The Disease of Addiction
Addiction is defined as the ongoing use of mood-altering substances, such as alcohol and drugs, despite adverse consequences. It sounds like a choice rather than a disease to some. However, a person with substance addiction can’t just make themselves stop using.
The disease of addiction changes how the brain is wired, creating dysfunction in the brain’s pleasure pathway. Overcoming this dysfunction requires formal treatment and clinical interventions, such as therapy and counseling. In some instances, it can require medical detox and drug therapy. Depending on the person’s needs, a clinical professional may recommend receiving care at an inpatient or residential rehab facility or treatment at an outpatient rehab clinic.
The definition of disease is “a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects all or part of an organism’s structure or function.”
Substance addiction is proven to disrupt the neurological pathways of pleasure within the brain. This disruption prevents dopamine from flowing through the brain at a regular frequency. Reduced dopamine levels lead to feelings of fatigue, mood changes, and even loss of balance.
The disrupted neurological pathways are the abnormal condition, and the brain is the part affected. So, going back to the dictionary’s definition, addiction is a disease.
The cortex of the brain houses ones’ personality and critical thinking abilities. People in active addiction often lose control of many of the functions performed by the cortex. However, a recovery program can help rebuild the cortex and restore decision-making abilities. Over time, recovery is possible with clinical and medical treatments.
The reptilian brain comprises the basal ganglia and the brain stem, serving as the command center for living. This part of the brain controls all autonomic processes, meaning it is not under conscious control. The reptilian brain controls balance, heart rate, and breathing.
Specialists on the subject have found that those in active addiction sustain abnormalities in the reptilian brain. These irregularities happen because a drug or alcohol has established itself as a “need” in one’s brain. This means that the abused substance becomes as crucial to an addicted person as food, water, and sleep.
Our brains give us a dose of a “feel good” chemical called dopamine. When we do certain activities, such as eating or exercising, our brains reward us. This reward pathway system provides a pleasant feeling to establish habits that positively affect our survivability.
The amount of dopamine varies greatly depending on the activity a person performs and the individuals’ history. A difference in dopamine released results in people having other interests or tastes. For most people, the brain releases a specific level of dopamine and then stops. Whether higher or lower, an abnormal amount can lead to several issues.
The brain has transmitters that act as a bridge for dopamine to cross. When a person abuses drugs or alcohol, they severely damage this bridge, making it difficult for dopamine to reach the neuron receptors. The brain then begins to require the substance to patch these holes, further disrupting dopamine flow.
With certain substances, the brain “believes” the drug is dopamine and will allow it to attach to neuron receptors. Other substances allow an excessive amount of dopamine to flow through the transmitters. In time, the body adjusts to this new level of dopamine and perceives it as an average amount. After the body regulates this higher amount, it begins to require the substance. The brain is unable to produce enough dopamine naturally. Relentless cravings for more dopamine only gained through ones’ drug of choice begin to develop.
Addiction is a disease that affects each individual differently. Someone could spend years using a substance without becoming addicted. In contrast, others could develop an addiction after only a few uses. Why is this so?
Everyone has their own “internal switch” for becoming addicted. This switch represents the point where a substance becomes perceived as a need and required for survival. The point at which the switch flips varies based on the drug, genetic predisposition, and environment.
People with a biological predisposition to addiction will have their switch “flipped” well before someone who does not. Addiction is a disease that runs in the family. Those who develop addictions are more likely to see their loved ones suffer the same fate. Unfortunately, no simple diagnostic or genetic test can show that a person has a greater chance of becoming an addict. However, there are indicators of a high potential for addictive behaviors. Family history and social environment can show addiction vulnerability. Being aware of a potential predisposition to addiction allows a person to be more aware of their habits and choices.
Understanding the disease of addiction is essential in spreading awareness, breaking the stigma, and encouraging those affected to seek treatment. Bradford is here to help if you or a loved one are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Call 888-762-3740 to speak with a Recovery Advisor today.