The World is full of drugs, some of which are good and some of which are bad. What they all have in common is that they create addiction (a craving for more).
One of the first drugs you get exposed to in your life is the casomorphine in breast milk. This is a very useful drug that helps stimulate the mother-infant bond and helps secure that the infant gets all the nutrients it needs. It also exists in cow’s milk, and thus in all the dairy products we consume. It gets very concentrated in cheese, which helps explain why cheese is one of my favorite foods.
Another essential natural drug is adrenaline, which is released from our adrenaline glands in case of danger or stress, and works to boosts the supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles, while suppressing other non-emergency bodily processes (digestion in particular). It increases the heart rate, dilates the pupils, and constricts arterioles in the skin and gastrointestinal tract while dilating arterioles in skeletal muscles. It elevates the blood sugar level by increasing catabolism of glycogen to glucose in the liver, and at the same time begins the breakdown of lipids in fat cells. For some reason, all this leaves you feeling great and sometimes creates “adrenaline junkies.” Adrenaline junkies usually enjoy dangerous activities (such as extreme sports) because it provides them with an “adrenaline rush”. Personally, I got my biggest adrenaline rush ever from winning a chess game in the last second before time ran out, so the sports don’t have to be very extreme at all in order to provide the adrenaline rush.
Then there is the powerful drug cocktail, consisting of dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine, which races through our bodies and brains when we first fall in love, and which causes giddiness, elation, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite, and an intense focus on the object of our love. It is still pretty much a mystery which set of conditions triggers the cocktail, and it does tend to push aside rational thought, but I really miss a shot.
Fortunately there are endorphins, which are more long-lasting. They are the body’s natural painkillers and also play a key role in long-term relationships. They produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure. Endorphins are released during sex, physical contact, exercise, dancing and other activities.
Apart from all the drugs our body produces itself, we use a wide variety of drugs from nature. These can be divided into two main groups: “Uppers” and “downers”. Caffeine is an “upper” and the World’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance, usually ingested in coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks. It has the effect of temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. Nicotine is another “upper” widely used across the World for its stimulating effects. Chocolate contains a delicious mix of theobrine (chemically similar to caffeine), anandamide (an endogenous cannabinoid which is also naturally produced in the Human brain), tryptophan (involved in regulating moods) and phenylethylamine (often described as a ‘love chemical’). Particularly popular in Bolivia is the coca leaf, which contains a number of alkaloids, including cocaine, methylecgonine cinnamate, benzoylecgonine, truxilline, hydroxytropacocaine, tropacocaine, ecgonine, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, nicotine and hygrine. When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue.
Downers include ethanol (found in alcohol) and barbiturates, and are mainly used to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, to induce analgesia and relieve pains, to cause muscle relaxation, to lower blood pressure and heart rate, and to boost the mood and enhance sociability.
However, if you produce or take any of these drugs in excess, your body will automatically reduce their effects either by reducing the amount of receptors or increasing the amount of inhibitors in your body. For example, if you drink coffee several times per day for several days, your body will adapt by substantially increasing the number of adenosine receptors in the central nervous system. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter promoting sleep, thus off-setting the effect of caffeine. Similarly, terminal cancer patients receiving morphine for pain relief will gradually build up the tolerance to morphine, so that they can safely drive a car with morphine levels that would instantly kill a person not accustomed to morphine. But the patients will need ever higher doses to achieve the same amount of pain relief, as the body adapts by reducing the number of opioid receptors.
The Human body is a finely tuned machine, which depends on drugs for its normal functioning and which knows how to deal with drug doses lower or higher than optimal. However, it can be deprived or abused so much that it loses its ability to take advantage of the drugs and handle the drugs. So, as always, moderation is key.
I, for one, admit to being a drug addict. I would not want to live in a world without adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, endorphins, theobrine, anandamide, tryptophan, phenylethylamine, and all the rest. Just writing this article has required an impressive list of nasty sounding chemical compounds.
How does the drug debate change if we include all the examples above in the discussion? Leave your reply below.
Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.