The Causes and Effects of Drug Addiction
Where does drug addiction come from? Does chemical dependence begin in the brain, or in the addict’s environment? Why do some people fall so quickly into this devastating condition, while others can experiment with drugs and remain unscathed?
There are no simple answers to these questions. Addiction is a complex, chronic brain disease that has its origins in the individual’s neurological makeup, genetic heritage, spiritual background and social environment. Addiction specialists are constantly exploring the origins and effects of this condition in hope of reducing the number of people who succumb to its effects.
Drug addiction is a serious threat to public health in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.6 million Americans over the age of 11 required professional treatment for substance abuse in 2011. Out of this number, 2.3 million — just over 10 percent — actually received treatment at a facility dedicated to treating addiction. If substance abuse has touched your life or the life of someone you love, you don’t need statistics to tell you how harmful this disease can be. Exploring its causes, effects and treatment options may help you see a way out of the trap of addiction.
Understanding the Addicted Brain
To understand the root causes of addiction, it’s important to understand how the use of illicit drugs affects the brain. The brain has a natural system for identifying and reinforcing positive experiences. When you eat a delicious meal, spend intimate time with someone you love or curl up in a warm blanket on a cold night, your brain rewards you by releasing chemicals that make you feel good. Dopamine is one of the most powerful neurotransmitters in this natural reward circuit, creating sensations of pleasure and well-being when you do something that’s good for your body. Repeating these experiences reinforces the behavior by teaching your brain to expect those pleasant sensations.
Addictive drugs interfere with the brain’s natural reward circuitry by stimulating the release of dopamine. Drugs like heroin, oxycodone or cocaine trigger the production of the same chemicals that reward you for positive, healthy activities like eating, making love or exercising. Research from Harvard University shows that repeated use of addictive drugs creates powerful memories of pleasure. The persistence of these drug-related memories makes it hard for addicts to recover without intensive, professional treatment.
As addiction progresses, the brain requires larger doses or more frequent use of drugs to produce the same effects. This stage, known as tolerance, reflects changes in the brain’s sensitivity to pleasurable stimuli. Addicts in early recovery often find that they are unable to experience pleasure from day-to-day activities (a condition called anhedonia), because the brain is accustomed to the intense stimulation of drugs. One of the greatest challenges of drug rehab is learning how to find satisfaction and fulfillment in everyday life.
Repeated drug use affects the frontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for judgment, reasoning and impulse control. The addicted brain is driven to seek and use drugs, in spite of the known consequences. The addict is no longer capable of controlling when, where and how much of the drug he will use. When he attempts to stop using or cut back on the drug, the brain responds by going into withdrawal, a state characterized by intense cravings, and obsessive thoughts about getting and using the drug. A lack of dopamine can cause depression and anxiety, which trigger a compulsive need to go back to using in order to feel better.
Withdrawal also causes physical symptoms, many of which resemble a bad cold or the flu:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Runny nose
- Muscle cramps
- Bone pain
The severe discomfort of drug withdrawal, combined with the brain’s pleasurable memories of drug use, drive the majority of addicts back to using in spite of their best intentions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services points out that most individuals who are addicted to opiates, cocaine or alcohol will relapse within 12 months after rehab, especially during the first three months after treatment.
For the addict, relapse is not a sign of a flawed character or a lack of willpower, but an indication of the profound effects of drug use on the brain. Before the addict can begin to heal, a period of detoxification is necessary to break the connection between drugs and the brain.
Nature vs. Nurture
Are drug addicts born or made? Your brain chemistry plays a prominent role in your chances of developing drug addiction, but your family relationships and social environment are just as critical. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, nature and nurture are equally influential in the development of drug addiction. While your genes help to determine how your brain responds to drug use, factors in your environment affect your chances of becoming addicted.
