Student Life

Exploring the healthy side with Fardad

The science behind drug addiction, and how drugs affect the body

It’s said we are creatures of habit. Sometimes though, those habits can turn into addictions. In this edition of The Healthy Side, we are going to explore drug addiction and its real effects on the body.

Drug addiction is an organic disease of the body. Using addictive substances literally changes the brain’s chemistry, leading to a strong physical dependency on them.

The brain is a very complex organ, made up of billions of cells called neurons. The connections between these neurons is what enables us to think, move, feel, act and essentially process every conscious and unconscious intake of environmental stimuli and respond accordingly.

You may have heard that there is electrical current in the brain.

A neurotransmitter can be excitatory or inhibitory—that is, it may contribute to exciting the next neuron or inhibiting its excitation. For our purposes, we are going to talk about a well-known excitatory neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine, along with a few other neurotransmitters, is responsible for making you feel good.

Once dopamine is released via transporters in the producing cell, called the presynaptic cell, it temporarily latches on to the receptors on the surface of its target, called the postsynaptic cell, and causes further actions to occur in that cell.

The dopamine itself is not taken in by the target cell—its binding is temporary and after a short period it is detached and taken back into the presynaptic cell.

Substances can affect and alter this natural pathway in three broad ways:

  1. Overproduction of dopamine: the opioid family of substances such as heroin and fentanyl stimulate VTA to over-produce dopamine. This rush of abnormally large amounts of dopamine hits the user with a sudden and very strong feeling of euphoria.  An unfortunate side-effect of opioids is slowing down breathing. This can be particularly dangerous if mixed with other substances that also slow down the body such as alcohol, anti-anxiety medications and other opioids. Current statistics indicate every 19 minutes, someone dies from accidental prescription drug overdose (most of them containing opioids).
  2. Blockage of the transporters: drugs such as cocaine quickly enter the brain and bind to the transporters on the presynaptic cell, blocking dopamine from being taken back inside. This accumulates large amounts of dopamine in the space between these cells (called the synaptic cleft) and for longer. Constant presence of larger than normal levels of dopamine in the cleft causes the postsynaptic cell to be hyper-activated, leading to a prolonged feeling of euphoria. This establishes a powerful link between this feeling and the drug – which makes the user want to use it again.
  3. Stimulation and blockage: amphetamine family of drugs behave both like opioids and cocaine. In lower dosage, meth acts like cocaine in blocking the uptake of dopamine back to the presynaptic cell. In higher doses, in addition to the blocking effect, meth stimulates the presynaptic cell to release even more dopamine. Because of this dual effect, the accumulation of dopamine in the synaptic cleft becomes extreme, leading to dangerously high hyper-activation of the postsynaptic cell. This results in an extreme feeling of euphoria making meth incredibly addictive.

Drugs alter how the reward centre communicates with the rest of the brain: affecting emotions, movement, reasoning and decision making. Repeated use of these drugs makes changes to the chemistry of the brain, which eventually prevents the user from experiencing the same euphoria when first using the drug: the user builds tolerance toward the substance.

Fardad is a science student here at Concordia. He wants to share his research and learning about the science field with the Concordia community.

Graphic by Florence Yee

Student Life

The healthy side with Fardad

The human balance: How does our body achieve balance?

The human body is a crazy, fascinating thing. It works hard to keep all its systems balanced.  As students, we know it’s not easy to be balanced.  Let’s look at how the human body works, and how it is able to keep that balance.

As with many other complex life forms, humans are made of living biological units called cells. Cells are basic units of life—all living things are made up of one or more cells.

  • Humans are made up of more than 30 trillion cells—of many different types. Your muscle cells and brain cells are worlds apart.
  • Similar cells in your body with similar functions and structures work together to form tissue, like muscle tissue or nerve tissue. Tissues work together to do a particular job. For example, your heart pumps blood throughout your body, and your lungs oxygenate your blood. These tissues are collectively called organs.
  • Different organs also work together. Your circulatory system, which includes your heart, your blood and blood vessels, and your lungs, transports nutrients and oxygen through your body, among other functions. These organs are collectively called organ systems.
  • Finally, an organism is a collection of organ systems working together to form an entity, such as humans, animals, plants, fungi or bacteria.

