Is Addiction a Disease?

Is addiction a disease or a choice?

That is the question that often plagues people with chronic substance abuse problems. Social media features thousands of posts that ask this very question, and the answers are as varied as they come.

But what is the real answer?

To find out, it is essential for us to take an in depth look at what addiction is and how it affects the person in every possible way. Whether it is a disease or a choice, the reality is that it can and does leave a lifelong impact on everyone it afflicts.

What is Addiction?

The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as, “…a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.” The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Society of Addiction Medicine both have similar definitions.

When an individual suffers from an addiction, they are constantly focused on using their substance of choice. They think about it to the point where it completely takes over their life. They know it will cause problems for them, but they still feel compelled to use, regardless of the consequences.

A person who has an addiction is usually diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. This means that their brains have become wired to use drugs or alcohol and they are unable to stop on their own. They experience intense and frequent cravings, which drive them back to using over and over again.

The short answer to this question is yes. Alcoholism is an addiction, and someone who is an alcoholic is considered to be addicted to alcohol. 

By now, most people understand the fact that alcoholism is a serious problem. But so many believe that they could never fall victim to it themselves. There is also a stigma surrounding alcohol that leads people to believe that it is safe to drink excessively because only certain “types” of people become addicted to it.

While there is no problem with occasional, or even moderate drinking, according to the CDC, alcohol consumption can quickly get out of hand. To clarify, this is defined has having up to two drinks per day for men, and up to one drink per day for women.

One of the problems with alcohol is that people generally fail to recognize how addictive it can be. The same is true for many other types of drugs. In fact, there are some substances that people claim to be completely unaware of the drug’s addictive nature until it is too late.

The following are all examples of addictive drugs:

  • Heroin Heroin is a drug that people often turn to once they can no longer access their prescription painkillers.
  • Prescription Opioids – Drugs like Vicodin, Morphine and Oxycodone are very addictive. But many individuals are not aware of that when they start taking them.
  • Cocaine – There are some experts who believe that it is possible to get addicted to cocaine right after the first use of it.
  • Methamphetamine – Commonly referred to as crystal meth, this drug is also highly addictive. It is a stimulant and people can grow dependent upon it quickly.
  • Benzodiazepines – Drugs like Ativan and Valium are often prescribed to people with severe anxiety or sleep problems. When taken long-term, these medications can cause people to get addicted to them.
  • Marijuana – You may be surprised to see this drug on this list. But it is possible to get addicted to pot, psychologically; although it is not physically addictive.

How do Addictions Affect People Physically?

Depending on the type of drug a person is using, the physical effects may not be present immediately. While it may be easy to tell when a person is on certain types of drugs right away, that is not always the case. Sometimes it can take years before the physical effects start to become evident.

Regardless, abusing alcohol and/or drugs will eventually take its toll. The health consequences of substance abuse should never be ignored.

The Short-Term Physical Effects of Substance Abuse

The short-term physical effects of drug or alcohol use will vary of course, depending on the type of substance being used. People tend to think that using a drug one time should not have any serious or ill effects. But of course, they fail to recognize that even using one time can be detrimental to their health in some cases.

Some of the short-term physical effects of substance abuse include:

  •     Experiencing changes in appetite.
  •     Becoming very drowsy, or highly stimulated and alert.
  •     Changes in heart rate.
  •     Changes in blood pressure.
  •     The risk of a heart attack or stroke.
  •     The risk of psychosis.
  •     The risk of a possible overdose, which can lead to death.

The Long-Term Physical Effects of Drugs and/or Alcohol

It makes sense that the longer a person uses a particular substance, the more damage it might do. Keep in mind that with long-term use, the risk of experiencing the above short-term effects is still there. But in addition to them, there are a number of long-term effects that can occur as well, such as:

  •     The risk of heart disease.
  •     The risk of lung disease.
  •     The risk of cancer.
  •     The possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis and other diseases.
  •     The risk of getting addicted.

Long-term substance abuse can have a direct impact on a person’s appearance as well. It is not uncommon for people to:

  •     Struggle with their personal hygiene.
  •     Get red and itchy eyes, or even eyes that appear “sunk in.”
  •     Form rashes in various areas on their skin.
  •     Begin to have dental problems because of rotting teeth and cavities.
  •     Lose or gain a lot of weight.

How do They Affect People Psychologically?

