June 1, 2023

Is Addiction a Disease?

A woman sits on a hillside at sunset to represent how to withdraw from sleeping pills at Gratitude Lodge

Addiction, clinically described as substance use disorder, is widely acknowledged as a disease and an illness by medical and psychological communities worldwide. 

This condition is marked by an individual’s compulsive use of drugs or alcohol, even in the face of adverse outcomes. Just like other chronic diseases, the development of addiction is influenced by a multifaceted interplay of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. These factors collectively contribute to alterations in the structure and functioning of the brain, rendering addiction a complex and enduring condition.

The understanding of addiction as an illness is supported by empirical evidence and extensive research. It is not a matter of personal choice, as individuals suffering from addiction often experience an overwhelming compulsion to engage in substance use despite adverse consequences. This means that viewing addiction solely as a choice oversimplifies the complexity of this condition and undermines the significance of comprehensive medical and psychological interventions in addressing and managing addiction effectively.

Why Is Addiction a Disease?

So why is addiction considered a disease? 

Addiction, according to reputable organizations like NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), APA (American Psychiatric Association), and NIH (National Institutes of Health), is a complex and chronic brain condition. It is often referred to as a disorder or disease due to the lasting effects it has on the brain and the compulsive behaviors it triggers, even in the face of negative consequences.

The brain’s response to rewards, stress, and self-control is fundamentally altered by addiction. These changes persist long after substance use has ceased, making it difficult for individuals to break free from the grip of addiction. 

This parallel between addiction and heart disease helps highlight why addiction is a disease. Just like heart disease disrupts the normal functioning of the heart, addiction disrupts the normal functioning of the brain. Both conditions can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s well-being, leading to a decreased quality of life and an increased risk of premature death.

Beyond this, both addiction and heart disease can be prevented through adopting a healthy lifestyle and making informed choices. Engaging in healthy behaviors and avoiding substance abuse plays a vital role in reducing the risk of addiction, just as making healthy choices can help prevent heart disease.

Importantly, both addiction and heart disease are treatable conditions. Seeking treatment for addiction can help individuals prevent further damage, regain control over their lives, and improve their overall well-being. With the right treatment approaches and support, individuals can overcome addiction and lead fulfilling, substance-free lives.

Recognizing that addiction is an illness emphasizes the importance of understanding and addressing its underlying mechanisms. By viewing addiction through the lens of a disease, we can promote empathy, reduce stigma, and encourage individuals to seek the necessary help and support to overcome this challenging condition.

A woman is sitting on a rocky beach looking at the water to represent the question, "Is addiction a disease?".

How Does Addiction Change the Brain?

Addiction triggers profound changes in the brain, altering its structure, function, and chemistry. Understanding how addiction changes the brain provides insight into the mechanisms underlying addictive behaviors. Here are some key ways in which addiction affects the brain:

  • Reward system: The brain’s reward system, primarily centered in the mesolimbic pathway, is heavily involved in addiction. Normally, this system responds to pleasurable stimuli by releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, creating a sense of reward and reinforcing behaviors associated with pleasure. However, with addiction, substances or addictive behaviors hijack this system, leading to an excessive release of dopamine. This flood of dopamine reinforces the addictive behavior, making it difficult for individuals to resist cravings and seek out healthier rewards.
  • Neuroplasticity: Addiction alters the brain’s neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and adapt over time. Prolonged substance abuse leads to the remodeling of neural circuits involved in reward, motivation, and decision-making. These changes reinforce the association between drug use and pleasure, making the brain more susceptible to craving and compulsive drug-seeking behaviors. The brain becomes wired to prioritize the substance of abuse, undermining the individual’s ability to control their impulses and engage in healthy decision-making.
  • Tolerance and dependence: Sustained substance abuse leads to the development of tolerance, where higher doses are required to achieve the desired effect. This occurs due to adaptive changes in the brain, including receptor downregulation and decreased sensitivity to the substance. As tolerance increases, individuals may escalate their drug use, putting themselves at greater risk for adverse health effects. Additionally, dependence develops as the brain becomes accustomed to the presence of the substance and requires it to function normally. Withdrawal symptoms occur when the substance is abruptly removed, further reinforcing the cycle of addiction. Tolerance and withdrawal are both diagnostic criteria for addiction.
  • Cognitive impairment: Addiction can impair cognitive functions, such as decision-making, impulse control, and judgment. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for these functions, is adversely affected by addiction-related changes in the brain. This impairment contributes to the difficulty individuals face in abstaining from substance use, as well as engaging in rational decision-making regarding their addictive behaviors.
  • Stress and emotion regulation: Addiction impacts the brain’s stress and emotion regulation systems. Substance abuse can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters involved in stress response – cortisol and norepinephrine, for instance – leading to heightened stress levels. This can perpetuate a cycle of using substances to alleviate stress, further reinforcing addictive behaviors. Beyond this, addiction can impair the brain’s ability to regulate emotions, making individuals more vulnerable to mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
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By understanding how addiction changes the brain, it becomes evident that addiction is not solely a matter of willpower or moral failing. It is a complex neurological condition that requires comprehensive treatment approaches. 

