The science behind addiction has come a long way in the past 20 years along with the growing prevalence of substance use disorders around the world. Many people still want to believe that addiction only affects the weak-willed. They see it as a character flaw instead of an actual disease. However, when looking closer at the science explaining the way addiction affects the human brain, it’s undeniable that it acts and affects people physically just like any other disease.
What Is a Disease?
Simply put, a disease is a medical condition that prevents the body from functioning normally. Diseases such type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic conditions have effects that afflict the individual on some level for their entire lives. The long-term effects of addiction are no different. Many diseases are “incurable”, but people do experience “remission” and alleviation of the symptoms of the disease. Addiction is no different. Individuals who have struggled with addiction, will always be susceptible to relapse and may share the predilection for addiction with their children. Just like any other disease, addiction requires ongoing care or “check-ups,” to prevent those relapses.
The Addicted Brain
Understanding how dopamine works in the human brain is at the very basis of understanding how addiction acts as a disease in the human body. In a normal functioning brain, there are natural levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that encourages us to seek out basic pleasures like eating, resting, and other enjoyable activities that make us feel good and trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. These normal levels of dopamine basically want to ensure we satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pushing us to engage in behaviors that keep happy, fulfilled and at the most basic level, alive.
While basic and pleasurable actions will release dopamine, so will unhealthy ones like using drugs. Often the drugs cause this release much more quickly and to a much higher degree. Using opioids or other drugs creates an enormous, euphoric rush of dopamine in the brain that is difficult to compare to any other natural source. This is because these are chemicals that are being introduced into the body that don’t exist in nature. When the rush of dopamine leaves the brain, individuals can feel depressed, anxious and have physical withdrawal symptoms. It’s difficult for the brain to replicate that intense level of “pleasure” or “happiness” naturally, thus requiring more of the drug to feel normal. This isn’t just a feeling. The brain will literally feel as though the only way it can continue to survive is by seeking out more of the substance that has allowed it to feel such massive rushes of pleasure. When someone is fully in the grips of addiction, their brain will not be content with just a normal dose of the drug it seeks. It will consistently require a larger dose every time to seek out a high as “good” as the very first time someone used. This is why addiction is often described as a “chase” where people are seeking out that “first time” feeling all of the time.
How Addiction Changes the Brain
The easiest way to look at the changes made in the brain during the height of addiction is to look at people who are in recovery. Many people judge those who are still struggling with drug use as “weak minded” or generally bad people. What about people who have been in recovery for years but experience relapse? Is it fair to call someone who has worked hard towards their recovery for many years “weak” because they gave in to the triggers that lead them to use again? There are a number of evidence-based treatment programs, particularly for the disease of opioid addiction that can provide relief of physical withdrawals and cravings. However, to experience long-term recovery, the person will have to continually work on the causes and effects of the disease. Particularly because of the profound change to the dopamine structures in the brain.
The reward system of the brain, once tampered with, is very difficult to treat entirely. This is why millions of people have succumbed to the opioid epidemic in America. Is it really possible that so many innocent people who were prescribed pain medications for their back surgeries or root canals were merely too “weak-willed” to not become addicted when there is so much information available about the dangers of opiate use? It’s just not logical. Considering addiction can affect people from all different walks of life, from rich to poor, educated to the most marginalized in the nation, we must continue to research and work to understand how the brain is affected.
Treating the Disease
Major advancements have been made in addiction science to help create treatment for those who seek it. Helping people deal with withdrawal symptoms, as well as the psychological effects, and other medical assistance has become more accessible to millions of Americans, but it doesn’t end there. Most people who are suffering from addiction are dealing with co-occurring disorders. This often means that a patient is facing mental illness as well as a substance use disorder. This is where the importance of drug counseling and therapy also come in in order to treat addiction as a whole disease. It’s simply not enough to only treat the symptoms of addiction and hope for it to just go away.
One of the biggest struggles people face is the stigma that surrounds the disease of addiction. When an individual is able to combat the negative views of people who are dealing with substance use disorders, seeking help for these issues won’t fill so many people with shame and guilt. People who are sick deserve to seek medical treatment without being ridiculed or having their character put into question. Once we start treating addiction as a whole as the disease it is, we will finally be able to start combating the toll it’s taking on many innocent lives.