As you see, the human body is a very complex system. All humans are formed from a marriage between two cells: a sperm and an egg.  Doesn’t it make you wonder how all these different types of cells, tissues, organs and organ systems cooperate and coordinate with each other in almost perfect harmony? How did we develop to be this complex machine with a high cognitive function?  And what happens when a part in this complex machine fails?

Let’s define health and disease. A human is healthy when all these parts work well and in harmony with each other. This is called homeostasis—keeping a relatively stable environment, suitable for continual maintenance and growth. The keyword here is relatively, which is important because, depending on the specific system, the body is tolerant towards some turbulence. For example, your body can tolerate a dramatic change in external temperature. When the environmental temperature changes suddenly, your body will immediately work to compensate the negative change and return your body to a favourable temperature.

You have hardwired mechanisms that counterbalance negative changes in your body. Some of these changes encompass a relatively generous range, as with temperature, but some encompass a much narrower range. For instance, blood pH (i.e. its acidity) is tightly controlled between 7.35 and 7.45. Your body keeps a close eye on these levels. A sudden change in pH can be fatal: think alcohol intoxication, as an example. If you binge drink too fast, there may be no coming back. Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as we’d like to think.

Basically, for all intents and purposes, homeostasis means health. A severe deviation from a homeostatic state causes unease… so we call it a disease.  Diseases can be caused by a multitude of sources. It can be external such as viruses, bacteria and fungi or internal such as cancer, genetics and old age.

Fardad is a science student here at Concordia. He wants to share his research and learning about the science field with the Concordia community.

Student Life

Exploring the healthy side with Fardad

Debunking stress eating: Tis’ the season of midterms and takeout

Midterm season is officially here, and stress is creeping up on many students. Although people respond to stressful situations differently, a lot of us have a common struggle: stress eating.

Emotional eating can happen for a variety of reasons, but this week we will specifically analyze stress as a cause.

When your body is put under prolonged stress, a multitude of physiological changes happen, namely, your body releases a hormone called cortisol.

Cortisol plays a key role in human survival—think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. Your body registers stress as a “fight or flight” situation. When your body thinks it’s in a life or death situation, it “panics” and urges you to consume calories for strength and survival, when really, all you need is a deep breath.

Needless to say, exam period is a stressful time. Seeking refuge in the glory of pizza or greasy fries when the workload gets overwhelming is something a lot of us can relate to.

While this may provide momentarily relief—due to the release of other hormones like dopamine—the underlying cause of your stress still remains.

Additionally, feelings of guilt about eating too much may enter into the equation and end up adding to your initial stress.

But how can you tell the difference between being actually hungry or just feeling stressed?

There are a few telltale signs. Here are the most important ones:

  • We usually turn to comfort foods or unhealthy foods when we are stressed. Let’s just say cauliflower and broccoli aren’t the food of choice when cramming for an exam.
  • According to Harvard Health, consuming comfort food triggers two changes in the brain. First, it stimulates the reward centre of the brain by releasing feel-good hormones. Second, it has been shown to temporarily counter the effects of the stress-producing and processing hormones. So not only does comfort food provide a “happy fix,” but it also temporarily takes the stress away.
  • According to American pediatrics doctor Dr. Mary Gavin, and many other experts, contrary to stress cravings, physical hunger isn’t instant. It takes time for the digestive system to process food.
  • According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, when you feel physiological hunger, it’s due to the gradual release of the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Ghrelin itself is released over time, thanks to “feedback” provided by sensory nerve endings in the digestive tract, including the intestine and colon. So if you suddenly have a “need” for a bag of chips, take a second to reflect on how stressed you are in that moment. You might just need to relax and take a deep breath.

Here are a few things you can do to help combat stress eating during exam time: 

  • Get moving. Exercise releases endorphins so hop to it. Physical activity also releases those feel-good hormones and it gets fresh blood flowing to the brain, making you feel more awake.
  • Drink a lot of water, regularly. Dehydration oftentimes manifests as hunger. Staying hydrated helps keep your body healthy and your brain active.
  • Call a loved one or a friend—but make sure you don’t end up talking about studying or exams. The aim here is to take your mind off all the stress by hearing a familiar voice and maybe cracking a joke or two. Tell the person in advance that you don’t want to be talking about school.

Fardad is a science student here at Concordia. He wants to share his research and learning about the science field with the Concordia community.

Graphic by Thom Bell

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