One neurobiological theory of addiction holds that certain people have a genetic predisposition to drug abuse because their brains do not respond normally to everyday rewards. These individuals need more intense stimulation — the kind that drugs provide — in order to feel pleasure. Another theory proposes that addiction is a form of self-medication, and that individuals who abuse drugs lack the ability to comfort themselves in times of stress or pain.
Having a mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder makes you vulnerable to addiction. According to the Partnership at Drugfree.org, one out of five American adults met the criteria for some form of mental illness in 2011. Within this group, drug abuse and addiction were three times more common than in the general population.
Nature’s effects on addiction are powerful, but your home environment and cultural setting may ultimately decide whether a genetic predisposition will lead to drug addiction. Some of these environmental factors include:
- Drug use by parents or adult guardians
- Availability of drugs in your community
- Pressure to use drugs by your peers
- Stressful life events, like the death of a close relative
- Early exposure to violence at home or in the community
- A history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- A lack of supportive adult role models
- An absence of positive spiritual influences
- An injury or illness that causes chronic pain
Statistics from the Child Welfare Information Gateway point to a disturbing relationship between substance abuse and child maltreatment. Research indicates that drug addiction is five times more common in women who were sexually abused as children than in women who were not abused, for example. Substance abuse may start in children or teens as a way to self-medicate for the pain inflicted by their families, or as a way to express their anger and resentment. Because the frontal cortex of the brain, which affects judgment and impulse control, is still developing in adolescence, young people who abuse drugs are at high risk of falling into addiction.
Effects of Addictive Drugs
- Opiates. Opiates are powerful narcotics that are derived from the opium poppy, or that imitate the effects of opium. These drugs, which may be produced naturally or synthetically, depress the activity of the central nervous system and produce sensations ranging from deep relaxation to euphoria. Opiates such as morphine, codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone are used for legitimate medical reasons to relieve pain, promote sleep or suppress coughing. Illegal opiates include heroin, one of the most widely abused, potent narcotics. Tolerance, dependence and addiction are among the most dangerous effects of this category of drugs. By depressing the central nervous system, opiates have a direct effect on the body’s vital functions. An overdose of opiates can lead to low blood pressure, respiratory depression, excessive sedation and death.
- Sedatives and hypnotics. Sedatives and hypnotics are prescribed medically to relieve anxiety, promote sleep, prevent seizures and control muscle spasms. When they are abused, this category of central nervous system depressants can cause dependence and addiction. They can also cause excessive drowsiness, sleep disturbances, weakness, gastrointestinal problems and respiratory depression. Common sedatives include benzodiazepines (Ativan, Xanax, Valium, Klonopin) and barbiturates (Phenobarbital, Secobarbital).
- Stimulants. Drugs like methamphetamine, amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA (Ecstasy) heighten the activity of the central nervous system. Stimulants can create a sense of energy and heightened alertness, but this surge of energy is typically followed by a “crash” into exhaustion and depression. Dangerous side effects of stimulants include an accelerated heart rate, compromised blood flow to the brain, diminished appetite, weight loss, sleep disturbances, anxiety, mood swings and sexual dysfunction. The abuse of central nervous system stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines can lead to heart attack, stroke or kidney failure.
- Hallucinogens. Hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, psilocybin (“mushrooms”), peyote, PCP and Ecstasy alter the way you perceive reality. Although they may not produce physical dependence and addiction, hallucinogens can become psychologically addictive. Often used in social settings like raves and underground clubs, these chemicals can create sensations of warmth, intimacy and heightened consciousness. But their negative side effects, such as increased heart rate, high blood pressure, fever, sleeplessness and extreme thirst, can be dangerous. Psychological effects include confusion, visual and auditory hallucinations, flashbacks, anxiety, memory loss, suicidal ideation, violent behavior and temporary psychosis.
