How Addiction Changes the Brain

For decades, if not centuries, alcohol and substance addiction have been viewed as some sort of moral failing, rather than a legitimate medical issue. In recent years science has begun to shed some light on the underlying realities of addiction and helped to develop more robust treatment protocols. In part, this is due to studies on addiction and the brain and the unique relationship between addiction and brain chemistry.

In truth, the more addiction is studied, the more there is to learn. It seems that humans have the capacity to develop an addiction to almost anything, although some addictions seem to be far more pervasive than others. In addition, two individuals can try a certain substance or engage in a certain behavior and over time one may develop an addiction while the other will not. Over time, however, addiction changes the brain, which in turn has a direct impact on behavioral patterns. No matter how logical it may seem to tell a person struggling with addiction to just “stop doing” whatever they are addicted to, it isn’t nearly so simple.

Addiction and Brain Chemistry

One of the primary reasons that addictions of all kinds are so hard to quit is because of the link between addiction and brain chemistry. The truth is, the substances that we often claim individuals are addicted to is not actually what they are addicted to. What they are actually addicted to is the triggering of the rewards center in the brain. There is an almost unlimited number of substances, actions, and behaviors that can trigger the flood of neurotransmitters in the brain. Over time, this is how addiction changes the brain and to better understand how to battle addiction requires a better understanding of the link between addiction and the brain.

The problem is that rewards are not meant to be quite so easy to trigger. For instance, when you eat a large, hearty, nutritious meal, your brain rewards you by emitting a flood of pleasurable neurotransmitters, which is meant to encourage you to eat more large, delicious, nutritious meals to keep you alive. When food actually had to be grown by hand and prepared by hand, this worked, because large meals were often fewer and farther between. Manual labor also ensured that any calories consumed were also burned off, which meant individuals needed larger meals to provide the fuel necessary to perform the labor involved in just staying alive.

The Brain’s Reward System

Now, however, in an age of fast-food, it is easier than ever to get a large, satisfying meal, which triggers the same rewards system. The Western world, on the whole, is suffering from an obesity epidemic simply due to the ready availability of large quantities of food and the rewards your brain chemistry offers for eating it. In other words, we quite literally have food addiction. Food is no longer something we eat merely to survive, it has become something that we eat to receive the reward our brain chemistry provides.

The triggering of our reward center is the start of an addiction, but it gets even more complicated than that, which is what makes addiction so difficult to overcome. Since the reward center in our brain exists specifically to promote survival, it means it eventually stops giving rewards for behaviors that are not actually critical for survival. For instance, if your body was running low on critical nutrients and you ate a large delicious meal that replenished those nutrients, your brain rewards that behavior as a way of encouraging more of it.

Conversely, however, if your body is full up on nutrients or you eat foods that don’t actually replenish your diminishing nutrient supplies, your brain stops issuing the reward. To fully understand addiction, you have to also step back and look at why the triggering of the rewards system in the brain is so much more important to some than to others. One side effect of the triggering of neurotransmitters is that it alleviates pain.

Sugar is just one of many substances that can trigger the rewards system, which means even small children can begin to engage in addictive behaviors by triggering their rewards system through the over-consumption of a certain substance. Children who feel confident and stable in their lives may not actually need the soothing that comes from triggering the rewards system. Children who are abused, abandoned or neglected, however, are more likely to seek the pain-relieving effects that come from triggering the rewards system.

Over time, however, the brain stops rewarding the same behaviors. That same child may eventually try alcohol and realize that the alcohol now triggers the response that food used to. As a result, they will often begin drinking more and more heavily and potentially stop eating altogether. Over time, the alcohol may no longer trigger the rewards system, which means they may try something else. If the “something else” triggers the rewards system again, they will abandon the thing that no longer works for the thing that does.

In other cases, however, the same substance or behavior may continue to trigger the rewards system, simply by nature of their attempts to stop their addictive behavior. For instance, if a teen starts drinking and then attempts to stop, it “resets” the reward system. Since the alcohol itself is not what the teen is addicted to, but the triggering of the rewards system, then if they start drinking again, it will once again trigger their rewards system. This is why addiction is so much harder to overcome for the long term than just the short term. This is also why individuals that leave rehab are at significant and immediate danger of relapse. In addition, the more times a person tries to quit a certain substance, the more challenging it becomes each time to quit.

Healing the Brain

Generally, the only long term solution for addiction is to find healthier ways of triggering the rewards system. In addition, addicts not only need to overcome their dependence on the substance that triggers their rewards system but on the rewards system itself. This generally means dealing with underlying issues that make the neurotransmitters released by the body so compelling in the first place. Generally, addicts are people who are in deep and severe pain, which they have learned to manage by triggering their neural rewards system. When they deal with the underlying cause of the pain, it diminishes their need to trigger their neural rewards system. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact us today.