Why is Addiction a Disease?

by | Apr 13, 2019 | Treatment

There are many people who don’t understand the reasons why people become addicted to drugs and alcohol. They may think that addiction is the result of a moral failing or a defect in character. In reality, drug and alcohol addiction is seen as a complex and progressive disease. While the disease of addiction is devastating to both the addict and the ones they love, increased research has led to treatments that can help addicts return to normal lives.

If you are new to the thought of addiction as a disease, this article will help you better understand this concept. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction and need help, call Bridges of Hope toll-free today.

What Is A Disease?

A disease is any condition that impairs the normal functioning of your body. Most diseases develop from a specific abnormality in the body that causes distinguishable signs and symptoms. The symptoms can include pain, swelling, fever, and loss of function. Even though most diseases are caused by external factors such as bacteria, viruses, and toxins, diseases can also be caused by internal factors like genetic predisposition. One thing all diseases have in common is that they are not normal for the body to experience.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a disease that affects the body and brain. It involves compulsive behavior with the use of one or more substances regardless of health and social consequences. Addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. In the formation of addictions, there is never only one influence.

Addiction impairs the body’s normal functioning. Addiction takes over the mind, making it difficult for individuals to control impulses for certain substances or behaviors that can be harmful. This change in functionality can have devastating effects on an individual’s mental, physical, and social well-being. These effects manifest themselves as signs and symptoms.

Common physical signs of addiction often include:

  • Enlarged or small pupils
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Unusual body odors
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Looking unkempt
  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Marks on skin
  • Poor personal hygiene

Addiction can also cause psychological signs and symptoms, including:

  • Personality changes
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Paranoid, fearful, or obsessive thoughts
  • Negative self-image
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feelings of apathy or disinterest
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Dismal outlook on or attitude toward life

Behaviorally, individuals living with addiction tend to:

  • Have shifts in their social circles
  • Stop participating in family activities
  • Perform poorly at work or school
  • Experience legal and financial challenges
  • Behave secretly
  • Isolate themselves from others
  • Neglect their responsibilities

Reasons Why Addiction is a Disease

1. Addiction Changes Brain Functioning and Structure

addict overdosing on drugsPerhaps the biggest reason why addiction is a disease is the fact that chronic substance abuse changes brain functioning and structure. Drugs have immediate impacts on both neurotransmitter systems and at the cellular level. With chronic use, drugs and alcohol alter the functions of neurons. With these changes in the neurons, a person’s behavior changes over time.

The neurotransmitter that is most associated with the development of substance abuse is dopamine. Drugs and alcohol release incredible levels of dopamine in the brain, which creates a reinforcing pattern. In the attempt to adapt to the surges in dopamine, the brain will produce less of this neurotransmitter as well as reduce the number of receptor cells.

2. Addiction Has Genetic Factors

Another important component in the addiction as disease paradigm is the role of genetics and family history. Although everyone has the potential to develop an addiction during their lives, there are some people who are more predisposed to develop an addiction. According to information provided by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), about half the risk of developing an addiction is due to genetic factors. Meaning, that if their family has a history of addiction, that person is likely to develop a similar addiction. This thought process suggests that brain chemistry, brain structure, and genetic abnormalities that cause human behavior are related to the predisposition of addictions among relatives.

Additionally, the NCADD states that studies of adopted children and twins raised apart have shown the risk of developing a substance abuse problem tends to run in families.

In addition to these studies, researchers also study large families to further understand addiction as a disease model. Genetic researchers compare the DNA sequences of those family members who are affected by an addiction to drugs and alcohol with those who are not addicts.

Predispositions to addiction can vary from one person to another because each person has a unique physiology and genetic makeup. Every person will have a different “enjoyment” during each addiction. This “enjoyment” is what makes some activities more addictive. The ability to temper these “enjoyments” with rational thoughts is a brain function that also varies from person to person.

