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Is Drug Addiction a Disease?

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Many people don’t understand how or why drug addiction happens. Sometimes they think people who use drugs could simply stop using them whenever they wanted. A lot of people assume addicts keep using drugs because they lack the willpower to say no. Or that they don’t have a moral compass guiding them to stop. The truth though, is that drug addiction is a complex issue. Drugs change the brain in a way that makes quitting difficult even though someone has a strong will or good intentions. 

One good piece of news for drug addicts who want to quit is that researchers have collected vast amounts of information on how drugs affect the brain. This has allowed them to develop effective treatments that help people recover from their drug addictions and start leading productive lives again.

What exactly is drug addiction?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as:

“A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.”

Most people who misuse drugs make the initial decision to do so voluntarily. As the misuse, or abuse, carries on, it causes changes in how the brain functions. The areas usually affected by these drugs are judgment, behavioral control, stress, self-control and decision making. Learning and memory also suffer, and these changes can last quite some time – even if a person has stopped using drugs.

Drug addiction is considered a “relapsing disorder” due to the persistence of these brain changes. The risk that someone recovering from a drug use disorder will return to abusing them remains high, even after years of not taking them. Relapse is not uncommon. But that doesn’t mean you can't treat drug addiction. Instead, these treatment plans need to be reviewed regularly and adjusted to suit the patient's changing needs.

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Why doesn’t everyone get addicted and what are the causes of addiction?

Whether someone is prone to addiction as a result of nature (biology/ genes) or nurture (upbringing/ environment) is something experts have debated for years. These days, the prevailing view is that there isn’t a singular thing we can point to in order to predict someone's risk of developing a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Instead, a combination of how a person’s unique biology interacts with a drug and their environment will impact their susceptibility to becoming addicted to it.

People’s reasons for using drugs can vary. A doctor may have prescribed them, the user may want the euphoric feeling they offer, or they might just want to fit in. But people whose first experience with using (or misusing) drugs was intensely good start believing that drugs can make them feel better. This is how the foundation of drug addiction is born. You should note that not everyone will respond to a specific drug the same way though.

Every person has a number of biological and environmental risk and protective factors that have a bearing on their chances of becoming a drug addict. A risk factor is something that increases the danger of addiction, while a protective factor decreases it.

Potential biological and environmental risk factors are:

  • A family history of addiction and/or mental illness
  • A turbulent home life
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) such as neglect or any kind of abuse
  • Parents and/or friend with negative attitudes
  • No community support (friends, family, teachers, etc.)
  • Repeated academic failure or struggles
  • Readily available drugs and/or alcohol
  • Age and/or stage of development – because the areas that control decision-making, judgment, and self-control are developing during a person’s teen years, they (or anyone at that stage of development) may be more susceptible to risky behaviors such as trying drugs

Potential biological and environmental protective factors are:

  • No addiction and/or mental illness in family history
  • An involved and supportive family unit
  • Healthy home relationships and within the community
  • Good physical health
  • Access to positive neighborhood resources such as community groups, safe playgrounds, recreation centers, etc.
  • Success in academic life
  • Strong impulse control

Another thing that can seriously impact how likely it is to become addicted to a drug is how it's taken. Certain routes produce more intense highs. For example, injecting an opioid delivers a rapid and strong high that can’t be matched by swallowing or snorting one. These more intense highs usually dissipate quickly as well, and the faster comedown can encourage using the drug more often.

Is drug addiction preventable or curable?

The voluntary act of taking drugs is where the path to drug addiction begins. But long term exposure to drugs affects parts of the brain that control reward, motivation, learning, memory, and self-control. This turns the seeking and taking of drugs into a compulsive behavior, and this compulsion makes choosing not to do drugs nearly impossible.

It is possible to treat drug addiction, but it’s not simple. Addiction is classified as a chronic disease, which makes it similar to diabetes, heart disease or asthma. That effectively means there is no cure for it. But you can managethe condition. Someone recovering from addiction runs the risk of relapsing for years, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. For recovery to be a lasting success, treatment plans must help a drug addict do the following:

  • STOPusing drugs
  • STAY drug-free
  • BEproductive in the family, at work, and in society

There are a wide variety of treatments available today, many of which have proven to be successful for long term recovery from addiction to narcotics. Some of these are:

  • behavioral counseling
  • medication
  • medical devices and applications used to treat withdrawal symptoms or deliver skills training
  • evaluation and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  • long-term follow-up to prevent relapse

Research has shown that combining medicines designed to treat drug addiction with behavioral therapy offers the best chance of success for most recovering addicts. Also, you should choose a program that's tailored to each patient by taking their drug use patterns and any additional social, medical and mental health problems into consideration.

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Why are drugs so addictive?

