Is Addiction A Disease? Learn About The Brain & Genetics


Is addiction a disease?

The short answer is yes, addiction is a brain chemistry disease.


Understanding The Brain & Addiction

Dopamine and serotonin are the two types of neurotransmitters (chemical brain messengers) that have the biggest impact on addiction. These are the “feel good” chemicals in the brain that drug use mimics, that also control: reward (motivation), pleasure, motor function, compulsion, mood, memory processing, sleep, and cognition.

There are normal levels for these two types of messengers that every person needs to produce in order to feel both physically and mentally “normal”. When a person uses a substance that mimics one of these messengers that they are low in, they experience an abnormal positive response to the substance making them feel more normal and better than usual right away.

Then the substance use takes the person beyond the normal feeling, and gets them “high”, which then makes the brain want to do it again, in turn creating a craving.


How Cravings Work

When a person with the disease of addiction gives in to a craving and uses a substance the brain will sense that it has enough of those messengers (Dopamine and Serotonin) and will start to decrease its normal production of them making it even harder for the person to say no to the urge of satisfying the craving as well as amplifying the effects of how good it feels when the person takes the substance, again making cravings even stronger.

In other words, the longer a drug is used or a behavior is practiced, the more the brain changes and the harder it becomes to restore a healthy balance, making the user more dependent on the substance for any kind of satisfaction or pleasure. This has a huge effect on why alcoholics and addicts relapse and because of this, addicts use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and continue for a lifetime despite negative consequences, sometimes leading to death.

  • Approximately 80,000 people die prematurely from alcohol dependence, abuse, overdose, or associated diseases.
  • And 6,000 to 10,000 people die from cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine overdose or dependence.
  • On average 1,740 Americans die from a substance use disorder (SUD) or related causes, that’s one death every minute.
  • 25% of all hospital admissions are related to alcohol-induced health problems.


Alcoholic man looking sadly down at alcohol in a glass


Common Questions About Addiction as a Disease


Is addiction genetic?

The short answer again is yes, genetics can have a big influence on a person’s likelihood of becoming an addict. Genetic irregularities in brain chemistry and anatomy may be activated by certain drugs that a person uses, making them more susceptible to alcoholism and drug abuse. Some studies place the influence of genetics on the risk of addictions at anywhere from 40% to 60%.


Is addiction hereditary or environmental?

Studies strongly support the view that heredity is a powerful influence on uncontrolled compulsive drug use and behavioral addictions.

There is also research showing the significant influence that a person’s environment has on their addictive behavior, even proof that environmental factors can change brain chemistry as surely as heredity. Environmentally induced emotional memories can have a lifelong effect on people. Things like physical and emotional stress resulting from abuse, anger, and peer pressure, especially if they occurred during childhood, can cause people to seek, use, and sustain a continued dependence on drugs and alcohol to help them cope or numb their pain.


Let’s look to the experts and recap…

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.

So, addiction

  • Is a disease, and
  • Is genetic, and
  • Is hereditary AND environmental!

And chemical dependency and addiction are more prevalent than the more common thought of pathological conditions like mental illness, nervous system diseases, and head traumas or brain tumors.

It is also considered the number one continuing public health problem in the United States, which includes alcohol and drug use, along with nicotine and gambling. The impact that addiction has on our daily life, social systems, family relationships, crime, violence, and mental health is startling and affects the quality of life worldwide.


How Can Addiction Treatment Help?

Typically, a 90 day or more treatment program has shown to be the most successful for long-term recovery.

The treatment process generally includes intensive group sessions daily and one on one sessions weekly, infused with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy methods, anger management skills building, and seeking safety and relapse prevention components.

Most addiction treatment programs will also encourage clients to get a mental health assessment, attend 12 step meetings, and begin family support groups to start working on reconciliation and healthy boundary settings with loved ones.

If you or someone you care about is suffering from the disease of addiction, please give us a call today.