What is Addiction?

Addiction is the chronic use of a substance or activity characterized by compulsive seeking to satisfy a desire, despite the negative consequences of that behavior. Addiction includes alcohol, drugs, pornography, anger, violence, sex, gambling, food, workaholism, shopping, etc. There are changes to the Brain when behavior moves into the realm of addiction. Addiction alters the chemistry of the Brain’s neurotransmitters and the reward systems.

Addiction is therefore considered a disease of the Brain that can afflict anyone of any race, economic, social, educational class, or gender—addiction is non-discriminatory. Many reasons leave one susceptible to addictive behavior, including medications taken incorrectly, psychological factors, gender, family history, genetics, and more.

What Happens To The Brain During The Addiction Process?

In generaladdiction will occur when substances or behaviors overtake the pleasure/reward pathways of the Brain. When something produces pleasurable feelings in the Brain, that message is sent through the neurotransmitters. When one becomes addicted, there is a flood of dopamine (causing a pleasant feeling). During non-addictive behavior, the dopamine will be reabsorbed into the neurotransmitters at the other end of the chemical message. During addictive behavior, dopamine is released but not reabsorbed. That leaves the Brain flooded with an excess of dopamine. The over-release of dopamine profoundly impacts Brain’s functioning and message system. “A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The Brain changes with addiction, and it takes a lot of work to return to normal. The more drugs or alcohol you take, the more disruptive it is to the Brain.”

The more one engages in addictive behavior; the more one needs the stimulus (drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc.) Researchers have now seen changes in the frontal cortex through brain imaging, the area of the Brain that helps people make decisions and modulate impulse control. “The Brain comprises many parts with interconnected circuits that work together as a team. Different brain circuits are responsible for coordinating and performing specific functions. Network neurons send signals back and forth to each other and among different parts of the Brain, the spinal cord, and nerves in the rest of the body (the peripheral nervous system).” Dopamine helps reinforce behaviors. However, when the use of substances or activities induces the release of dopamine repeatedly, a habit for the behavior is formed, and cravings for the sensation begin.

Sadly, this euphoric/pleasurable feeling will cease or be short-lived after a while. The dopamine, because of the over-release of the chemical and the brain’s inability to retake up the dopamine, ultimately leads to less and less of an affectation, lack of motivation, feelings of depression, etc.

How Quickly Can One Become Addicted?

Like many other things that impact our bodies and Brains, the quicker the substance reaches the Brain, the more likely it is to become addictive. Methods of use such as smoking, snorting, and injecting can influence the speed at which a substance reaches the Brain. For example, the drug cocaine, after smoking or injecting, can get to the Brain within seconds. Ingesting alcohol will take 5 minutes to reach the Brain and 10 minutes to be felt by the body. However, once alcohol reaches the bloodstream, reaching the body’s organs takes seconds. For methamphetamine, drug uptake into the Brain can take nine minutes at its peak. (As an aside, methamphetamine is more commonly used by Caucasians, while cocaine is used equally between Caucasians and African Americans.)

Pre-pandemic rates of Substance Abuse or SUD

  • In 2019, 20.4 million people in the US were diagnosed with SUD in that year.
  • Only 10.3 percent of people with SUD received SUD treatment that year
  • Nearly 71,000 people died that year of drug overdoses

The rate of deaths from overdoses in 2022 went up by over 8,000 fatalities and was 50% higher than the rate of deaths in 2020.

“Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), issued the following statement regarding the CDC’s release of provisional drug overdose death data, which show 107,477 predicted overdose deaths in the 12 months ending in August 2022.” Most of these projected deaths would be linked to fentanyl plus other drugs.

Can The Brain Heal After Addiction?

The damage done to the body and the Brain depends on the length of time one has used it, the condition of his/her/their body, the mental status of the person, the support that will be needed, and the emotional desire to enter recovery and stick with it.

The Brain is known to have neuroplasticity- the ability to change and adapt in its structure and functional levels. Research continues to use brain imaging to monitor brain size and function changes after one stops using drugs and alcohol. The good news is that positive changes in the grey and white matter of the Brain and an increase in volume could be seen after abstinence for some time.

“Our Brain’s plastic nature suggests that we can change our behaviors… Learning models support that overcoming addiction can be facilitated by adopting new cognitive modifications. Learning models suggest pursuing counseling or psychotherapy, including approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy [modifying behaviors]. Medications (medication-assisted treatment) can help people manage symptoms to a level that helps them pursue recovery via [different] therapies. Many people use a combination approach of medications, behavioral therapies, and support groups to maintain recovery from addiction.”

Treatment Can Help Anyone Suffering from Addiction

As the information above indicates, anyone suffering from addiction can learn new behaviors that retrain the Brain and help implant new pathways for pleasure and rewards. The first step is to detox under medical supervision, whether at home or in a facility. Immediately following detox, one should enter treatment. The treatment program should offer a combination of therapies, like those mentioned above, which will help a person suffering from addiction. Exercise, yoga, group therapy, medication management when needed, support groups, individual counseling, career counseling, life skills, intermediate residential housing (as required), medical attention to health problems, mental health therapy, trauma therapy, etc., all combine to facilitate a person’s path to recovery. The treatment process should be managed by a medical and clinical team trained in best practices for addiction treatment.

Call now to learn how treatment can help you or a loved one break the cycle of addiction.