With over half of addicts eventually relapsing, relapse is a serious concern for those struggling with addiction. Healthier habits, therapy to understand the roots of destructive behavior, and medication for withdrawals can be huge parts of identifying triggers and controlling them.

However, triggers are not always behavioral or emotional. Some triggers are biological, involving certain receptors in the brain. The discovery of these receptors provides insight into why relapses occur, physiologically speaking, and offer hope for developing new medications for treating them, or even preventing them.

New Study Investigating Cocaine Relapses

Recent studies involved genetically modified mice, whose brain structures are functionally similar to humans’. These studies suggest that the opioid receptors of the brain are engaged even when someone is using cocaine, a non-opioid drug. Scientists were able to demonstrate that in mice, deleting certain proteins on these receptors lessened cravings for cocaine. This suggests that a medical intervention that blocks those opioid receptors could help prevent relapse into cocaine use.

Other Biological Causes of Relapse

Sometimes addiction is purely psychological—someone craves a drug even though it has no addictive properties. Usually, however, there is a biological element to addiction. The body craves its substance of choice because that substance has become physically necessary for it to survive. This is why withdrawals can be so severe and unpleasant, and why medical supervision and medication are necessary for safe detoxification from drugs—especially highly addictive ones like cocaine.

Since recovery is an ongoing process, not a one-time event, and since substance abuse often does damage that must be lived with for years, biologically-based cravings will occur for years—possibly for the rest of the person’s life. These biological triggers for a cocaine relapse are often just the events that lead to a person justifying using again.

These events can include:

  • Brain Damage from Cocaine Use. Patterns of cocaine use are literally carved into the brain over time, and while new patterns can be forged, the old ones don’t actually go away. Because these pathways are still there, the desire to use them can still be there, too.
  • Nutritional starvation. Recovering cocaine addicts are often desperate for the vitamins and minerals the body needs. The weakness, malaise, or mental fog that can come from poor nutrition often make those in recovery long for the sharpness they claim they felt under the influence of cocaine. A poor diet is often a biological trigger for a cocaine relapse.
  • Self-medicating in other ways. Because cravings and withdrawal symptoms can flare up even when they seemed to have faded, those in recovery often turn to “less serious” drugs to alleviate those symptoms. At first it might be tobacco or caffeine, but other substances only intensify the cravings, potentially leading back to cocaine use.
  • Sedentary lifestyle. Exercise helps keep cravings at bay, and recovery from cocaine cannot be effective if people don’t do it. Unfortunately, if cravings or withdrawal symptoms are bad, exercise is the last thing recovering users want.


Although there are many biological triggers for a cocaine relapse, many of the techniques for resisting are psychological or emotional. Recognizing the biological triggers can help those in recovery from cocaine addiction to have all their defenses in place when they’re needed. If you need help finding a treatment plan that will help your loved one be free of an addiction to cocaine, there are resources available to help you. The staff at Treatment Now can answer questions and provide guidance 24/7. Just call us at 844-438-8689.