American society once viewed drug addiction as a character flaw and a sign of moral weakness. For example, people assumed that addicts lacked moral principles or willpower, and that punishment was the best way to teach them to take responsibility for their actions. Thankfully, advances in treatment have ushered in an age of enlightenment; officials for the National Institute on Drug Abuse say that many addicts are now more likely to seek treatment since they are relieved of the burden of stigma. One of the tools that empowers addicts to seek help is the current concept of addiction as a disease. In other words, if you understand that addiction is a medical issue, then you might be more willing to seek help.
Addiction Changes Brain Chemistry
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It impacts neurotransmission and interactions within reward structures of the brain, which includes the nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex, basal forebrain and amygdala. This problem disrupts motivation, which can trigger addictive behavior, including alcohol and other drug use. Subsequently, these problems kick healthy behaviors to the curb.
Although medical experts still have questions about how addiction affects the brain, most experts agree that substance abuse problems originate in the brain’s mid region. Addiction confuses neurotransmission and interactions between cortical and hippocampal circuits and brain reward structures. As a result, memories of previous exposures to rewards—such as the euphoric feeling one might get while high on drugs—hardwires the brain in new ways. In essence, these memories lead to biological and behavioral responses to external cues, which in turn trigger cravings for addictive behaviors. For example, an alcoholic who sees a glass of wine or smells a cork is likely to salivate and crave alcohol. Regulatory dysfunction of dopamine, a “feel good” chemical, leads to a breakdown, which creates a group of symptoms commonly seen in alcoholic and drug addict, such as loss of control, cravings and persistent use despite adverse consequences.
Addiction Has a Genetic Basis
Citing studies of identical twins, Editors at the U.S. National Library of Medicine argue that as much as half of an individual’s risk for addiction is genetic. Genes are the building blocks of DNA, so think of genes as the body’s “instruction manual,” the control center that dictates all cell activity. Although the DNA sequences of any two people are 99.9% identical, the 0.1% variance is profoundly important, as it contributes to differences that are both, such as height and hair color, and invisible, such as increased risk of substance abuse problems. As stated, genetic factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction, but environmental factors interact with biology so that genetic factors exert their influence. Resiliencies that individuals acquire through parenting or life experiences affect how large a role those genes play in one’s drug abuse.
Addiction Is Chronic in Nature
Like hypertension and diabetes, drug “dependence” is a chronic medical illness. Based on its etiology, presentation, course and treatment responses, addiction “behaves” very much like other chronic medical illnesses. In response, experts who propone that addiction is a disease maintain that all chronic treatments, regardless of disease, share two important features. First, treatment usually removes or reduces symptoms of the disease, but does not affect its root causes. For example, beta-blockers reduce blood pressure and insulin improves the body’s ability to digest sugars and starches, but only as long as the affected individual continues the treatment protocol. In other words, these treatments do not return the affected individual to normal, but they do manage symptoms. The goal of such treatment is to manage the disease, not to cure it. Second, all chronic diseases are life altering, so they require people who from them to make significant changes in their lifestyles and behavior to maximize the benefits of treatment. In other words, you can recover with the right help.
Addiction Entails Relapse
Clinicians at the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network state that relapse is a fourth telltale characteristic of a chronic illness. Because the factors that underpin chronic conditions are so complex, and because recovering addicts require ongoing medical care and lifestyle changes, relapse is rather common while recovering addicts work to avoid drugs. For these reasons, most contemporary treatment strategies for chronic illnesses involve regular follow-up in the form of aftercare groups, ongoing therapy and attendance at 12-Step meetings. However, an important lesson to keep in mind is that, while relapse is quite common, it is nevertheless optional. People who do succumb to the temptation to relapse should treat themselves with compassion; recognize setbacks as part of the journey, not dead ends, and then move on.
Recovery from Addiction
If you or someone you love struggles with substance abuse, then know that help is available. Admissions coordinators at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can guide you to wellness. Do not go it alone when help is just one phone call away: you never have to go back to a life of addiction if you start your recovery now.