Addiction is a Disease

in Addiction
Morgan Metzger
Published Nov 27, 2020
Addiction is a Disease, Not a Moral Issue

Many people believe addiction is not a disease. In the 1930s, scientists began to study addictive behavior and believed addiction was a cause of flawed morals and a lack of willpower. In response, society began to treat addiction as a moral failing, which led to punishment rather than treatment. Addiction was officially termed a disease by the American Medical Association in 1987. Addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD), is a complex disease that affects the brain and behavior. Several behavioral, environmental, and biological factors contribute to the cause of SUD. Untreated addiction involves physical and mental health disorders that may become life-threatening if not treated.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is characterized as compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease, as drugs change the brain’s structure and how it works. Brain changes can be long-lasting and cause destructive behaviors.

Effects of Addiction on the Brain

Drugs alter parts of the brain that are necessary for life-sustaining functions and can lead to compulsive drug-seeking behaviors. The components of the brain affected by addiction include:

  • The basal ganglia, which form the motivation behind engaging in pleasurable acts. This part of the brain is commonly known as the “reward center.” Drugs over-activate this area of the brain, causing feelings of euphoria. The basal ganglia adapt to the drug’s presence with extended use, making it difficult to feel pleasure outside of using substances.
  • The extended amygdala produces feelings of anxiety, irritability, and unease. When drug use ceases, this part of the brain creates the symptoms associated with withdrawal. Someone suffering from SUD will use substances to get temporary relief from the feelings the extended amygdala produces rather than get high.
  • The prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking, planning, solving problems, making decisions, and exerting self-control. Those with a SUD will seek substances compulsively with little impulse control.

The “reward center” of the brain works to release dopamine when experiencing pleasure. Dopamine signals make it easier to repeat actions over and over, leading to the formation of habits. Drug use releases large surges of dopamine. Due to the excessive dopamine, the brain learns to crave drugs over anything.

Behavioral Factors That Increase Risk of Addiction

Early drug use may cause someone to develop SUD. Research shows that the earlier someone begins to use substances, the more likely they are to develop serious issues. Early use also can affect parts of the brain that may not be developed yet. The method of administration is also a risk factor in creating an addiction. Smoking or injecting a substance increases addictive potential. These administration methods cause drugs to enter the brain within seconds, causing an intense rush of pleasure. However, these intense feelings typically fade within minutes. The quickly felt contrast in feelings leads to repeated drug-taking to mimic the first felt pleasure.

Environmental Factors That Increase Risk of Addiction

Multiple environmental factors increase the risk of developing SUD. Home and family life can increase the risk. Parents or older family members who use drugs may influence a person being exposed to them to engage in similar behaviors. Fellow peers can also increase the risk of drug use, increasing the risk of developing an addiction. Friends who use substances can sway someone to use drugs for the first time or continue drug use.

Biological Factors That Increase Risk of Addiction

Those with family members with a SUD are at higher risk of developing an addiction themselves. Scientists estimate that genetic factors cause 40-60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction. Those with mental disorders are also at a greater risk of SUD.

Long-Term Drug Use Effects on the Brain

The brain responds to the surges of dopamine caused by drug use by producing less dopamine or reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. The impact dopamine has on an addicted person’s brain becomes abnormally low, and the ability to feel any pleasure at all is reduced. A person with SUD may eventually feel lifeless, depressed, and unable to find joy in previous activities that brought happiness. Long-term use can also cause impairment in cognitive function. The brain may also become conditioned to trigger uncontrollable cravings when experiencing environments once related to drug use. This conditioning can affect a person years after drug use has stopped.

Drug Use Physical Effects

Continuous drug use causes short-term and long-term effects on the body. Short-term effects include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in wakefulness
  • Changes in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Changes in mood
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Psychosis
  • Overdose
  • Death

Long-term effects on the body include:

  • Heart or lung disease
  • Cancer
  • Mental illness
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Hepatitis

Addiction is a disease, not a moral issue. Significant changes to the brain from drug use cause an impulsive need to seek out substances, categorizing addiction as a brain disease. There are many behavioral, environmental, and biological risk factors for developing an addiction. Long-term drug use may also have lifelong effects on the brain and body that may be fatal. At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we provide high-quality medical detox to be the best first step in overcoming substance use disorders. When attempting to stop drug use, detox may be painful, uncomfortable, and frightening. We provide safe and comfortable treatment to best help you overcome addiction. Gallus Medical Detox Centers have the expertise to treat patients with substance use disorders. Our program is designed to create lasting change. We also provide you with a psychologist who will help you identify the next steps in your recovery journey. We want to ensure your success in long-term recovery. To take the first step in overcoming addiction, call us at (866) 296-5242.