Gateway drugs are substances that are thought to lead to the use of more dangerous or addictive substances. The top three gateway drugs are thought to be nicotine (cigarettes), marijuana, and alcohol. The group of people that are most likely to develop an addiction from using gateway drugs is adolescents. Since the human brain is not considered fully developed until the age of 25, young people are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of chemical substances.
Alcohol, in particular, is recognized as a leading gateway drug. Alcohol consumption causes abnormal inflammation in the brain, making it especially dangerous for young people. It is important to understand the harmful effects that alcohol use can have on the brain and to recognize the substance as a dangerous gateway drug.
Teens or young adults may initially choose to experiment with alcohol because they are curious about the substance's effects. Since many families keep alcohol in their homes, it is one of the easiest substances for young people to access. While the decision to try alcohol may be voluntary, the chemical effects of alcohol hijack several areas of an individual's brain.
Some of the ways that repeated alcohol use primes adolescents for experimenting with other substances may include:
Dopamine is a chemical that influences the brain's reward center associated with identifying and motivating pleasurable behavior. Chemical substances like alcohol trigger abnormal surges of dopamine in the brain and body. The use of alcohol even one time triggers a dopamine surge, which the brain identifies as pleasurable. Then, the brain will continue to motivate substance-seeking and substance-using behavior as means of achieving repeated dopamine surges.
With repeated use, an individual will experience an increase in alcohol tolerance. This means that they will need to drink more each time to achieve desired effects. Eventually, the brain will recognize alcohol use as normal, and no longer trigger dopamine surges as intensely as before. This leads individuals to seek highs through harsher drugs.
Being under the influence of alcohol can reduce inhibition and increase impulsivity, which can cause individuals to act in ways that they never would while sober. Some of those actions may include experimenting with harsher drugs, especially if they are not in the right frame of mind to consider the consequences or risks. Young people are especially prone to the influences of peer pressure and curiosity if they are already buzzed from alcohol.
If getting drunk with friends is considered normal for teenagers, it is only a matter of time before teens progress to other drug use. Teens may start to believe that “everyone is doing it” even if they aren’t, which may encourage experimentation. They may not yet see the consequences of long-term substance use among their friend group, which can lead them to believe that it is not harmful. Normalizing one type of behavior makes it easier to progress down a path they may not have anticipated.
The developing brain is uniquely vulnerable to both mental health disorders and substance use disorders, such as addiction. Eager to feel accepted by others, it’s relatively easy for adolescents to get involved in dangerous crowds and engage in risk-taking behaviors that they may not realize are harmful.
Unfortunately, adolescents tend to lack the foresight to see how the consequences of one decision can impact their future. A substance use disorder that develops from underage drinking can carry physical, emotional, and psychological consequences well into adulthood.
In general, some people are more likely to develop substance use disorders than others. Individuals that experience the following risk factors may be more likely to use alcohol as a gateway drug:
Genetics shed light on an individual's unique, chemical makeup. If an individual has a family member or relative that uses substances or has been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, they are more likely to experiment with substances at some point in their life.
A co-occurring disorder is the presence of both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder. If an individual is already struggling with their mental health or associated diagnosis, they are more likely to use substances. They may turn to substances as an attempt to self-medicate their symptoms or because they are genuinely curious about the substance's effects.
Unfortunately, not every family knows how to cope when trauma affects a child. This could be anything from a tragic accident, an illness, or abuse. Children who suffer from untreated trauma are also at increased risk of substance use and addiction later in life.
Alcohol is a harmful substance for the developing brain. As adolescents and teens age, they may become exposed to the effects of alcohol through their friend groups. It is essential to recognize that alcohol is a gateway drug that can cause young children to be curious about the effects of other substances. It is important to know what factors can increase an individual's risk of using alcohol and other substances. If your child is struggling, understand that treatment is available. Clearfork Academy has evidence-based solutions for teenagers struggling with alcohol or substance abuse. Our outdoor, faith-based program is run by experienced, compassionate staff to help your teen on8 the road to recovery. We offer detox, inpatient, and residential treatment programs depending on the severity of your teen's condition. To learn more about our treatment center, reach out to us today by calling (817) 259-2597 .