We joke about our addiction to chocolate, or shopping the sales, but addiction is an intensely private, personal and confronting affliction as difficult to explain as it is to treat. This is a complex issue—much more complicated than simply drawing on willpower.
We have all been touched by addictions either personally or professionally. Maybe it is someone you know—a loved one—or maybe it’s you. Addiction is an equal-opportunity affliction affecting people without regard to their economic circumstance, education, race, geography, IQ or any other factor.
The time has come to stop pushing addiction into the dark corners and stigmatizing those who suffer from the disease. Today addicts are from all walks of life. They are well-educated and respected individuals such as CEOs, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, housewives and their beloved family members.
Alcohol and Drug (Prescribed and Illegal) Addiction
Each year abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol contributes to the death of more than 100,000 in the U.S. The consequences of drug and alcohol abuse—medical, social, economic and criminal—are vast and varied and affect people of all ages. The vast majority of addicts (96.5 percent) start their first substance use before age 21 when the brain is still developing.
Unfortunately, 95.6 cents of every dollar spent by federal, state and local governments on risky substance use and addiction pay for the consequences; only 1.9 cents are spent for prevention and treatment according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University this year.
Prescription medications are increasingly being abused or used for non-medical purposes. This practice can not only be addictive, but in some cases lethal. A recent study in Florida published in 2008 found three times as many people were killed by legal drugs as by cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines combined.
Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include painkillers, sedatives and stimulants. Many people mistakenly believe these medications are safe, even when used illicitly, because they are prescribed by physicians. They are not.
Among the most disturbing aspects of this emerging trend is its prevalence among teenagers and young adults. Almost one in 10 high school seniors report non-medical use of Vicodin. Most teenagers start their drug use by using their parents’ prescriptions found at home.
Views of Addiction Have Evolved
Throughout much of the past century, scientists studying drug abuse labored in the shadows of powerful myths and misconceptions about the nature of addiction. When scientists began to study addictive behavior in the 1930s, addicts were thought to be morally flawed and lacking in willpower. Those views shaped society’s responses to drug abuse, treating it as a moral failing rather than a health problem, which led to an emphasis on punitive rather than preventive and therapeutic actions.
Today, thanks to science, our views and responses to drug abuse have changed dramatically. Groundbreaking discoveries about the brain have revolutionized our understanding of drug addiction, enabling us to respond effectively to the problem.
Researchers and scientists continue to put the puzzle pieces of this complex disease together. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.
It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and the way it works. These changes can be long-lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.
Can Addiction be Cured? Is Relapse Inevitable?
The brain has plasticity and can be healed. Relapse is not inevitable. One thing becoming clearer is that addiction has not only psychological, social, environmental and genetic components, but also biochemical neurotransmitter (NT) imbalances.
The biochemical NT imbalances may precipitate self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has said, “I’ve studied alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and more recently, obesity. There’s a pattern in compulsion. I’ve never come across a single person that was addicted that wanted to be addicted. Something has happened in their brains that has led them to that process.”
It is fundamental to the recovery process that the underlying cause(s) of the addiction is identified and treated.
Researchers have identified many biological and environmental factors and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the disease.
Scientists use this knowledge to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches that can reduce the toll drug abuse takes on individuals, families and communities.
Multiple Factors Operate Together to Result in Addiction
No single factor determines whether or not a person will become addicted to drugs. Scientists estimate genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction, including the effects of environment on gene expression and function.
But just because an individual has a family history of substance abuse does not mean the gene will be expressed (activated). Genes are like light switches; they can be turned on and they can be turned off. However, the vulnerability increases with environmental, social and biochemical or neurotransmitter imbalances.
Alcohol and drugs are viewed as a quick and easy way to change ordinary, everyday reality from unbearable to bearable.
What’s Happens in an Addicted Person’s Brain?
A variety of brain effects occur with addiction. Neurotransmitters (NT) become deficient. Low levels of serotonin cause cravings, lack of motivation, pain, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Deficient levels of gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), which is needed for proper functioning of the brain and nervous system, cause anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. Individuals with low GABA tend to worry a lot.
Deficiencies or elevations of many specific NTs have a significant impact on mental, emotional and behavioral functioning. Chronic exposure to drugs disrupts the way critical brain structures interact to control behavior—behavior specifically related to drug abuse.
Everyone wants to feel good, but if your NTs are out of balance and you feel anxious, depressed, experience pain, have insomnia, fatigue, have cravings and lack motivation you are much more at risk for addictions and relapse.
There is a Way to Get Relief—After Being Tested
All these conditions can make a person more vulnerable to seek sex, prescription medications, illegal drugs or alcohol to relieve their symptoms. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to test your NTs. The imbalances can be corrected by using specific, targeted amino acids and nutrients, which is what the body uses to build and rebalance the brain.
The results are the relief of symptoms without side effects and people are less likely to become addicted to substances.
Did you know psychiatry is the only medical specialty that does not test the human brain? FDA neurotransmitter lab testing is readily available but most doctors just prescribe without testing the NTs.
We would not give insulin without testing the blood sugar; we wouldn’t prescribe thyroid replacement without testing thyroid function or treat other conditions without testing.
Writing a prescription for Zoloft, Lexapro, Celexa, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Prozac, or any mood-altering drug without NT lab results is often a misguided practice. Physicians also prescribe drugs like methadone, Suboxone or naltrexone, essentially substituting one addictive drug for another.
The fact is, antidepressants only temporarily increase the concentration of NTs in the space between two nerves (while simultaneously destroying some of the enzymes that feed the NTs), resulting in long-term depletion within the secreting nerve cell. They are not the best answer.
Let’s Turn to Some Solutions
What builds and balances neurotransmitters? Some of the many therapies include amino acids, nutrients, exercise, hypnotherapy, meditation, energy healing, acupuncture and education. All are valuable in setting the individual on a path to optimal health.
Addiction is a family problem and family therapy is critical. Family members suffer along with the addict in ways that are difficult to describe. Many times the neurotransmitters of family members also have become imbalanced.
Addicts and their families need to have the chance to regain their successful and happy life. Every life is a life worth saving.
Why the Public Needs to Update Its Views of Addiction
Public attitudes about addiction are out of sync with science. At Columbia University, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse discovered through their NABAS survey that the public does not recognize the role of genetics and biological factors in the development of addiction.
Of the respondents, 60 percent identified mutual support programs as a treatment intervention. Patients face formidable barriers to receiving addiction treatment due to misunderstanding of the disease, negative public attitudes and behavior toward those with the disease, and negative perceptions of the treatment process.
Many times the only things that stop addicted individuals from seeking a new life are ignorant actions and words of others and concern for how they would be labeled and perceived.
For some, treatment can be a long-term process involving multiple interventions and regular monitoring. However, for many others, an understanding of what led them to their addictions in the first place and having their NTs balanced can give them the motivation, focus and the energy to be more healthy and productive.
The key to recovery is not a simple one-size-fits-all program, which is often overrated and many times unsuccessful. Successful recovery is greater in programs that are comprehensive, customized to the individual and that return the addict to an overall state of health.
Today there is hope for the addict and alcoholic:
- Seek the best program and support for the addict and the family.
- Test neurotransmitters to identify which of them are out of balance and to what degree.
- Balance neurotransmitters through effective, specific natural supplements.
- Consider IV therapies to add nutrients to the body, support brain function and detoxify the body through natural nutrients and supplements. IVs provide higher doses with 100 percent absorption and are faster-acting.
- Ensure good nutrition.
- Treatment programs must address the whole person.
- Never give up hope for recovery—it can and does happen every day.