Is Addiction a Disease or Not?

It has been long debated as to whether or not addiction is a disease or a choice. In the 1930s, it was believed that addiction was the result of amoral and deviant personalities, even by doctors and medical professionals. In their eyes, the people who became addicted to substances simply lacked the moral judgment and willpower to quit. The solution at the time was to punish the users or attempt to force them to break their habit. After years of research, the scientific community has now seen the effects that drugs have on the actual chemistry of the brain, leading us to believe that addiction might actually behave more like a disease.

However, many people still believe that addiction is a choice, and those who suffer from substance abuse are simply choosing to continue to use a substance or engage in an activity because they want to. In this article, we will discuss the two sides of this debate, and answer the question: Is addiction a choice or a disease?

Is it a Disease?

Addiction, according to evidence and studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is a biological condition that alters the brain’s function of substance users. These studies show that there are two ways drugs affect the brain.

  • One is by sending false information that mimics the natural behavior of neurotransmitters of the brain that disrupts the brain’s normal function.
  • Another is by overstimulating the part of the brain that “rewards” the person for feeling good. These stimulates the brain to produce more dopamine, the chemical responsible for that “feel good” effect in the brain. When the brain is overstimulated, the user will seek more of the substances that can provide them with the same feeling. This vicious cycle of pleasure, let down, withdrawal, and drug use will eventually spiral out of control. 

This concept is not new, and in 1784 Dr. Benjamin Rush concluded that addiction is a disease and therefore needs to be treated by physicians. However, this was not fully conceptualized until Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1930’s. Fast-forward to the present day, most health care professionals agree that addiction is a disease. It is considered a disease because it can cause damage to the brain, as well as create physical dependency. Physical dependency means a person cannot stop taking drugs or alcohol without feeling the withdrawal symptoms. Not only does it affect the physical well-being of a patient, but also the person’s ability to make rational decisions. 

Is it a Choice?

There is also some research indicating that addiction is genetic. However, there are other factors that might contribute to developing an addiction issue. For example, spending time with people suffering from addiction is also believed to trigger or increase the risks of developing an addiction yourself. 

  • Genetic background, family history, and even ethnicity can help determine if you are at risk for developing an addiction. A history of mental health problems with you or family members can also pose as a risk factor for developing an addiction, especially if this was left untreated or undiagnosed. 
  • The age when an individual was first exposed to drugs and alcohol can be a risk factor for dependency while growing up in a dysfunctional family. In addition, socioeconomic factors and peer pressure are also triggers for addiction. 

There is a stigma about drug addicts being irresponsible and reckless people because of their addiction. However, more research shows that addiction is not a choice but rather a disease. With recent studies conducted by health care experts, it is believed that addiction is no longer regarded as a simple act of choosing to be addicted, but in fact an illness. 

Addictive Behavior Explained

Addiction is a disease caused by the combination of environmental, behavioral and genetic factors. Of all the risk factors, it is believed that genetics play a major role in the development of an addiction. 

Our brains are programmed to seek out something that makes us feel good. This is due to the chemical dopamine, which is responsible for that “feeling good” sensation. Now, when dopamine is released into the neurotransmitters, we experience this sense of feeling good. Our brain remembers this sensation so that dopamine is repeatedly released over time. 

Drugs and alcohol can become triggers that stimulate the release of dopamine and for this reason, these substances become addictive to the person. One study theorized that a person who is addicted to drugs and alcohol is generally born with low dopamine receptors. This means that they are not able to experience pleasure naturally without the aid of substances. The more dopamine is released, the more substances they take in order to keep dopamine flowing all throughout their brain. 

It can be treated — but act now

Because the brain has adapted its functioning to cope with the addiction, the addicted person must go through a period called “detox”. Detoxing requires them to wean off of the addictive substance or activity to “cleanse” the brain and get it back to its regular state of function. Unfortunately, this often leads to some pretty intense and uncomfortable side effects, referred to as withdrawal. Until the brain is able to catch up, withdrawal can be a difficult process to get through, which is why it is highly recommended to go through a medical detox in a treatment center. This way, you will be under 24/7 watch from healthcare professionals that will be able to make the withdrawal process as comfortable and safe as possible for you. 

While the brain can and does recover when a person detoxes from their drug of choice, it is possible that long-term use can cause permanent damage. And this damage doesn’t just end with your brain. Substance abuse disorder has a negative impact on you, your career, your family, your friends, etc. Unfortunately, because addiction is stored in your brain as memory, the road to recovery can be long, difficult, and full of obstacles. But recovery is possible, and there are a number of effective treatment programs out there that involve self-help strategies, counseling, and rehabilitation. 

Overcoming Addiction

Your own personal experience can shape your views and beliefs on what addiction is. But in order to be an ally to people who suffer from mental health issues and addiction issues, you must work to understand how addiction really works. The evidence supports the idea that addiction is indeed a disease, as it rewires the chemistry of the brain. While choosing to use drugs the first or second time might be a choice, the addiction itself is a disease. The sooner society changes its view of addiction, the easier it will be to diagnose and treat these cases before it leads to more overdoses, ruined lives, and deaths.