The Dangers of Prescription Drugs
Both legal and illegal drugs can cause long-lasting damage to the body and mind. Prescription medications like OxyContin, Vicodin, Ritalin and Xanax now compete with addictive street drugs like heroin and cocaine as a health and safety threat. In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 20 percent of Americans have abused prescription drugs to some extent. These drugs are widely available and easy to obtain, and because they have legitimate medical uses, they are incorrectly perceived as “safer” than street drugs.Addiction to prescription drugs often begins with a legitimate need to control pain, get adequate rest or control the symptoms of a mental health disorder. But if the use of addictive drugs isn’t adequately managed by a medical professional, long-term use can turn into increased tolerance, physical dependence and addiction.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Addiction is a cunning disease that takes many different forms. A teenage boy who is hooked on meth or heroin may appear to have nothing in common with an elderly woman who can’t get by without her prescription sleeping pills or a corporate executive who needs narcotics to cope with the aftermath of an old injury.
Yet all of these people may meet the following criteria for addiction:
- An uncontrollable need to obtain and use one or more drugs
- A need for increasing doses of the drug to achieve the same level of comfort
- An inability to quit using the drug, despite knowledge of the consequences
- Physical and/or psychological withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit using their drug of choice
Although addiction affects people from all demographic groups, the Mayo Clinic has identified certain risk factors that make you more prone to substance abuse:
- Genetic factors. Having a close relative (parent, brother or sister) who struggles with drug addiction increases the risk that you will also have a problem with substance abuse.
- Mental illness. Having a psychological condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder or major depression makes you more vulnerable than the rest of the population to drug or alcohol abuse. A co-existing addictive disorder and a mental health disorder is known as a “dual diagnosis” in addiction treatment.
- Gender. Although both males and females are affected by addiction, addictive behavior is more common in men than in women.
- Family dynamics. Having a close, supportive family is one of the most important protective factors against drug addiction. By the same token, having a family that is emotionally distant and uninvolved increases the risk of addiction.
- Social connections. The more you are involved with clean and sober friends, coworkers and other social contacts, the less likely you are to turn to drugs. Loneliness, isolation and depression open the door to drug abuse.
- Age. The earlier you begin using drugs, the greater your chances of becoming addicted. Children and teens who become chemically dependent while their mental faculties are still developing may suffer long-lasting cognitive deficits as a result.
- Socioeconomic status. Chemical dependence can strike anyone, rich or poor, but addiction is more common in economically deprived communities. A lack of resources and employment opportunities can drive people to use drugs out of a sense of despair or to traffic in drugs in order to earn an income.
When Addiction Enters Your Life
All too often, we don’t find out that someone in our lives is addicted until we feel the direct impact of drug abuse. But like any other disease, addiction has signs and symptoms that are present from its early stages. How can you learn to recognize addiction in yourself or a loved one?
- Frequent attempts to stop using, followed by feelings of intense guilt and regret after each relapse
- Resorting to behavior that violates your ethical or moral standards, like lying to a spouse or stealing money from the family checking account to buy drugs
- Calling in sick to work or skipping out on family obligations because you feel physically ill or prefer to spend time using drugs
- Making excuses for yourself or someone else when responsibilities aren’t met
- Trying to convince yourself or your loved ones that you don’t have a problem, even though you can see the physical, emotional and financial damage of drug use all around you
Addiction is treatable, but most addicts don’t recover alone. Treatment is a multifaceted process that involves healing the body, mind and spirit. With the support of compassionate addiction specialists, you can overcome the barriers to recovery and build a clean, healthy life.
In addition to family and friends, look for help from an addiction counselor, social worker or rehab clinic. There you’ll find the strength and knowledge you need to help the person you care about begin the process of recovery. And because addiction affects every member of your household, you’ll also get the necessary education and counseling to rebuild your home life on a stronger foundation.
The addiction experts at Alta Mira understand the challenges you face when you’re ready to start recovery. Located near San Francisco, California, we offer premier rehab services in an exclusive setting. With superior clinical care, customized care plans and a proprietary treatment model, we are uniquely equipped to help you build the drug-free life you’re looking for. Contact our admissions team at any time to find out how we can help you find a path to hope.