Often perceived as a habit, substance use disorder is also an illness.
To those not familiar with addiction, it’s all too easy to think of it as a purely social, choice-based problem. For them, addiction seems like a moral failing that could be fixed if the addict simply had the will to do it. We feel there is medical information to the contrary.
Medical research has shown that drug and alcohol addiction is a chronic disease of the brain which physically alters its structure and function.
The disease creates a feedback loop so powerful that eventually the need to take a drug or drink alcohol will be so powerful it is nearly impossible to resist, even if the addict knows they should.
Thus, a person suffering from addiction must manage it like any other disease (e.g. diabetes), or it could lead to grave outcomes, including death.
Mood-altering drugs have their effect by causing an overload in the brain’s reward system.
The pleasure-causing chemical dopamine, which the brain produces naturally, is either imitated by the drug itself, or the drug induces an abnormally large surge of dopamine production. This leaves the user with a feeling of euphoria, much more intense than a normally pleasurable stimulus.
However, the brain knows that the amount of dopamine it is producing is excessive and adapts by reducing the number of dopamine receptors or decreasing dopamine production. This causes normal pleasure to be less noticeable, leading users to go back to the drug. With enough drug use, the user will be literally unable to feel natural pleasure because of the way their brain has altered itself. After further use, there may be so few dopamine receptors in the brain that even the addict’s drug of choice doesn’t produce a pleasurable feeling, aside from staving off withdrawal.
Addiction Changes the Brain’s Chemistry
Scans of drug addicts’ brains have also shown decreased activity in the areas responsible for memory, learning, judgment, and impulse control. Therefore, an “out-of-control addict” isn’t taking drugs because of a weak will, disregard for themselves and loved ones, or poor character, but because their disease has altered their brain so much that they lack the capability to stop by themselves.
Addiction is a degenerative disease, and if it goes untreated, it will kill its victims.
At The Ridge, we treat addiction as a physical and mental illness is and no different than any other ailment. Our board-certified addictionologist Dr. Marc Whitsett is extremely familiar with addiction symptoms and effects on the brain, and is well-equipped to combat them, allowing their patients to regain control over their lives and feel healthy again. Addiction is never cured, and an addict will always need to remain vigilant in their sobriety, attending aftercare and avoiding temptations to relapse. It’s a difficult road, but recovery is possible, and the first step is seeking treatment.