Of course, using drugs and alcohol is also bound to have an incredible impact on a person psychologically as well.

For many people, using substances is something they do to combat symptoms of a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. This is called having a co-occurring disorder. But some people use substances just because they like the way they make them feel. For these individuals, the psychological impact comes later, once they have become addicted.

How do Drugs and Alcohol Change a Person’s Brain?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers some great information on how drugs impact the human brain – the most complex organ in the body. The brain carries a lot of responsibility. It regulates the body’s basic, everyday functions, dictates a person’s behaviors, and allows for us to respond to the world around us.

There is a series of neurons within the brain that are responsible for sending messages back and forth to each other. Neurotransmitters are sent across synapses and they attach to receptors on the receiving neuron. It works similar to the way a key works in a lock.

When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, these substances interfere with the way these messages are sent. Some types of drugs (such as opioids and cannabis) have natural neurotransmitters within the body. In a sense, they are the “key” that fits that type of lock. But they do not work the same way, and they can cause abnormal messages to be sent.

The Role of Dopamine in Addiction

Most addictions are driven because of dopamine. The pleasure or euphoria that people experience when they use is a direct result of increased dopamine being released into the brain. Some drugs also block the re-uptake of that excess dopamine, which causes the euphoria to last a long time.

Our brains were made to help us survive, and when we experience pleasurable, dopamine-releasing activities, we are inclined to repeat them. This is why people continue to perform these behaviors over and over again. But this cycle can interrupt the natural dopamine response, which is what leads to addiction.

People typically experience dopamine surges when something good happens to them. They may enjoy a delicious dinner or dessert, spend time with a close friend, or do anything else that makes them happy. Those are healthy and appropriate dopamine surges. But when drugs are introduced, over time, they block the brain’s ability to create this chemical on its own. There comes a point in time when they need to use their drug of choice to experience any kind of happiness at all. This is why people say that they do not feel like themselves unless they are using.

Understanding the Disease Model of Addiction

For the longest time, it was argued that addiction was not a disease; it was a weakness in character. Some people still hold true to that belief, and as a result, they feel completely powerless to overcome their substance abuse problems. That belief also contributes to the stigma of addiction, and it minimizes the challenge of recovering.

As we mentioned earlier, most medical associations define addiction as a disease. They liken it to other diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. These are all conditions that need to receive ongoing treatment. When treatment ceases, 9 times out of 10, the condition will only get worse.

Some people may be predisposed to becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they may or may not be aware of the risks. There is about a 50% chance that someone with genetic risk factors will develop an addiction. The same is true for other types of diseases as well.

On the other side, there are those who argue that addiction is a choice, and it is not a disease. In an article on the ModernMedicine Network website, Dr. Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D. weighed in with his point of view by saying:

The person we call an addict always monitors their rate of consumption in relation to relevant circumstances. For example, even in the most desperate, chronic cases, alcoholics never drink all the alcohol they can. They plan ahead, carefully nursing themselves back from the last drinking binge while deliberately preparing for the next one. This is not to say that their conduct is wise, simply that they are in control of what they are doing. Not only is there no evidence that they cannot moderate their drinking, there is clear evidence that they do so, rationally responding to incentives devised by hospital researchers. Again, the evidence supporting this assertion has been known in the scientific community for years.”

Others have argued similar points saying that:

  • Addiction cannot be transmitted to other people, so it is not contagious.
  • Addiction is not an autoimmune condition.
  • Addiction is not degenerative.
  • Addiction is self-induced, so people acquire it for themselves.
  • Addiction can be stopped as long as a person makes the decision to stop using.

While these are all interesting points, science says otherwise.

The Bottom Line: Is Addiction a Disease?

With so many different agencies making claims and presenting facts that support addiction as a disease, it is hard to argue the point. Most experts agree with one statement:

Addiction is a disease that begins with a choice.

There is no denying the fact that compulsively using drugs or alcohol changes how the way the brain responds in various situations. That applies to times of stress, receiving rewards and maintaining self-control. Also, some of the changes that occur can be long-term, and may not be undone just because the substance abuse stops.

It can be helpful to take a look at how addiction compares with heart disease. Both of them:

  • Cause a disruption in the regular functioning of a vital bodily organ.
  • Can lead to a decrease in a person’s quality of life.
  • Can lead to an increased risk of premature death.
  • Can be preventable by making different choices and living a healthy lifestyle.
  • Are treatable, and treatment can prevent any further damage from taking place.

