition and judgment, among other effects
- Barbiturates (Seconal, Nembutal) are depressant psychoactive drugs that were once used as sleeping aids. Heavy doses affect decision-making, memory and can induce suicidal thoughts, among other effects.
- Benzodiazepines (benzos) work in a similar manner to alcohol by affecting the GABA neurotransmitters. Use can cause cognitive impairment, aggression, or lack of inhibition, among other effects
- Tranquilizers (Valium, Xanax), some of the most widely prescribed drugs, are depressant psychoactive drugs used to reduce anxiety and induce relaxation.
Stimulants work by stimulating the central nervous system, leading to an increase in physiological processes and motor function. Drugs in this category include drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, caffeine, ecstasy, and nicotine. Cocaine, amphetamine, and ecstasy are all illegal, therapeutic drugs, while caffeine and nicotine are both legal, non-therapeutic drugs.
- Cocaine is a stimulant psychoactive drug that works by elevating levels of dopamine neurotransmitters in the brain’s synapses. It provides a quick, short-lasting euphoric rush, followed by agitation and depression.
- Amphetamines, commonly known as “uppers,” are stimulant psychoactive drugs that activate dopamine receptors in the brain. They cause increased alertness, extreme excitability, and boost energy levels.
- Caffeine, a stimulant psychoactive drug, boosts energy and alertness. Excessive consumption (over 500 mg per day) can cause irritability, sleep disruption, and anxiety.
- Ecstasy, also called MDMA, is a stimulant psychoactive drug that has hallucinogenic properties.
- Nicotine is a stimulant psychoactive drug which raises dopamine levels in the brain. It is used to improve attention and alertness and can reduce anxiety and anger.
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Opiates and opioids are pain-relieving drugs that act on opioid receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system, as well as the gastrointestinal tract, to produce effects like those of morphine. This group includes drugs such as heroin, Fentanyl, Vicodin, and Hydrocodone. All but heroin are legal when prescribed and each is considered to be a therapeutic drug.
- Heroin (diamorphine) is a recreational drug used to produce a state of euphoria. Because it is an illegal street drug in the United States, its purity is not controlled and other substances that affect mood are sometimes mixed with the substance.
- Fentanyl is considered to be a stronger version of heroin, with a rapid onset and mood-altering effects that can last longer. It is commonly mixed with heroin, with devastating consequences.
- Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen) is a drug prescribed for relief of moderate to severe pain. Aside from its pain relief properties, it also provides a sedative effect.
- Hydrocodone is a narcotic analgesic used for pain relief and cough suppression. It can have a sedative effect as well.
Psychedelics are known for acting on the central nervous system to alter mood and perception. This category of drugs includes marijuana (THC), LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), and phencyclidine (PCP). Each is considered to be illegal except for marijuana, which is legal as a medicinal and recreational drug in some states.
All of these substances can also be considered to be psychoactive drugs as they act on various parts of the brain to produce these effects. Psychoactive drugs typically activate dopamine receptors in the “reward pathway” of the brain.
- Marijuana (cannabis sativa or cannabis indica) is a psychoactive drug used for recreational or medical purposes. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive substance, causing intoxicating sensations that are sometimes similar to those felt with alcohol.
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), or “acid,” is a psychedelic drug which can cause increased alertness, perception, and changes in mood.
- Psilocybin is a naturally-occurring psychedelic drug compound made from mushrooms. Mood-altering psychedelic effects result from the substance’s interaction with serotonin receptors in the brain, but these can differ depending on the species or cultivar of mushrooms, dosage, and other factors.
- Phencyclidine, also called PCP or “angel dust,” is a dissociative anesthetic drug used recreationally for its mind and mood-altering effects. Use of this chemical can bring about distorted sounds, hallucinations, flashbacks, and violent behavior.
Each drug has a series of effects. Drugs and alcohol interact with the brain and body to alter moods, behaviors, perception and emotions by affecting neuroreceptors in the brain. Combining any of these substances together is dangerous for many reasons, including harmful side effects and even death
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