3. Addiction Has Environmental Factors

In the addiction as a disease model, an individual’s environment is closely linked to their genetic predisposition to drug and alcohol abuse. Much like any other disease, the disease of addiction can develop from one’s surroundings. According to information on the Learn Genetics website, there are several domains that can contribute to the development of addiction as a disease:

  • The Community Domain – Within an individual’s community, there are several factors that can play a significant part in their likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol. For example, if a person’s community has favorable attitudes toward drug use, firearms, and crime, the risk of developing an addiction to substances increases.
  • The Family Domain – Within one’s personal connections, family dysfunction, and problems at home are significant in the increased risk of developing an addiction. Influences such as parenting styles and level of supervision play an important role in the development of later substance abuse. Authoritarian and avoidant parenting, exposure to abuse, and divorce are all associated with an increased likelihood of substance addictions. It is also important to note that parents who have favorable attitudes towards drug use or use drugs themselves often have children who use drugs.
  • The Peer Domain – When looking at these factors in the disease model of addiction, the single biggest contributing risk factor of substance use is friends who abuse drugs and alcohol. The idea, “you are who your friends are” plays a pivotal role in who someone becomes. Like one’s family environment, friends who have favorable attitudes towards drug use or use drugs can increase the risk of addiction. Someone’s friends in adolescence have a greater impact on them than they think. At an impressionable age, it is important for a person to align themselves with people that have like-minded aspirations and morals. If their friends are interested in experimenting with substances then that person will be more inclined to follow in their judgments. Social media also follows this thought process. If an adolescent sees substance use on various avenues of social media being portrayed as cool and advantageous then their risk of substance use could increase.
  • The School Domain – The increased risk of drug abuse can also be tied to an individual’s relationship to their educational environment. A student’s performance, participation, and commitment to their learning and school, in general, can be a major risk factor in developing a substance abuse problem.
4. Addiction Has Behavioral Factors

Many people who dabble with drugs will do so at an early age. They may also be using drugs in an attempt to manage other symptoms of an existing mental illness.

Initially, the decision to use substances generally reflects a person’s choice of free will. However, once that choice has been made the opportunity of free will is lost. After the addiction sets in, behavioral aspects factor in and a person’s brain transforms. One of the most defining symptoms of addiction is a loss of control.

If a person chooses to regain that control they will be faced with behavioral factors that could make matters difficult. Symptoms of withdrawal can be horrendous and often result in a person using again to escape from the traumatizing experience.

Common withdrawal symptoms can include, intense craving for the substance regardless of how long someone goes without it, changes in sleeping patterns, agitation, anxiety, depression, seizures, chest tightness, tremors/shakiness, and death.

People Addicted to Substances Are Vulnerable to Other Addictions

For those with drug and alcohol addiction, the risk of developing other addictions increases significantly. As stated earlier, chronic drug use rewires the brain. It is common for people who are addicted to one drug to become addicted to another drug or activity. This is often referred to as cross-addiction in the disease model of addiction. This can be seen particularly in those families with a strong history of addiction.

Addiction is Treatable

As with other diseases, addiction can be effectively treated through medications and professional treatment programs. There is an increasing number of treatment facilities that are adopting medically assisted treatment (MAT) programs. For those struggling with opioid, opiate, or alcohol abuse, there are effective medications that can help them overcome their addictions for good.

In addition to medically assisted treatment, drug treatment facilities nationwide offer a wide range of programs and services that can be created to meet everyone’s unique recovery needs. Whether it is intensive inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, day treatment, or sober living, treatment facilities have programs that can benefit everyone who is suffering from addiction.

Take Control of Your Life Today!

The disease of addiction is both progressive and complex. When left unchecked, drug addiction can not only negatively impact an addict’s life, it also impacts the lives of their loved ones. People suffering from addiction although had a choice to “just say no” in the beginning, no longer have the luxury of control over their choices. Their minds and bodies are controlled by the product of their addictions. If you or someone you love is fighting a losing battle with drugs and alcohol, you must act today. With so many treatment options, you may feel overwhelmed and not know where to turn.

When you are considering treatment, Bridges of Hope should be the first and only call you make. Our experienced and compassionate staff will work with you every step of the way to ensure you get the treatment and support you need to overcome your addiction. No matter how severe your addiction, Bridges of Hope will provide the tools you need to experience happiness, health, and long-term recovery. Call today!