According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of addiction is “an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something”. That is an extremely simple definition of a very complex phenomenon. I have been asked to explain, in layman’s terms, the phenomenon of addiction. It is my hope that if we can increase our understanding of what actually happens in the addiction process then we might be able to reduce the stigma associated with it and, as a community, reach out to help those in need.
It is important to note, that as a health care provider, everything I do must be evidence-based. In other words, no unsupportable statements are allowed. If this were a scholarly work, I would support my assertions with citations of evidence sources from which I draw my conclusions. I am not going to do that here today as I think it would be unnecessarily wordy and long. However, if anyone has an interest in the topic, I would be glad to discuss with you the evidence sources that inform my statements.
As with most behavioral or psychiatric diagnoses, addiction is actually based on a distortion of a natural process. We live with addictions every day. Our brains compel us to do things with the intent of keeping us alive and healthy and ensuring the continuation of the species. The most obvious examples would be eating, drinking, and breathing. As I said before, our brains compel us to do these things. We would die if we didn’t. What most people think of as “addiction” occurs when this process becomes distorted and involves something that is not needed to stay alive…but the brain thinks it does. So, the first point I would like to make is that harmful addiction is a distortion of a neurological process designed to keep us alive.
This process is driven by three primary chemicals (neurotransmitters) in our brains, dopamine, acetylcholine, and glutamate. Dopamine and acetylcholine are the neurotransmitters involved with the experience of pleasure. When we do something we really like, we are experiencing increased dopamine/acetylcholine activity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we will become addicted to it. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that is a very powerful mediator of human learning and is the ingredient necessary for addiction In analogy if you were sitting on your couch and became thirsty, if it wasn’t for glutamate you would sit there and die of thirst…no matter how good that water would be. Glutamate supplies the impulse necessary to satisfy the need.
Some people become addicted easily, others, not so easily. According to current addiction theory, addiction occurs when there is sufficient repetition and genetic makeup that allows glutamate to become easily involved and mediate learning. So, the second point I would like to make is that addiction is a brain thing, not a substance thing. We can, and do, become addicted to all kinds of things. We are the most psychologically manipulated society in the history of mankind.
Our television commercials are designed to have dopamine targets and hopefully influence behavior. Our cell phones are designed to emit light that has dopamine targets in hopes of keeping you looking at them. In my view, cell phones and sugar are the biggest addictions in the United States. If you don’t believe me, look around. Or, try to get your teenager to put their smartphone down for a day. So, if you are the type of person who thinks it could not happen to you…it likely already has. As I mentioned before, this is a natural process in human beings.
There is a second and third part to this series on addiction. I hope I have the opportunity to present the second installment entitled…” Chemical Slavery”.
Thanks for reading.
Kevin Harsh, DNP
Ryon Medical & Associates
Welcome back! I am happy to be able to talk about addiction and its concurrent problems in this manner and I am grateful you are taking the time to read.
In the last article, I discussed how addiction is more of a brain process than it is a substance process. It is a distortion of a natural process designed to compel us to undertake activities designed to keep us, and our species alive. Unfortunately, various legal and illegal industries have capitalized on this process to procure economic benefits (i.e., get rich). I say legal, as well as illegal because legality is a political process and is not based on health, or common sense. The three big ones are…Tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. There are many illicit drugs, but the main ones scourging society right now are stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) and opioids.
Addiction-based industries take advantage of the natural addiction process in humans to secure market share and promote cash flow. The choice of product that is marketed is determined by what substance will reinforce the addictive process most efficiently. What I mean by this is, that choosing a product that will make you sick or anxious, if you do not use it, will work in concert with the cravings to keep you using the product. This, in turn, will keep the customer coming back and keep the cash flowing. The inherent problem with this is that the substances are usually quite expensive, and the customer is forced to get creative and find ways to pay for the substance they are craving…and being sick for. That is why, from now on, I will refer to the customer as “the victim,” because you were targeted and trapped by a process that you were completely unprepared to recognize and face. You are truly a victim. However, there is also one more area we need to touch on. The psychological manipulation utilized by the industry is designed to keep the victim productive.
Once the addiction process takes hold; the human brain will forever remember it. If you can stay away from the substance long enough, the cravings will stop. However, if your brain experiences the substance again, the addiction process will be immediately renewed. For example, a victim spends 30 days in jail and goes through an involuntary withdrawal. After the discomfort passes, they begin to feel normal emotions and start to feel pretty good. When they get out of jail the dealer comes looking. Maybe they are texting. Maybe they are knocking on the door. Maybe they are waiting in the parking lot. They understand, because they have been taught, that if they can get a single dose into the victim, the addiction will again take hold. That dose is free. After that, they are ready to start producing income again…show me the money! In the case of alcohol or tobacco addiction; those industries rely on societal pressure and flamboyant advertising. They are a bit more subtle, but the concept is the same.
When we admit that these industries are cash-driven and utilize neurological, psychological, and physical components to stay in business, then it is not hard to see that these substances are tools used to train victims to “get the money,” no matter what they have to do to get it. Therefore I call this condition “chemical slavery”.
Once again, thank you for reading!!!
Kevin Harsh, DNP, CEO
Ryon Medical & Associates