The #1 Cause of Addiction Most Treatment Centers Ignore
Many addiction treatment centers offer solid programs for overcoming addictions that ruin your life. So why do an estimated 40%-60% of people relapse? What’s missing?
The answer lies in your brain.
The brain is the supercomputer that runs your life. It plays a central role in your vulnerability to addiction and your ability to recover and maintain sobriety. Brain dysfunction is the #1 reason why people fall victim to addiction, why they can’t break the chains of addiction, and why they relapse. Understanding the brain’s role in addiction and recovery is the key to breaking free from your addictions.
How the Brain Keeps You Chained to Addiction
Your susceptibility to addiction depends in large part on the biological makeup of your brain and your brain’s reward system. What is the brain’s reward system? It is an intricate network of brain systems and neurotransmitters that are critical to human survival. It drives us to seek out the things we need to stay alive and carry on the human race, such as sex and food.
Many things that are not necessarily crucial to our survival also activate the reward system in a healthy way, such as:
- Listening to music
- Taking a warm bath
- Looking at a beautiful painting
Then there are substances and behaviors that cause the reward system to become overactive in an unhealthy way, such as:
- Excessive gambling
- Compulsive shopping
Let’s take a closer look at the neurotransmitters and brain systems involved in the reward system so you can see how it works and how it gets out of whack. First, let’s examine the role played by four neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters act as the brain’s messengers, relaying information within the brain. The strength or weakness of each of these neurotransmitters plays an important role in your ability to stop engaging in bad behaviors, such as compulsive gambling or shopping, or in driving you to addiction.
Brain Chemicals Involved with Cravings and Self-Control
Dopamine—motivation, saliency, drive, stimulant
Serotonin—happy, anti-worry, calming
GABA—inhibitory, calms, relaxes
Endorphins—pleasure and pain-killing properties
Dopamine is a feel-good chemical. Whenever we do something enjoyable, it’s like pressing a button in the brain to release a little bit of dopamine to make us feel pleasure. Cocaine, methamphetamines, alcohol, and nicotine all cause dopamine surges that make these substances highly desirable—sometimes even more desirable than the things we need to survive like food, water, and sex. The amount of dopamine released when drugs are taken can be 2-10 times more than what your brain produces for natural rewards. When dopamine is in low supply, it is linked to depression, ADD/ADHD, addiction, and other mental health issues.
Serotonin is thought of as the happy, anti-worry, flexibility chemical. Many of the current antidepressants work on this neurotransmitter. When serotonin levels are low, people tend to be worried, rigid, inflexible, oppositional and argumentative, and they are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking, or compulsive behaviors.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms or helps to relax the brain. If you have suffered an emotional trauma or you are under a lot of stress, GABA may be depleted and your emotional or limbic brain may become excessively active, which is associated with depression and stress. This can lead you to use substances in an attempt to self-medicate and calm your limbic brain.
Endorphins are the brain’s own natural pleasure and pain-killing chemicals. They are the body’s own natural morphine or heroin-like compounds. Substances like opioids trigger the release of endorphins, which are heavily involved in addiction and the loss of control.
Why Can’t I Just Say No? The Brain’s Self-Control Circuit
The brain systems that drive you to seek out things that bring you pleasure and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which puts on the brakes when you are about to engage in risky behavior, work in concert to create your self-control circuit.
In a healthy self-control circuit, an effective PFC provides impulse control and good judgment while the deep limbic system offers an adequate dose of motivation so you can plan and follow through on your goals. You can say no to alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription opioids, gambling, and many other bad behaviors.
In the addicted brain, the PFC is diminished and the drive circuits take control. When the PFC is underactive, it can create an imbalance in the reward system and cause you to lose control over your behavior. When this is the case you are more likely to fall victim to relapse despite your desire to stay in recovery. Having low activity often results in a tendency for impulse-control problems and poor internal supervision, and is associated with ADD/ADHD.
To overcome addiction, stick with a recovery program, and avoid relapse, it’s critical to address any underlying brain dysfunction as well as any co-occurring mental health conditions.
At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive evaluation to help our patients see and understand any underlying brain dysfunction. This is often a powerful first step to breaking the chains of addiction. We use an integrated brain-body approach to healing the brain and treating co-occurring mental health problems. If you want to join the thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health and overcome their addictions and psychiatric symptoms at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.