Is Addiction a Brain Disorder?

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Addiction is a serious problem that affects millions of people all around the world, yet it is often misunderstood. Addiction is so much more than simply a bad habit or a lack of willpower. Addiction is actually a complex brain disorder that requires specialized treatment and rehabilitation to overcome. When we understand the underlying chemicals involved in addiction and how those affect our bodies, minds, and behaviors, we can approach treatment from a more informed perspective. In this article, we will explore what it means to have a brain disorder and whether substance abuse falls into that category. Lastly, we will look at the importance of addiction treatment.

Defining Addiction

At its core, addiction is a brain disorder characterized by changes in the brain’s reward system. This reward system is responsible for how we experience and seek pleasurable sensations. It also plays a part in memory and learning. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), when a person takes drugs or participates in other activities that promote a sense of pleasure, the reward system releases “happy” neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters include dopamine and endorphins. 

Over time, these pleasurable experiences and the chemicals associated with them can actually alter brain functioning. New neural pathways are created and the brain will physically change. In turn, this change in brain structure influences our behavior so that we take actions we wouldn’t have taken before. 

More specifically, these changes may lead to our engaging in compulsive drug use, drug-seeking behavior, and having more difficulty with resisting cravings. In addition, when we stop taking drugs, we will experience more intense withdrawal symptoms due to the changes in brain chemistry. This causes us to be less able to quit, despite our good intentions.

Chemistry and Changes in the Brain

According to an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the primary neurotransmitter involved in addiction is dopamine. Dopamine is released when we experience pleasurable activities. This includes drug use. This release of dopamine reinforces the act of drug-taking, causing it to be more likely to be repeated. Over time, this cycle can lead to a decrease in dopamine production. This can make it harder for an individual to feel pleasure from anything that isn’t drug-related.

In addition to dopamine, other neurotransmitters play a major role in addiction. One of these is serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. Serotonin also helps regulate stress levels. When drugs are used, these chemicals can become imbalanced. Their production decreases, which leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression. What’s more, when a person takes even a short break from the substance they’re using, withdrawal symptoms kick in, which can also include depression and anxiety. All of this aids the ongoing cycle of addiction. 

Additionally, drugs can affect the hormones that are released in the body. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine cause the body to release high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with the stress response. These hormones can make it more difficult to manage cravings and can lead to relapse.

Genetics and Environment

Genes can influence our risk of becoming addicted by affecting our behavior as well as our brain chemistry. Several different genetic variations may increase our likelihood of developing an addiction. In some cases, these variations may even result in our having more difficulty quitting an addictive substance or behavior.

Environmental factors can also contribute to addiction. Family and peer influences, social support, access to drugs and alcohol, and stress levels can all be potential triggers for substance use. Additionally, mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety may also increase the risk of becoming addicted as we seek substance use to cover up uncomfortable feelings.

Diagnosing Addiction

A diagnosis of addiction is made based on the presence of certain signs and symptoms. These symptoms include a strong need to use the substance and difficulty in controlling its use, symptoms of physical or psychological withdrawal when the substance is not used, and consequences related to its use. These negative consequences can include neglecting daily responsibilities or engaging in impulsive or risky behaviors.

Unfortunately, there is no single test that can diagnose addiction. Instead, a diagnosis is usually made based on clinical evaluation. A mental health professional can help to assess our behavioral history and current habits to determine whether we are addicted to a substance. This occurs either in private counseling practices or at addiction treatment facilities. Addiction treatment plans are tailored to each individual’s needs and may involve medications, counseling, or other support services.

Finding Help

While we may know exactly how addiction functions, we will never be better until we choose treatment. We encourage you to choose First Steps Recovery, an addiction treatment center located in Clovis, California that serves the central valley area. Our facilities provide evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment for individuals looking for support. In addition, we provide a variety of services such as online assessments, personalized treatment plans, access to certified counselors and therapists, and post-treatment aftercare plans.

Addiction is a disease that will change you from the inside out. Our mission as a rehabilitation center is to help you understand your addiction and overcome the roadblocks that stand between you and full recovery. All it takes is the realization that you have an addiction and the choice to get better. You are capable of complete recovery. We want to help you achieve that reality. 

Substance abuse changes our bodily chemistry. It turns our brains into pleasure seekers and throws critical thinking out the window. Addiction can also completely erase our personality and happiness. At First Steps Recovery, we believe that when you choose treatment, you can find true healing. Our facilities and therapies are designed to address the causes of addictions. Despite what you may now believe, you can defeat drug misuse. With the support of those who care, you can reach full sobriety. Please make the decision for yourself today and choose rehabilitation over addiction. For more information on how we can help you fight addiction and its destructive influence please contact First Steps Recovery at (844) 489-0836

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