Is Addiction a Disease? Why or Why Not?

Q & A: Is Addiction a Disease?

Michelle Rosenker

August 30, 2019

Q: Is Addiction a Disease?

A: Addiction is a disease and is defined as such by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as follows:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of the brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

ASAM also states that:

“Addiction is characterized by the inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional relapse. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

It is because of the effects that substance abuse has on the brain that makes it qualify as a disease, as a disease is defined as a condition that alters how an organ functions.

Q: What role does the brain play in addiction?

A: The brain and its dysfunctions play the lead role in all addictions. This is because addiction develops best when there is dysfunction in areas of the brain that are connected to reward and pleasure seeking.

Hereditary traits such as impulsivity that are simply genetic can predispose a person to the likelihood of developing an addiction after abusing a substance that produces a sense of reward in the brain. Continued use of that substance can then break down brain functions that would normally regulate self-control and abstinence from things that cause negative consequences in one’s life. This action substantially decreases one’s ability to stop using even if he or she wants to, because at that point, there is psychological damage that is standing in the way of ending use.

In addition to hereditary traits, levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain can increase one’s susceptibility to addiction. For example, dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter found in the brain that creates a sense of reward and contentment. People with lower levels of dopamine can struggle significantly with compulsive behaviors surrounding reward-seeking, which increases the risk of abusing substances and developing a substance use disorder as a result.

Q: But isn’t addiction a choice?

A: For decades, addiction has been viewed as a choice and a moral failing, especially since it is the decision to experiment with addictive substances that can trigger the onset of a substance use disorder. While that choice to experiment with drugs or alcohol is indeed a choice, what happens afterwards is not. How the brain responds to substance abuse is where all the talk about addiction being a choice goes right out the window, as the brain begins a cycle of dysfunction that is difficult to get control of.

Q: What are the risk factors for addiction?

A: There are several risk factors for addiction, both biological and environmental. As mentioned before, people with lower levels of dopamine or who have a genetic makeup that supports impulsive behaviors are more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. These are factors that while they cannot be eliminated, can be treated and maintained to help prevent addiction from occurring.

There are also many environmental factors that can serve as risk factors for the development of addiction, including the following:

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional violence or abuse
  • Community violence
  • Poverty
  • Experiencing repeated traumas
  • Natural disasters
  • Rape
  • Growing up in environments where drugs and alcohol were abused

It is common for people to have some biological and some environmental factors contribute to the development of their addiction. Ignoring the need for treatment, however, can allow the brain to continue to malfunction, increasing the severity of one’s addiction.

Q: Is addiction a fatal disease?

A: The disease of addiction is a fatal disease if treatment is not obtained. When someone is diagnosed with a substance use disorder, however, it does not solicit the same response as being diagnosed with cancer or another highly deadly disease despite it being fatal. This is because there are several different treatment options available for those who are struggling with addiction that can help them learn how to maintain their disease so that they do not lose their lives to it. Those who die as a result of an untreated substance use disorder often do so due to overdoses and physical and psychological health problems stemming from the abuse.

Q: How is addiction treated?

A: Similar to other diseases like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, there is no cure for addiction but there are effective treatments for it. Depending on the type of substance that a person is addicted to, he or she may be prescribed medication to wean off of that substance without suffering serious side effects. This is common in those who are addicted to opioids or benzodiazepines like Ativan or Xanax.

All individuals addicted to drugs or alcohol are best treated with a course of evidence-based therapeutic treatments such as individual therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as the implementation of medication should it be needed to treat any underlying mental health conditions. Based on the severity of one’s addiction, treatment can be obtained in inpatient or outpatient settings.

Get Help at JourneyPure Franklin

You do not need to struggle with a substance use disorder, as there are plenty of treatment options available to you. If you are ready to stop using for good, reach out to JourneyPure Franklin. We can help you start your transformation into a life of recovery.