Effective addiction treatment addresses the brain changes associated with addiction and aims to restore healthy brain function, promote neuroplasticity, and help individuals regain control over their behaviors and choices.

How Is Addiction Treated?

Treating addiction requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the physical, psychological, and social aspects of the disease. At Gratitude Lodge, we offer a range of evidence-based treatment options to support individuals on their path to recovery. Here are some key components of addiction treatment:

  • Detox: The first step in addiction treatment is often medical detoxification. Detox helps individuals safely and comfortably withdraw from drugs or alcohol under medical supervision. Our experienced healthcare professionals monitor withdrawal symptoms and may use medications to manage discomfort and cravings, ensuring a smooth transition into the next phase of treatment.
  • Inpatient rehab: Inpatient rehabilitation programs provide a structured and supportive environment for individuals requiring intensive care. These programs offer 24/7 supervision, a range of therapeutic modalities, and a community of peers on a similar recovery journey. Inpatient rehab is beneficial for individuals with severe addiction, co-occurring mental health disorders, or those who require a break from their daily environment to focus solely on recovery.
  • Outpatient rehab: Outpatient programs provide flexibility for individuals who want to continue living at home or have completed inpatient treatment. There are two primary types of outpatient programs: IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) offer more intensive treatment than traditional outpatient programs. Outpatient treatment allows individuals to receive therapy, counseling, and support while maintaining their regular responsibilities and daily routines.
  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment): MAT is a highly effective approach for individuals struggling with opioid or alcohol addiction. Combining FDA-approved medications with behavioral interventions to address the psychological and physical aspects of addiction. MAT helps reduce cravings, manage withdrawal symptoms, and stabilize brain chemistry, enabling individuals to focus on their recovery journey.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, such as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), is a core component of addiction treatment. These evidence-based therapies help individuals identify and modify unhealthy thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to addiction. Psychotherapy provides essential tools and coping strategies to manage cravings, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and prevent relapse.
  • Counseling: Individual counseling and group therapy are integral parts of addiction treatment. Individual counseling allows for personalized attention, addressing specific challenges and underlying issues. Group therapy provides a supportive environment where individuals can share their experiences, gain insights, and learn from others facing similar struggles. Counseling helps individuals develop a strong support network and learn from peers, fostering a sense of connection and accountability.
  • Holistic therapy: Holistic therapies, such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, art therapy, and animal-assisted therapy, complement traditional treatment approaches. These therapies promote overall well-being, reduce stress, and help individuals reconnect with themselves. Holistic therapy can enhance self-awareness, emotional healing, and personal growth during the recovery process.
  • Aftercare: After completing a formal treatment program, aftercare plays a vital role in maintaining long-term recovery. Aftercare services may include ongoing therapy, support groups, relapse prevention planning, alumni programs, and access to community resources. Aftercare provides continued support, helps individuals navigate the challenges of early recovery, and reinforces the skills and strategies learned during treatment.

