Is Addiction a Disease?

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There are many public opinions about whether addiction is a disease or not, but psychologists, doctors, and recovery specialists are in agreement that yes, it is a disease. It may be hard to understand how addiction can be a disease because people voluntarily take drugs. But to better understand addiction as a disease, we have to better understand what it does to our bodies, most specifically our brains. The use of drugs directly impacts brain development and plasticity.

Disease and Your Brain

Let’s begin by defining a few key terms. First, what constitutes a disease? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a disease is, “… a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” Just by that definition alone, addiction is a disease; using drugs impairs the brain’s normal functioning and it does manifest with distinguishable signs and symptoms.

Another key term to understand is plasticity. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. Drug abuse affects the brain’s synaptic plasticity, which essentially means drugs weaken the synapse response due to increased dopamine in the brain. Understanding dopamine is the key to understanding addiction as a disease.

Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain. It acts as a neurotransmitter that encourages us to seek out basic pleasures like eating, relaxing, or engaging in enjoyable activities. Our brains are wired to increase the odds that we will seek out pleasures. When we engage in these activities, our brain releases dopamine, letting us know that this is an activity that needs to be remembered.

While many drugs affect the release of dopamine in different quantities, most drugs flood the brain with more dopamine than any basic pleasures. This teaches the brain that drug use should be remembered and repeated. Using drugs becomes a learned reflex which can be triggered by people, places, or events. This is how addiction begins.

Professional Diagnosis

Diagnosing drug addiction, like most other diseases, requires a thorough evaluation by a professional; for addiction, this often includes an assessment by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. Blood, urine, or other lab tests are used to assess drug use, but they’re not a diagnostic tool for addiction.

These tests are often used for monitoring treatment and recovery. For diagnosis of a substance use disorder, most mental health professionals use criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Dependence or Addiction

It’s also important to understand the difference between dependence and addiction. People can be using a drug without being physically dependent on it. However, someone can be taking drugs as prescribed by a doctor and have a physical dependence, i.e. benzodiazepines.

Even if a person is not abusing benzodiazepines like Klonopin or Xanax, if they are taking it as prescribed, they are still physically dependent. Patients on benzodiazepines must be weaned off or their withdrawal can be fatal. This doesn’t make them addicts.

Most of the argument over addiction as a disease comes from the stigma of drug abuse and mental illness. Most people don’t or won’t understand addiction unless they have suffered from it themselves. This includes the user’s family and closest friends. It’s hard to understand how an action that is completely voluntary, like taking drugs, can be a disease.

We consider lung cancer to be a disease, although it can be caused by cigarettes. We consider diabetes a disease, although it can be caused by a poor diet. Consider addiction as a type of brain disease. In fact, there’s a high incidence of addiction co-occurring with mental illness.

Treating the Disease

Classifying addiction as a disease is not giving anyone excuses to use. What it gives them is an opportunity to get help. If we look at addicts as though they are suffering from a disease, we will give them medical care, rehab, or psychological therapy.

If we look at addicts as being deviants, they get jail time or mandatory rehab. Studies have proven that drug rehab or addiction treatment is more successful than jail time. Unfortunately, public policy has not followed suit with the drug counseling community, but there are pushes towards a change in public policies on how we treat addiction and users.

So, yes, addiction is a disease. It directly affects your brain processes and the brain’s physical characteristics, like it’s plasticity. If you’re suffering from an addiction, or someone you love is, consider that they are suffering from a disease, and think about the steps you would take to help treat that disease.

You may support them, take them to appointments, make sure they are taking their medications. It’s the same for addiction. Users need support, they need people to help them get to treatment and back home, they also need help in preventing relapse.

If we don’t give up on those in our communities with diseases, why do we feel so cavalier about giving up on those struggling with addiction? Northstar Transitions recognizes addiction as a public health crisis that affects people of all races and socioeconomic statuses. If you or someone you love is suffering from the disease of addiction, Northstar Transitions can help. Call us now at 1-303-558-6400.


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