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is addiction a disease
May 31, 2021

Is Addiction a Disease?

Despite all the research and progress we’ve made in understanding addiction, many people still question whether addiction is a legitimate illness or a series of misguided choices. For people who don’t struggle with substance abuse viewing the problem from the outside, the self-destructive behavior associated with addiction may seem baffling. Why would someone continue to drink or use drugs despite all the negative consequences? The answer lies in biology. 

How Drugs Affect the Brain

Respected organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine agree that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain the same way diabetes is a chronic disease of the pancreas and cardiovascular disease impacts the heart. The National Institute on Drug Abuse goes one step further and classifies addiction as a mental illness, in addition to a brain disease.

Over time, psychoactive substances take over the brain’s pleasure center and reward mechanism. As a user’s tolerance builds, it requires increasingly higher doses of drugs or alcohol for them to achieve the desired feeling. Continuing to drink or use drugs in these large amounts “teaches” the brain to rely on these substances to maintain daily stability. At this point, your built-in reward system is no longer sufficient to provide the baseline dopamine levels your brain would naturally depend on. This phenomenon is called dependence. 

What Is a Substance Dependence?

People with a substance dependence will notice they don’t feel like themselves when they’re sober. Trying to taper off or quit will lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms such as mood changes, fatigue, nausea, chills and flu-like body aches. These unpleasant effects, coupled with cravings for the substances, can overrule the will to “just say no.”

Because of the changes drug and alcohol abuse wreaks upon the brain, someone with a substance dependence will also demonstrate impaired decision-making skills. That explains why people who are successful in other areas of their lives might be willing to throw it all away in thrall to addiction.

What Causes Addiction?

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of their upbringing, values or beliefs. Researchers have yet to identify a single, overriding reason why some people develop substance use disorders and others don’t. However, they have found a combination of factors that can increase your risk.

  • Genetics: Genes influence everything from brain chemistry to how quickly your body metabolizes drugs and alcohol, and the relationship between genetics and addiction is complex. Still, if you have a family history of substance abuse, you may be more vulnerable to addiction. 
  • Environment: Children who grow up surrounded by fast food, soda and salty or sugary snacks have an increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. Likewise, watching your parents misuse drugs and alcohol can teach you from an early age that unhealthy behavior is the norm.
  • Early experimentation: Drinking or using drugs as a teenager, while your brain is still developing, heightens your chances of addiction and can cause severe, long-lasting damage to your brain and body.

Addiction Isn’t a Choice, but Getting Help Is

Nobody starts drinking or using drugs with the goal of becoming addicted. You don’t have a choice about how your brain reacts to substance use, but you do have the power to get clean and sober. Enrolling in an accredited treatment program at Beach House is your first step to breaking the cycle of addiction and discovering how fulfilling life can be without drugs or alcohol holding you back. 

Successful recovery begins with medically managed detox to stabilize you and free your brain and body from harmful substances. You’ll work with a therapist to uncover the underlying causes of your illness and develop healthy coping mechanisms to control your cravings and help your brain learn to function correctly without drugs. To learn more about what sets Beach House apart, connect with our caring admissions counselors today.