When we eat something sugary, our brain's reward center lights up. For example, the buzz you feel after eating a piece of cake indicates dopamine levels are surging higher than usual. Too much of this can cause your brain to lose control and give in to cravings. Eventually, tolerance will increase and your brain and body will crave more and more in order to feel that same sugar high.
This subconscious search for dopamine works similarly for drugs and alcohol. In some cases, the search for dopamine via drugs or alcohol leads to addiction. But why do some people fall prey to this search? It begs the question: is drug addiction a disease?
Continue reading for answers to these questions, and an overview on the disease of addiction.
It's a common adage that addiction does not discriminate. Regardless of age, race, gender, or economic status, it can have an effect on everyone. One out of every 10 Americans has an addiction to drugs or alcohol. That's north of 20 million people in this country alone.
Why does it affect certain people though? Certain biological or environmental factors can certainly play a part. Factors such as:
This disease won't necessarily manifest due to any specific one of the above, they merely play a potential role.
Heart disease and diabetes are chronic diseases that affect the heart and pancreas respectively. We can then look at addiction as a disease affecting the brain.
Addiction rewires how the brain works. The intricacies of this are complex, however, the presence of a specific neurotransmitter plays a major role in the rewiring process: dopamine. It can be said that addiction stems from an unequal amount of dopamine present in the brain.
When dopamine gets released into the brain's reward center, our brain zeroes in on that feeling. The release of the neurotransmitter, coupled with the focus our brain brings to it, locks it in to create a memory. This could be anything from watching your favorite cookies coming out of the oven to viewing your favorite piece of art.
Dopamine in excess does become dangerous. Addictive substances such as drugs tend to flood the reward center of our brains. The brain is not equipped to handle too much dopamine. Thus, it attempts to restore its natural equilibrium. It does this by either reducing dopamine receptors or decreasing natural dopamine production.
This leads to tolerance of a substance with the same craving as before. Now it just takes more to satiate it. This cycle is what plays a small part in the formation of drug addiction and alcohol addiction.
Everyone's brain registers pleasure in the same fashion. Why then do some brains respond and form a habit to this flood of dopamine more than others?
The brain is constantly rewiring itself, forming new neural pathways, and learning new patterns. The disease of addiction rewires brain structure and brain function with unhealthy habits and routines. Certain circuits and neurons become overloaded. With intense and abundant surges of dopamine, the memory of pleasure gets solidified as a new pathway in the brain, creating an unhealthy habit.
However, for those that suffer from alcohol or drug addiction, certain pathways prior to using may have been weakened or certain irregularities within the brain may have already existed. One particular section, known as the nucleus accumbens, may provide a key answer as to why.
The nucleus accumbens is a cluster of cells considered as the brain's pleasure center. It is located directly underneath the cerebral cortex. Addiction may be linked to this center in the brain.
Large surges of dopamine are released into the nucleus accumbens when drugs or alcohol are used. Depending on the speed and reliability of that dopamine release, the more prone the brain will be to addiction. We can't control the speed with which dopamine gets released and a pleasurable memory becomes solidified.
Repeated exposure of a substance causes the nucleus accumbens to send signals to the prefrontal cortex, which leads to the motivation for seeking out that pleasurable feeling again and again and again. This is where substance abuse manifests and addiction sets in.
When a person becomes physically dependent on a substance to fire up the reward center, behavioral changes may start to present. These changes can look like:
Exact signs and symptoms are impossible to nail down. Each person is different and can display all or none of the above. The important thing to note is that healing is possible.
Our brains are incredibly complex and fragile, but they also have the incredible ability to self-heal. The brain can repair pathways and regenerate new cells, even years after substance abuse.
There are many forms of healing available, some of which include detoxing, various therapies, self-help groups, or mindful meditation. The crucial first step may be coming to terms with the fact that help is needed. Drug addiction help is out there.
While there is still much to learn on the topic, it's important to remember that addiction can stem from any number of contributing factors such as family history, genetics, duration of use, and brain chemistry. The question now isn't 'is drug addiction a disease', rather, it should be 'how can I get help'?
The stigma around addiction is changing. Hope is not lost and drug addiction treatment is available.
At The Ohana, our mission is to make sure you achieve long-term recovery. If you, or someone you know, needs help getting back on their feet, we are here. Please contact us today to learn more about our programs. Recovery is possible. Why not start today?