There are dozens, if not hundreds of reasons why people get addicted to drugs. But the rewarding and euphoric high is one of the major factors behind why drugs are as addictive as they are. Drugs can have a significant impact on the pleasure and motivation systems in the brain. Because of this artificial stimulation, it is difficult for other, purely natural pleasures to compare to them.

Eating a delicious meal, listening to a favorite song, feeling good after a workout session or the comfort one receives from a hug are all natural rewards that every person experiences. The problem is that drugs offer something more. The high people can experience when abusing them is louder, brighter, greater, and more everything than any natural reward they can compare it to. Drugs stimulate certain parts of the brain when they enter it, meaning they can:

  • Mimic natural chemicals found in the brain
  • Trigger the release of large amounts of specific brain chemicals
  • Prevent certain brain chemicals from being recycled and reabsorbed into the brain

Dopamine and addiction

One of the brain chemicals that often comes up in conversations about the addictive power of certain substances is dopamine. Scientists believe that your brain releases dopamine whenever you experience a rewarding event. This, in turn, alerts your brain to the fact that it was enjoyable and encourages repetition. By artificially triggering the release of dopamine, drugs make your brain believe using them is enjoyable and you should do it again.

Every human brain is programmed to remember the people, places, experiences, and things that triggered a release of dopamine so that it can repeat the situation at another time. But these bursts of dopamine are so intense that your brain adjusts the reward circuit to value drugs more than natural rewards. Because someone is less sensitive to natural rewards, it can leave them feeling "flat" or depressed when they don’t use them.

Over time, the desire to abuse drugs becomes a learned reflex. The people, places, experiences, and things linked to their drug habit can trigger the use. Smelling your favorite food can make you hungry even though you’ve eaten a full meal. The difference is that the desire to use drugs again is usually a lot more overwhelming. In fact, even years of sobriety doesn’t always stop those cravings from feeling uncontrollable.

So is drug addiction a disease or not?

Society’s viewpoint on the topic of addiction is always evolving. How individuals, organizations, and medical professionals define addiction varies. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) all have a similar description for addiction though.

Namely, they say it is a long term condition prone to relapses. And it's characterized by the compulsion to look for and use drugs despite negative consequences. They consider it a disease because addiction changes how the brain responds to certain situations. Also, these changes can last after someone has stopped abusing drugs.

Many people consider substance addiction to be a disease. By examining the similarities it shares with other diseases, you can understand why.

  • They disrupt the normal functioning of an internal organ, i.e. the heart for heart disease and the brain for addiction
  • They can decrease a person’s quality of life and increase the risk of premature death
  • They are preventable by avoiding poor choices and leading a healthy lifestyle
  • Further damage is preventable with treatment

The fact that periods of both recovery and relapse mark addiction makes it a lot like other diseases such as diabetes or hypertension. These are both lifelong diseases that have to be managed on a regular basis. The symptoms of a disease are likely to return if you don't follow your prescribed treatment plan. When you go back to managing your disease the way you’re supposed to, those symptoms will improve or disappear altogether.

Why addiction might not be a disease

You should also consider the factors that make people argue against defining addiction as a disease. Firstly, addiction is not transmissible or contagious. It is also not autoimmune, hereditary, or degenerative. And one could say that addiction is self-inflicted, meaning that a person actually gives the condition to themselves. The people who believe in this way of thinking focus more on the social and environmental factors that contribute to addiction.

Although these are different schools of thought, it's difficult to argue with certain aspects of each. It is true that misusing or abusing drugs for the first time is a voluntary choice for most people. But it's also true that they didn’t choose to ruin their health, relationships, and other areas of their lives. *Please note that misuse does not refer to people using drugs as per a valid prescription.

One could say that drug addiction is not really a disease, nor is being an addict totally a choice. Instead, you could say that a drug addict is suffering from a disorder. In fact, that is exactly what the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has done. They adopted the phrase “substance use disorder (SUD)” as a way to describe the problems related to substance abuse that is “compulsive and habitual”. By doing this, they avoid the confusion and stigma surrounding the term addiction.

Getting help for a drug addiction

No matter how you decide to define addiction, or what term you decide to use, the fact is that addiction is an enormous problem affecting millions of people in the U.S. Another fact that can’t be ignored is that many drugs, whether illegal or prescription, are quite addictive. If you or someone you care about is abusing alcohol or other drugs, it is never too late to look for help. Professional treatment is a proven way to effectively address your physical dependence and addiction.

The programs offered by professional treatment centers don’t consider the people who ask for help as addicts. They are individuals who are struggling with a chronic addiction that affects every aspect of their lives. Getting help may be intimidating, but the team at Clean & Sober Recovery Services has many resources designed to make the process as comfortable as possible. So please, contact us today.

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