Furthermore, there are a number of contributing factors that are outside of the addict’s control. They include:

  • The presence of withdrawal symptoms – When an addict stop using, they are most likely going to go through some level of withdrawal. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and tend to get better with treatment and time. But in some cases – such as with alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal – these symptoms can be fatal.
  • The risk of relapsing Relapses are common with all types of diseases. They typically occur when treatment stops and the progression of recovery stops, or even starts to go backwards. Addicts often go through many relapses on their way to being free from substance abuse.
  • The risk of overdosing Overdoses and relapses often go hand in hand. This is because when a person reverts back to substance abuse, they typically will use their usual amount of their drug of choice. They do not realize that because of changing tolerance levels in the body, they can no longer handle their usual dose. The result is an overdose, which can be fatal if immediate medical treatment is not sought.
  • The risk of secondary addictions – Some people will form secondary addictions in an attempt to get away from the primary substance abuse problem. This is often seen in those who, for example, start using marijuana to get off opioids.
  • The progression of addiction – If left untreated, substance abuse problems inevitably progress. That is, unless something is done to interrupt that progression, such as an intervention or a decision to seek treatment. This is a condition that will only get worse if it is ignored.

If Addiction is a Disease, How Can People Recover From It?

So many will learn that their addiction is a disease, and that will cause them to feel an unsettling sense of doom. They assume that because it is a disease, there is no escaping it. We want to be clear – that is not the case at all.

It is possible to recover from an addiction by taking the right steps. But it is also important to know that some of the more commonly held beliefs about substance abuse are not exactly accurate.

The Role of Willpower in Recovery

For the vast majority of addicts, they claim that they cannot recover from their addictions because they do not have enough willpower. The reality is that these individuals have lost control over their actions. That means willpower is no longer a factor that can be relied upon at all. Drugs and alcohol have – essentially – hijacked their brains.

Dr. George Koob, who is the director of the National Institutes of Health weighs in by stating, A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth. The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.”

Because drug and alcohol addiction have a biological basis, good intentions and willpower is not enough to break it. A person may want to recover more than anything in the world, but that is not enough, in most cases.

The Benefits of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Getting professional treatment is the best way to recover from an addiction, regardless of what the person is addicted to. This usually means going through both detox and rehab, which we will discuss in more detail in just a moment.

As we mentioned previously, an addiction has both physical and psychological implications. Recovering from it means addressing both of these aspects in their entirety. This is generally done through detox (physical) and rehab (psychological), and both have their benefits.

Through detox, the individual is able to get help for their withdrawal symptoms. This might mean utilizing a combination of medications and holistic treatments in order to get them through this stage of recover. Through rehab, therapy is used to determine the underlying cause of the substance abuse problem. When the two are combined, and the individual is compliant with treatment, the chances of a long-term positive outcome are very good.

What Causes People to Get Addicted to Drug and Alcohol?

It is important to mention that even though people may be predisposed to addiction, that does not mean that they have to get addicted. It does begin with a choice to use, but once that choice has been made, there may be little to nothing the individual can do to avoid it.

There are several different things that experts believe can and do cause addictions to form.

As we mentioned earlier, chronic drug or alcohol use is very likely to lead to an addiction. This is because of the way dopamine responds in the brain, and because of other changes that take place there as well. The more a person uses, the more likely it is that they will become addicted.

There have been many studies done on the link between genetic and addiction. Many of these studies have included families with identical twins, fraternal twins, adopted siblings  and blood-related siblings. They suggest that 50% of a person’s risk of becoming an addict all depend on genetics.

Of course, there are other risk factors as well, such as:

  • A person’s home environment and family life.
  • A person’s peer group and school environment.
  • The age at which a person first uses drugs or alcohol.
  • The way in which a person uses (examples include smoking, injecting or ingesting).
  • The type of drug being used.
  • A person’s stress level.
  • A person’s individual metabolism and the way their body processes the drug.

Addiction: It All Begins With Alcohol and/or Drug Abuse

Again, becoming addicted to drugs and/or alcohol all begins with abusing them first. A person who has never used them cannot be called an addict even if they have a long family history of substance use. But it is that repeated misuse of them that eventually causes them to feel as though they need to use them all the time.

The Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

Once a person starts abusing drugs or alcohol, it should be fairly obvious that something is amiss. There are several warning signs that could indicate a problem, such as:

  • Increased irritability and anger.
  • Unusual unresponsiveness or an appearance of being “spaced out.”
  • Symptoms of depression or anxiety.
  • Temporary bouts of psychosis.
  • Sudden changes in appearance.

It is not always easy to tell when someone is abusing drugs or alcohol. But recognizing these signs can offer some clues.

How Long Does it Take to Get Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol?

There is no way to tell how long it might take a person to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Earlier, we talked about how some drugs can cause a quick addiction. Others may take a little longer. There are also people who can misuse drugs or alcohol on and off for years before forming addictions to them.

Because there is no definite time period for addiction, the best solution is not to start abusing substances at all. Otherwise, if the misuse is allowed to continue, it almost always lead to an addictive condition that needs to be treated.

What are the Signs of Addiction?

Once an addiction has formed, there are several signs that indicate its presence. Some of the signs of addiction include:

  • People may wonder whether or not they have become addicts. Once the questions begin, it is a pretty clear sign that there is a problem that needs treatment.
  • Becoming defensive whenever someone brings up their substance use. They may say that they can stop using anytime they feel like it.
  • Blaming others for their substance abuse. People typically refuse to take the blame for themselves and instead, point it toward others or their circumstances.
  • Telling lies and keeping secrets. There is no limit to the extent an addicted individual may go to preserve their substance abuse patterns.
  • Spending a lot of time using, recovering or planning to use again. That time starts to seep in and take from other parts of their lives.
  • Feeling guilty about their substance use. It is not uncommon for people to feel ashamed that they use drugs or alcohol; they just feel powerless to stop.
  • Becoming isolated from others who cannot justify their behavior. This is done in an attempt to protect their ability to continue to use.

Options for Addiction Recovery

Regardless of what type of addiction a person has, there are many options available to them for recovering. But of course, not all of them are beneficial. They include:

Quitting Cold Turkey

Some people feel that this is the easiest way, and that even though it will be painful, they believe it to be the most effective. It is a lot like ripping a Band-Aid off quickly. But even though cold turkey seems almost heroic, it puts people at risk for relapsing and overdosing. This is because it has shown to be ineffective in most cases.

Drug Detox Kits and Drinks

There are a multitude of products available that claim to help with withdrawal symptoms. Drug detox kits can be purchased over the counter, and they make a lot of promises about their effectiveness. But none of them have been approved by the FDA, and there is no proof that they work at all.

Natural Detox Methods

The same is true for various natural detox methods. There are many supplements available that are quite powerful, but to utilize them to help with withdrawal symptoms is dangerous. Some of them may take the edge off, but they are no substitute for a quality recovery program.

Professional Drug and Alcohol Treatment

The best option is to go through professional drug and alcohol treatment. This allows the individual to get the help they need from experienced staff members who know how to treat addictions. As we mentioned earlier, this usually means accessing both detox and rehab to treat all aspects of the addiction.

What Happens During Drug and Alcohol Rehab?

Making a plan to go to drug and alcohol rehab is a very wise decision. It allows people to take the time to focus on themselves and what they need to do to recover. But there may be those who are very nervous about it because they have never been to rehab before. In that case, it is important to know what to expect.

A medically supervised detox may be required for certain types of drugs, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines. This allows the patient to take medications to help them through withdrawal. There are many types of medications that have been approved by the FDA solely for this purpose.

After the detox process is over, a quality drug and alcohol rehab is the best course of action. Therapy is needed in order to understand why the person chose to start using in the first place. Once the root cause is determined, the proper steps can be taken to treat the disease of addiction.

There are many different types of rehab programs. Since every addiction is different, people need to opt for what will work for them.

Recovery is Possible From the Disease of Addiction

Get Help Today

It is important to note that while addiction cannot be cured, it can be treated. Recovery is possible for you if you have formed an addiction to alcohol, opioids or any other type of drug. We are here to assist you at Women’s Recovery in Colorado.

We offer an outpatient addiction treatment facility, and we have two different locations: one in Denver and one in Dillon. Our goal is to help you meet your recovery goals, and there is no reason why we should not start right now.

Do you have questions about addiction as a disease, or about starting treatment? Please contact us today.