At Gratitude Lodge, our individualized treatment plans combine these various approaches to create a comprehensive and tailored program for each person. We understand that recovery is a lifelong journey, and our goal is to provide the necessary support and resources to empower individuals to achieve lasting sobriety and fulfilling life free from addiction.

FAQs

Is addiction an illness?

Yes, addiction is widely recognized as an illness by medical and psychological communities worldwide, characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol use despite adverse consequences.

Is addiction a choice?

No, addiction is not solely a matter of choice, as it is influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors, leading to changes in the brain’s structure and function.

Why is addiction considered a disease?

Addiction is considered a disease due to its consistent pattern of compulsive drug or alcohol use, which is accompanied by changes in the brain’s structure and function. Additionally, addiction is influenced by genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors, similar to other recognized chronic diseases, further supporting its classification as a disease.

A group of people celebrate on a hillside at sunset to represent drug and alcohol rehab in southern California at Gratitude Lodge.

Get Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Addiction at Gratitude Lodge

At Gratitude Lodge, we provide individualized addiction treatment programs that address both addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Whether you are struggling with alcohol addiction, prescription medication misuse, or illicit drug abuse, we have the resources to help you regain control of your life.

We offer a supervised medical detox program that provides a safe and effective pathway toward detoxification and ongoing recovery. Once you’ve completed detox, you can transition directly into one of our treatment programs for opioid addiction, which include a 30-day inpatient program and an intensive outpatient program.

If you’re also grappling with a co-occurring mental health condition like depression or anxiety, our dual diagnosis treatment program can provide coordinated and integrated treatment for both conditions. Our individualized treatment plans draw from a range of evidence-based interventions, including MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapy (cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy), group counseling, individual counseling, family therapy, and holistic therapies.

Once you’ve completed your treatment program, we’ll work with you to develop a comprehensive aftercare plan that includes relapse prevention strategies and the option to transition into sober living. At Gratitude Lodge, we’re committed to supporting you every step of the way on your journey to lasting recovery.
Don’t wait to get the help you need to overcome opioid addiction. Contact Gratitude Lodge today at 888-861-1658 to speak with our admissions team and take the first step towards a brighter future.

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Joe Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
Jenni Bussi

Jenni Busse MS, LPCC

Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

Holistic Therapy

Our holistic therapy treatments offer a full-scope approach to recovery, addressing your mind, body, and emotions as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. This therapy is designed to help address underlying issues and integrate alternative therapies to promote overall health and well-being.
people sit in treatment session representing 90 day alcohol rehab

Psychotherapy

An essential part of your treatment experience, we offer individual (CBT and DBT talk therapy) and group addiction treatment counseling to help you explore and address the emotional component of addiction, providing you with the tools, self-awareness, and empowerment you need to maintain recovery.

Dual Diagnosis

Dual Diagnosis is a highly effective addiction treatment that addresses substance use and mental health disorders simultaneously. Often co-occurring, these disorders are best managed when treated together with specific and targeted therapy.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-Assisted Treatment provides you with FDA-approved medications to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal while you’re in treatment. This makes the detox process easier and safer, as well as increasing the chances of a successful recovery.

Sober Living

Sober living provides a supportive and substance-free living environment for your ongoing recovery. We partner with a number of upscale and carefully vetted sober living homes that are available to our clients after inpatient alcohol and drug addiction treatment.

Outpatient Treatment

Once detox and inpatient are complete, we provide an easy transition to outpatient care through our hand-selected partners. This program offers a more flexible approach, allowing you to ease back in to daily life while still receiving frequent & effective care.

Inpatient
Treatment

Inpatient treatment provides an intensive and comprehensive addiction treatment program in a structured environment. You will receive 24/7 expert care, therapy, and support as you build your foundation for long-term recovery.

Drug & Alcohol Detox

A crucial first step in the recovery process, our detox program provides a comfortable, medically supervised environment that addresses the physical aspect of addiction and eliminates substances from your body.

Use Our 24 Hour text line. You can ask questions about our program, the admissions process, and more.