Part two of our series in understanding the role of nutrition in addiction. Here we define addiction and how it affects the brain and body as well as getting to know some of the underlying biochemical conditions that can lead to addiction.
What is addiction and how does it affect the brain/body?
Alcohol and drug addiction is a multifaceted disease. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines drug and alcohol addiction as follows:
‘Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs. These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease—people in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug.’
Addiction is considered a brain disease as drugs and alcohol physically alter the brain and how the brain works. Ultimately, with long-term use, changes in the brain can impair such things as learning, judgement, decision-making, stress, memory, emotions and behavior. With continued substance abuse, these brain changes can eventually produce cravings and obsession beyond their control. These cravings and obsessions become paramount to anything else, including their own happiness, job, family, friends, personal health and safety.
It has traditionally been thought that addicted persons are weak-willed and moral defects, however, this new brain science is uncovering that they are suffering from something much deeper. A landmark study published in June 2012 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Closing the Gap between Science and Practice, states the following:
‘In homes, doctors’ offices, hospitals, schools, prisons, jails and communities across America, misperceptions about addiction are undermining medical care. Although advances in neuroscience, brain imaging and behavioral research clearly show that addiction is a complex brain disease, today the disease of addiction is still often misunderstood as a moral failing, a lack of willpower, a subject of shame and disgust…Once an individual develops addiction, changes in the brain’s reward circuitry may remain even after cessation of substance use. These changes leave addicted individuals vulnerable to physiological and environmental cues that they have associated with substance use, increasing the risk of relapse. In these cases, addiction is a chronic disease- like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and asthma. …addiction manifests as a chronic disease- a persistent or long-lasting illness- which requires ongoing professional treatment and management. This may be due to a preexisting brain dysfunction or to changes that occur in the brain in response to repeated exposure to addictive substances which increase the vulnerability of the individual to relapse, even after cessation of substance use.’
In 2012, in the same study, Columbia University reported that addiction affects 16 percent of Americans ages 12 and older, equating to 40 million people. Interestingly, that is more than the number of people with other serious conditions such as heart disease (27 million), diabetes (26 million) or cancer (19 million). They also documented that another 32 percent of the population uses alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in risky ways that diminish health and safety (substances that infer other ‘means of self-medicating’). According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), almost 18 million Americans abuse or have alcohol dependence issues. This equates to 1 in every 12 adults. Almost three times as many men (9.8 million) as women (3.9 million) are problem drinkers and prevalence is highest for both sexes in the 18 to 29 years-old age group. The following are additional facts about alcoholism:
- 88,000 deaths are annually attributed to excessive alcohol use
- Alcoholism is the 3rd leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the nation
- Excessive alcohol use is responsible for 2.5 million years of potential life lost annually, or an average of about 30 years of potential life lost for each death
- Up to 40% of all hospital beds in the United States (except for those being used by maternity and intensive care patients) are being used to treat health conditions that are related to alcohol consumption
How to Thrive and Prevent Relapse
In order to Thrive and prevent relapse, it is important for people with a history of substance abuse to identify and overcome underlying disorders. Research today indicates that most addicts/alcoholics, and those that abuse substances or have dependency issues, suffer from some of the following disorders and issues:
Possible Underlying Biochemical Issues that Can Cause Addiction
- Imbalanced brain chemistry – neurotransmitters malfunction or become depleted.
- Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) – results in a number of things such as poor adrenal function, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
- Adrenal Exhaustion (often referred to as adrenal fatigue or hypoadrenia) – adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, become exhausted from chronic stress or infection and are unable to produce needed amounts of hormones (primarily glucocorticoid cortisol). Note that this issue does not have enough scientific evidences to support the concept of adrenal fatigue and is not recognized as a diagnosis by the conventional medical community. This may partly be due to the collection of mostly nonspecific symptoms (symptoms are self-reported and do not involve an isolated body part or a specific disease process). This condition is considered a myth in endocrinological societies; however, it is well acknowledged in the alternative medicine community.
- Pyroluria – discussed briefly above and will be elaborated upon below. It is also unrecognized by the conventional medical community.
- Digestive problems – this includes an array of issues such as nutrient malabsorption, yeast overgrowth (candida), leaky gut syndrome and microbiome imbalance (intestinal flora).
- Food sensitivities and allergies – some common items include diary, wheat, sugar and corn.
- Nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, and key amino acids (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins in the body, and are also vital to such things as the production of neurotransmitters in the brain). These deficiencies are often due to poor nutrient choices and consuming non-nutrient dense foods.
- Impaired detoxification abilities
- Inflammation – underlies most chronic disease and can lead to any of the items listed here.
For most of these conditions, nutrition and biochemical imbalances are discussed in later articles, and when individually evaluated and corrected, are helpful for those on the addiction spectrum. Proper nutrition and testing can aid in restoring biochemical imbalances. When left untreated, these imbalances lead to a vicious cycle of substance abuse and addiction.