5 Facts on the Science Behind Addiction

People used to look at addiction as a matter of personal choice. Evidence now refutes that idea by demonstrating the changes in the physiologies of individuals with substance use disorder.

However, the rates of addiction continue climbing despite the latest research findings. What’s behind the curve? The pandemic deserves some of the blame for increasing the number of deaths from accidental overdoses by 30% over the first year of COVID-19. Nearly 100,000 individuals lost their lives from this disorder during that first year.

It’s more vital than ever to understand this disease, what causes it, and how to prevent and treat it. Here are five facts you should know about the science behind addiction.

1. It Changes Your Brain’s Chemistry

Understanding how drugs and alcohol affect your brain chemistry is crucial to preventing addiction. You can choose not to drink or use recreational drugs, but many individuals get hooked on prescription medications after their doctors prescribe them, especially for chronic conditions.

Opioid-based medications work by activating the part of your brain that produces endorphins. Endorphins are natural body chemicals that decrease pain and create a mild euphoric feeling – it’s the “runner’s high” many exercisers experience without the workout.

The problem is that your body becomes accustomed to this feeling over time. You crave more of it, leading to behaviors like taking more than recommended or “doctor shopping” to find a secondary prescriber to increase your dosage. Worse, these drugs interfere with your body’s natural endorphin production, making withdrawal painful and marked by depression. Your body has become chemically dependent on the substance.

Alcohol likewise alters your chemistry by working on several key neurotransmitters such as GABA, glutamate, dopamine, and serotonin. GABA is your brain’s natural Valium, while glutamate is its opposite – an excitatory substance.

When you drink, alcohol binds to your GABA receptors, which is why you feel calm. However, glutamate levels ramp up the next day as your brain attempts to return to homeostasis, spurring the dreaded “hangxiety.”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. Alcohol also impacts your dopamine receptors, stimulating them to release more of the substance, which is why you associate taking a drink with celebration. Problems arise when long-term drinkers can no longer experience pleasure through non-alcoholic means because their receptors are depleted from substance use.

2. It Alters Your Brain’s Structure

If only your brain chemistry was affected, recovery would be much simpler. However, evidence suggests long-term chronic alcohol use also alters your GABA and dopamine receptors, making them less responsive. Severe misuse can lead to alcohol-related dementia, known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Alcohol isn’t the only substance causing structural and functional brain changes. Research on cocaine shows that it alters your brain’s glutamate receptors. It also impacts the neural pathways associated with stress, which explains why a traumatic experience like a job loss can sometimes spur a relapse.

3. It Makes It Harder to Experience Genuine Pleasure

It’s crucial to understand the chemical and structural brain changes addiction causes so you can mindfully monitor your use and quit if you see signs of trouble arising. One of the first factors you’ll notice when you abuse drugs or alcohol is how much you struggle to experience pleasure any other way.

The good news is that you can repair the damage when your neurochemicals responsible for mood and the receptors that release them suffer harm. The problem is that the recovery process takes a long time – sometimes months to years – before things begin resembling normalcy.

You might run into various stressors that trigger a relapse during that time. Job loss, housing loss, and divorce are three common factors that could drive you back to the pill or alcohol bottle before your brain has a chance to heal. When you begin using again, you cause increased damage, further delaying your full recovery.

4. Multiple Factors Influence Its Development

If recovery takes a long time, focusing on prevention matters. What causes people to reach for alcohol or drugs in the first place? Unfortunately, that question isn’t easy to answer.

In many cases, the road to addiction starts innocently. For example, you might have a drink or two before your office holiday party to tame your social anxiety and work up the nerve to introduce yourself to the “big boss.” After enjoying the temporary confidence boost, you begin drinking more often before events. You start carrying emergency shot bottles in your purse or stash a flask in your briefcase as the disease slowly hijacks your physiology.

Other people begin using because it’s what they witnessed their parents do during childhood. Experts found a strong association between adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and substance use. Those with one ACE – like parental substance abuse – were four times more likely to use drugs or alcohol. People with four or more ACEs are 700 times more likely to struggle with alcohol use disorder.

5. It’s Often Comorbid With Other Mental Conditions

Finally, substance use disorder often occurs comorbidly with other mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. Much of the blame lies at society’s feet. Millions of people in the United States lack health insurance. Worse, those who have it are often underinsured, saving their copay and deductible dollars for “big” things like heart attacks while skipping preventive and mental health care.

The result is soaring addiction rates as people attempt to self-medicate away their pain and anguish. Sliding-fee-scale community clinics help, but by the time patients find them, they’re often already trapped in the addiction spiral. Hospitalization for indigent parties only lasts long enough to detox safely but not recover – individuals are pushed back on the street within days, their risk of relapse high.

Now You Know the Facts About Addiction

Rates of addiction have risen since the pandemic. The situation has reached a crisis point. Understanding the facts on the science behind addiction can help. Early intervention can halt substance use disorder before it has too much of a chance to get its hooks in your physiology.

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:September 14, 2023

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