The 7 Most Addictive Legal Substances
Find out how to quit the vices most likely to hook you—and seriously harm your health
Addiction is a hot topic these days, with people professing their extreme need for everything from sex to shoes to drugs. But while you might binge on a boots sale, a true addiction goes beyond a budget-blasting, must-have pair of Jimmy Choos. Scientists at Harvard say that to be truly addictive, there needs to be an "intense craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences." And thanks to the fine-tuned chemistry of our brains, this often has as much to do with what's going inside your body as it does outside of it. But you don't need a twenty-dollar bill and a dealer to be an addict. We rounded up the seven most addicting legal substances so we could explain how they hook you-and how you can quit.
How it hooks you: Think cigarettes are no big deal? Affecting one in four Americans, nicotine addiction is the most common form of chemical dependence according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent data. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General warns that studies have shown it's as addictive as cocaine and heroine. Nicotine works on your brain, producing an almost-immediate feeling of calm when you inhale. After a few minutes, it boosts your mood, relaxes your muscles and suppresses your appetite. Unfortunately, these highs are short-lived and come with a host of terrible health consequences ranging from brown teeth to yellow fingers to black lungs-and it isn't long until you're craving another smoke.
How it hooks you: With more than 80 percent of us drinking some type of caffeinated beverage daily, it can be easy to forget that just because it's "natural" doesn't mean it's not also the world's most popular psychoactive drug. As soon as you drink your morning cup of joe, the caffeine is absorbed by your small intestine and passed into your blood where it goes straight to your brain. Because it's both fat- and water- soluble, it can cross the blood-brain barrier, blocking the receptors in our brains that signal exhaustion and pain and thereby giving you the "rush" of energy you crave. While a quick hit now and then is no big deal, scientists have discovered that prolonged, daily use actually changes the brain structures, making it so you need caffeine just to feel normal.
How to quit: Good news for Starbucks addicts: Caffeine is a relatively short-acting chemical and it only takes about seven to twelve (miserable) days of going without before your brain learns to work without the stimulant. If you don't feel up to going cold turkey, try this one-week caffeine detox plan by Mind Body Green for a gentler approach.
How it hooks you: All booze, whether it's bubbly champagne at a party or a fifth of vodka in your bedroom, affects the body the same way. As soon as you take a drink, the alcohol enters your bloodstream through your small intestine, where it acts as a central nervous system depressant, making you feel calm and relaxed. At the same time, it hits the reward center of your brain, where it releases endorphins that make you feel happy. This endorphin rush feels so good that your body wants to get it again, making you crave another drink. With time, your brain becomes damaged and it takes more alcohol to achieve the same feeling. In addition, when you don't drink, you can start experiencing unpleasant withdrawal effects. In some people, this pattern becomes alcoholism. According to the National Council on Alcoholism, one in twelve Americans are alcoholics or have a dependence on alcohol, and one in ten deaths of adults aged 20 to 64 is attributable to drinking.
How to quit: Despite what you may have seen in the movies, quitting alcohol abruptly after consuming it regularly for a long period of time is not a good plan. Not only is it incredibly difficult but it can be deadly. Start by talking to your doctor or checking out the NCADD database to find resources near you. You can also visit Alcoholics Anonymous for resources, tips, information and support groups.
How they hook you: Nobody likes to be in pain, so it makes sense that painkillers are one of the most commonly prescribed medications. Yet because of their powerful affect on brain chemistry, they're also the most commonly abused medication. Opiods work by stimulating the pleasure center of the brain and releasing a flood of dopamine, causing a sense of euphoria and overall well-being. Over time, the body comes to depend on the drugs to feel well, just like it does food and water. Even worse, according to a new study done by the CDC, women may be most at risk for becoming addicted to opiates like Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin. Their stats show that 35 percent of women filled a painkiller prescription every year from 2008-2012.
How to quit: Painkillers are powerful medications and require professional help to quit, as anyone who's ever watched House or Nurse Jackie knows. Start at Drugabuse.gov to find a list of resources and support services near you.
How it hooks you: Adderall and other stimulant medications commonly prescribed for ADHD have been termed "America's favorite amphetamine," thanks to their wide availability and long-lasting high. Amphetamines (which also include plenty of non-legal varities) work by releasing a rush of dopamine and norepinephrine, the two neurotransmitters responsible for helping you feel happy, competent and focused. It's this on-top-of-the-world feeling of invincibility and power that gives the drug its "speed" nickname. While it certainly does help people with diagnosed ADHD when used in moderation, abuse of the drugs for recreational purposes or as study aids is skyrocketing. Prolonged use, no matter what purpose you are taking it for, creates a dependence on the drug just to think "normally," and stopping its use can create severe withdrawal symptoms.
How to quit: A relatively new addition to the addiction community, there aren't as many resources for quitting Adderall as there are for some other medications, so start by talking to the doctor who prescribed it to you about your concerns. Quitting Adderall and SoberNation both have great tips for weaning off these medications, and DrugAbuse.gov has a list of FAQs and resources.
How it hooks you: After all the scary substances on this list, clearing out your nasal passages during a bad head cold may seem like the least of your worries. And we're not saying you don't deserve to breathe freely! But there's a reason the directions warn not to use it for more than four days. The main ingredient in most nasal decongestant sprays is an alpha adrenergic agonist, a chemical that works to narrow the swollen blood vessels in your nose. Use it too much though and you'll set yourself up for "rebound congestion," putting you right back into mouth-breathing mode.
How to quit: Experts say to just stop using the sprays and your nose will eventually calm down on its own. The hardest part is resisting the temptation to try it one more time. Don't do it!
How it hooks you: Didn't think sugar was a drug? Surprisingly, the white stuff people sprinkle on cereal has a lot in common with the white stuff people snort up their noses. Research from 2013 found that not only do Oreo cookies light up the same neural pathways as cocaine does, but that the rats' pleasure centers actually showed more of a response to the sugary treats. While this doesn't mean candy has the same effect on the body as coke, it does explain why it's so hard to ditch sugar, even when you know it's raising your risk of diabetes, heart disease and early death.
How to quit: How to give up sweets is the million dollar question in the diet industry these days. Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. Unlike cocaine, sugar is pushed on us everywhere from the basket of lollipops at the bank window to free samples at the grocery store. That doesn't mean it's impossible though. Start by reading through the science on I Quit Sugar to get an idea of how to start. (And if you find an easier way, share it with us!)