Why Is Addiction a Disease?

Substance use dependency or addiction is a complex disease that affects the brain as well as other parts of the body. Today, most medical associations define addiction as a disease. But for a long time, people tended to consider addiction a personal choice or a moral defect. Under-estimating the physiological changes caused by substance use may not only perpetuate the stigma associated with it, but also delegitimizes medical professionals’ efforts to treat it. 

Although research on the brain’s recovery from substance abuse is still in its infancy, scientists are positive that the neurotoxic effects of certain substances (such as alcohol and marijuana) in the brain can be reversed. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, understanding why addiction is ultimately a disease – just like other diseases of the body such as diabetes and cancer – you can overcome some blind spots during the journey towards recovery. 

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

It is widely known that repeated use of drugs and alcohol can affect the brain’s neurological pathways. Many scientists even refer to addiction specifically as a "brain disease." Substance use may lead to some physiological damages on brain structures due to what is known as “neuroplasticity.” Like many parts of the human body, the brain is a highly adaptable organ with billions of neurons and pathways responding to its immediate chemical environment. 

Normally, a person’s brain develops most of the pathways by age 25. This may explain why addiction at an early age is often difficult to quit. Even after that, the brain still has a great deal of plasticity to adapt. So depending on the frequency and duration of substance use, a person’s age, genetics, and other mental health variables, the way that drugs and alcohol reshape the brain’s neurological pathways also differs. 

After regular and long-term exposure to substances, the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine pathway (also known as the “reward circuit”) can be reshaped. Normally, the brain has tight control over its natural supplies of dopamine. However, substance use tends to artificially increase levels of dopamine, preventing the neurons from doing their normal job of holding down natural dopamine production. Over time, this restructuring not only alters the dopamine pathway but also recruits other brain chemicals. 

In a word, substance use can train one’s brain to a type of artificial neurological saturation. The brain is no longer satisfied with what used to be natural rewards. This is why from a behavioral level, you can observe that the addicted person’s ability to experience pleasure from naturally rewarding activities is reduced.

How Does the Brain Heal After Recovery?

Once you decide to quit drugs and alcohol, the brain begins an active adaptation process. Before you reach a more stable stage of sobriety, your body is likely to react to the absence of drugs and alcohol through withdrawal syndromes and intense cravings. This is the most difficult phase of recovery, but it is also when the body, including the brain, is activating its own self-repair processes.

Usually, within one week or so after quitting substance use, the brain will likely begin replenishing its lost grey matter. For the next several months, other areas and the white matter in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain will also begin to heal. In about ninety days, the level of naturally generated dopamine can return to its own schedule, because that is the time required for the brain’s receptors to re-absorb natural dopamine. 

At around fourteen months after detox treatment, the brain’s activity can revert back to a state of normal functioning. In a 2001 study featured in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists used imaging technology to measure a post-recovery brain, and they found that fourteen months is how long it takes for the dopamine levels in the brain’s reward region to return to normal functioning. According to the study, after this period of abstinence, a previously addicted brain should look similar to a healthy brain. 

Will This Understanding Help?

Like other diseases, addiction is also caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and behavioral factors. For example, scientists find that genetics play an important role in the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction. 

However, knowing this should not instill a sense of fatalism. On the contrary, it can help an individual understand why addiction can be so hard to quit, requiring more humility, motivation, and resilience from them. One also needs to be patient and disciplined on this journey.

It is also important to know that other environmental factors may worsen or lessen addictive habits. This is why individuals need ongoing support for sustainable recovery without relapse. One should also consider an all-around holistic treatment approach. One study shows that treatment plans that incorporate mindfulness and meditation practices can effectively lessen the risk of relapse. This happens because these activities help restore brain pathways.

Normalizing the disease nature of addiction can help fight off stigmatization. When supporting a loved one that is going through treatment and recovery, it is important to advocate for that person with love and understanding. Advocate the fact that addiction is just one type of brain disease. This perspective is more recovery-friendly and can help change the shame-filled family dynamics. Helping to demystify addiction can benefit many people from different walks of life. 

Do you think one can quit substance use by mere willpower? Have you blamed your child for not quitting drugs? Are you aware that addiction is a type of brain disease? Supporting your loved one towards recovery requires more education on your part about what addiction is. You also need to overcome the kind of stigma that society often associates with addiction. Only by doing these things can you help your loved one return to normal. At South Florida Intervention, we have the expertise and experience to coach you. Our parent coaches have walked alongside many families. You can discuss any question with our experienced interventionists, and they can inform you to face these ongoing challenges of addiction recovery. We strive to provide you with the best service possible including recovery coaching, case management, and escort service. It is time for you to reach out and fight for your loved one. Call us at (202) 390-2273.