Is Addiction a Disease?

Published by John Gillen | Last updated: 3rd April 2023 | All Sources

In the twenty-first century the concept of ‘addiction as disease’ is well founded and unanimously accepted amongst the medical community. In fact, the ‘addiction as disease’ first appeared about 40 years ago, way back in the 1970s.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as ‘a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.’

However the layman may be surprised to learn of this concept. Even today it is popular for people to believe addiction is a conscious decision and one illustrating a lack of will power or moral judgement on the addict’s behalf.

But this contention is deeply flawed.

Here is why:

Drugs and alcohol affect the brain’s chemistry. In fact addiction is considered a ‘brain disease’. Substances disrupt and/or imitate chemical messengers in the brain. Substances also engage the brain’s ‘reward system’.

Powerful cravings and withdrawal symptoms of a physical nature are experienced by addicts who try to ‘kick’ their habit. Drug and alcohol use become compulsive. Addicts have little control over their decision to drink or use. In fact addicts continue to drink or use in the face of significant harmful consequences to their health, family life and career.


An illness of the brain

Drugs such as heroin and marijuana mimic neurotransmitters in the brain. When these drugs come in contact with the brain they force the brain to release ‘feel good’ hormones. Over time the brain stops producing its own supply of these hormones and relies on the arrival of drugs in the bloodstream instead to carry out this function.

When the user stops taking these drugs the brain does not immediately start to produce these feel good hormones naturally. Users thus ‘crash’ and experience acutely painful withdrawal symptoms due to the lack of hormone functionality in the brain.


It’s all about brain chemistry

Drugs such as crystal meth and cocaine do not mimic neurotransmitters but force the brain to release neurotransmitters which are naturally produced. This typically means dopamine. These drugs then prevent the brain re-uptaking dopamine forcing the user to feel immensely uncomfortable.

The user must continue to use these drugs in order to function normally since the brain does not produce enough dopamine without them. Dopamine metabolism is wholly compromised by drug use. A prolonged detox is in order to kick-start the brain’s natural production of dopamine.

The brain’s reward system is in a continuous flux of over- and under-stimulation. Long term users see a reduction in the number of dopamine receptors in the brain. Users thus feel depressed and attempt to increase drug use to feel ‘normal’ again.


How to recover from this illness

Recovery is most effective when addicts move into a residential rehab clinic for the duration of their treatment. An alcohol and drug detoxification is carried out safety since clients receive round-the-clock medical observation. Abstinence is key for progression.

After a week or two the brain once again starts to produce dopamine without relying on drugs. Once detoxification concludes clients are subject to therapy and counselling sessions. This ensures the psychological component of addiction is treated as well as physical withdrawal symptoms.


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John Gillen

John Gillen - Author Last updated: 3rd April 2023

John Gillen is a leading addiction treatment expert with over 15 years of experience providing evidence-based treatment methods for individuals throughout the UK. John also co-authors the book, The Secret Disease of Addiction, which delves into how the addictive mind works and what treatment techniques work best.