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Is Addiction A Disease?

For many years, mainstream society has demonized addiction as a choice. However, addiction is a disease that needs treatment – just like every other medical condition. Treating addiction as a disease can lead to more effective outcomes.

There’s no shame in cancer.
The disease of addiction is no different.

This content was written by: Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer

Millions of Americans suffer from drug and alcohol addiction every year. Unfortunately, only a fraction of these people seek treatment for their addiction – and a large part of the reason why is due to shame. We stigmatize addiction in our society; we see it as a shameful condition and we can view people who suffer from addiction in a negative way. As a result, very few people feel comfortable or able to seek help when they need it – leading to devastating consequences and lifelong complications.

However, there are solutions to this stigma that could help more people suffering from addiction seek treatment. The first step to destigmatizing addiction is understanding that addiction is a disease in the same way that depression, diabetes, heart disease and every other condition is a disease. Because addiction is a disease, the people who suffer for it should seek professional treatment just as they would for every other condition – and, with the assistance of a qualified drug and alcohol treatment facility, these people can begin to heal.

The Disease Model Of Addiction

The American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, along with many other medical organizations, define addiction as a disease. Adopting the disease model of addiction can allow all health care professionals to provide the right care for people who are suffering from addiction. In addition, the disease model of addiction allows for a lower level of stigma around addiction, enabling more people to seek the help they need to recover.

Video features Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer

Read Video Transcript

Just like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, addiction can develop due to a number of factors. Behavioral risks, environmental circumstances, genetic and biological factors all play a role in the development of addiction. In fact, genetics determine about 50% of the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction during their lifetime.

In addition to its development, the condition of addiction itself changes to how a person’s brain and body functions. Just like every other medical condition, addiction can make these changes due to progression of the disease or the changes can already exist, exacerbated by substance use.

If someone does not receive treatment for their addiction, they can develop complications just like any other untreated condition. They may develop additional physical and mental health disorders, as well as permanent disabilities. Over a long period of time, the person suffering from addiction can develop severe and life-threatening conditions.

How Does Addiction Impact The Brain?

One of the biggest indicators that addiction is a disease is how it impacts the brain. Addiction can completely change the brain chemistry and create life-threatening, disabling complications that change a person’s life without treatment. When discussing how addiction impacts the brain, we first have to understand the pleasure-reward response.

When we satisfy our basic needs, such as hunger, sex, and thirst, we feel a sense of pleasure. We feel this pleasure because when we engage in activities to satisfy these basic needs, the brain releases certain chemicals that make us feel good. We learn to associate satisfying our basic needs with reward, which helps keep us alive.

When we use an addictive substance, our brain releases these same chemicals in very high amounts. When we keep using this substance over a certain period of time, we learn to associate using drugs or alcohol as a pleasure or reward.

The continued release of these pleasure-creating chemicals can change our brain function over time. We experience changes in how our brain processes reward, memory, and motivation. As a result, we do not feel normal if we do not use the substance. We become dependent on the substance to restore normalcy to our lives. When we do not use the substance, we start to experience intense cravings for it, which makes it very difficult to stop using the substance even though we know it is not healthy for us.

When it comes to addiction, we can prioritize the substance over other basic needs due to changes in brain chemistry. These changes can stay in our brains for a very long time, even after we seek treatment. As a result, relapsing back into using the substance is very easy due to physical and environmental triggers.

Giving up the substance also leads to intense withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening, depending on the type of substance and the severity of the addiction. To fully recover from an addiction, a person needs to seek medical treatment to safely detox from the substance and develop strategies to address the root causes of addiction as well as to combat relapse triggers.

Why Some People Say Addiction Is NOT A Disease

Many people do not believe that addiction is a disease because the cause of addiction is the person’s choice to use drugs or alcohol. While the initial use of the drug or alcohol was a choice, many people make the choice to use these substances and do not develop addiction. However, once a person’s brain chemistry changes due to the addiction, they lose control of their behavior and control over their condition.

Choice can lead to the development of many other diseases as well. Heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and many other diseases result in part by some sort of personal decision – lack of exercise, smoking, a poor diet, etc. Addiction is no different from these conditions.

Another reason that people believe that addiction is not a disease is that some people can recover without seeking treatment. This is may be true for some people, but certainly not for everyone who suffers from addiction. Some people may be able to give up alcohol and/or the drug of their choice cold turkey, some people may need to visit a support group, and others may need to receive intensive, inpatient-style treatment. Just because we do not know why addiction affects different people in different ways, it does not mean that addiction is not a serious health condition.

Seek Professional Treatment For Addiction

If you are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, you need to seek professional treatment as soon as possible. Addiction is a disease that changes your brain and can lead to life-threatening conditions if left untreated. Seeking professional help from Foundations Wellness Center can help you safely detox from the substance, receive the therapies you need to overcome the root cause of addiction, and develop the skills you need to safely begin your journey to recovery.

Learn more about enrolling in one of our treatment programs and how we can help you.

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About the Author, Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP is the Chief Clinical Officer of Foundations Wellness Center, with over 10 years of experience and advanced degrees
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