Science is continually allowing us to offer individuals who struggle with substance abuse the best and most effective treatment options available. Addiction is a disease. Science has proven that and many other things about the disease that is gripping the nation at heroin and pill overdose deaths continue to climb to all-time highs.
Here are seven things that science has taught us about addiction to drugs and alcohol:
1. Addiction is a Disease
It doesn’t matter what you think about this or what your opinion on this is. The FACT is that addiction is a disease. Science has proved it. Addiction is a progressive, chronic, but ultimately treatable disease that hijacks the reward circuitry of the brain and alters impulse control and judgment. This definition, released in 2011 by the ASAM after an intensive four year process involving more than 80 addiction experts and neuroscience researchers, made clear that the outward behaviors that appear to be the problem are actually manifestations of the disease.
“Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”
2. The Disease of Addiction is Genetic
It is true, addiction does run in families and now science is helping us to understand how. And it isn’t the fault of one single gene in the body but rather a variety of genes that come together. And it isn’t just the genes alone. Environment and lifestyle can affect how those genes are expressed. Researchers have pegged the genetic contribution to addiction risk at 40 to 60 percent. Genetics also explain why some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others.
3. The Younger You Start Using, the Larger Your Problems
The earlier drug or alcohol use starts the more likely it is to progress into an addiction. In addition, the brains of the young are still developing into their mid-20s and that make them especially vulnerable to all the damaging things substances can do. A Harvard study of 18 to 25 year olds found that even recreational use can lead to abnormalities in parts of the brain that control emotion and motivation. Another study showed that drinking by young people has been linked to brain shrinkage as well as deficits in learning, memory, and executive function.
4. Medication CAN Help Addicts Heal
Although not everyone is comfortable with the idea of using a substance to help overcome a substance use disorder, studies confirm that pharmacological treatment can be powerful medicine for many, especially when used as part of a treatment program that includes counseling and other forms of support. Drugs such as naltrexone, for example, can help block the effects of opioids and can help reduce alcohol cravings – and it comes in an injectable formulation that lasts a month, making it easier to stick with a program. Medication isn’t right for everyone, but the hope is that with continued pharmacological advances, addiction may one day turn into a manageable disease along the lines of diabetes.
5. Behaviors Can be Addictive
It’s not just substances that can give us problems. Our actions can also be addictive, research shows. It’s called behavioral addiction, and the scientific community is divided as to which activities technically qualify. Gambling disorder is the only one that made the list in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the authoritative guide for mental health professionals. Other behaviors believed by many to have the capacity to be addictive include eating, exercising and having sex, to name only a few.
6. Evidence-based Therapies are the Gold Standard for Treatment
Evidence-based therapies – treatment backed by scientific research – are the foundation of effective addiction treatment. Among popular options are cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps with social and problem-solving skills and can help change addictive thoughts and patterns; motivational interviewing, which can help inspire a desire for change in those who are reluctant; and nutrition and exercise, which help reduce cravings, relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and repair the physical damage of addiction. Treatment works best when it is tailored to the individual and takes a holistic view that recognizes that mind, body and spirit must work together to bring about lasting change.
7. Recovery is Possible
An estimated 23 million people are in recovery in the U.S., each with a story to tell. A cure for addiction may still elude science, but those numbers provide proof that what is known so far can be enough to provide a path to healing.