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Drugs and Alcohol Addiction

Drugs and Alcohol Addiction

Addiction ruins lives and devastates families. People who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to get divorced, less likely to graduate from high school or college, less likely to get promoted at work, and more likely to develop physical diseases related to their addiction. Addiction also puts you at greater risk of suicide or dying from an overdose. Sadly, more than 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.


Substance abuse (like behavioral addictions) can affect anyone—you, your spouse, your child, your best friends, your neighbor, your coworker, your plumber, even your doctor. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol or drug dependence, you’re not alone. The latest statistics show that drug and alcohol abuse (also called substance use disorders) affect:

  • Nearly 1 million adolescents ages 12-17
  • 5.1 million young adults ages 18-25
  • 13.6 million adults ages 26 or older
  • Over 1 million adults ages 65 and over

No one plans to become an addict. For some people, drug or alcohol addiction begins with recreational use—a few drinks after work turns into a whole bottle, or the occasional use of an illicit drug becomes an everyday habit. Even drugs, such as marijuana (now legal in many states), can become a problem. For others, drug addiction begins with a prescription for painkillers and evolves into an opioid or heroin addiction. Other prescription drugs commonly abused include sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants.


How can you know if you have a drug or alcohol dependency? There are many biological, psychological, social, and spiritual (meaning your core values and morals) warning signs of addiction.

Biological Signs & Symptoms

  • Sudden changes in activity or energy levels
  • Weight changes
  • A lack of personal hygiene
  • Red, watery, or glassy eyes
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Feeling sick or hung over
  • Blacking out or forgetting what happened while under the influence
  • Using increasing amounts of the substance
  • Inability to quit without experiencing cravings or symptoms of withdrawal

Psychological Signs & Symptoms

  • Getting defensive whenever someone question you about your habits
  • Feelings of guilt about your substance use
  • Feeling anxious, depressed, or irritable when you’re unable to use the substance
  • Using the substance in response to feelings of sadness or to alleviate stress
  • Spending your day thinking about when you will have your next chance to use the substance
  • Feeling powerless to change your habit

Social Signs & Symptoms

  • Negative changes in work performance—calling in sick, showing up late, missing deadlines
  • Negative changes in school performance—skipping classes, being tardy, falling grades
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Neglecting responsibilities—not caring for kids or pets, forgetting to pay bills
  • Becoming friends with people who share the same addiction

Spiritual Signs & Symptoms

  • Breaking rules at home, work, or school
  • Lying to others
  • Stealing to fuel your addiction
  • Hiding things
  • Breaking promises and making excuses

If your substance use gets you in trouble with your relationships, finances, health, job, school, or the law, and you continue using the substance, you’re an addict and you need help.


Addiction is strongly associated with mental health issues, which brain imaging studies show are actually brain health issues. In 2017, 8.5 million American adults had a substance use disorder as well as a co-occurring mental health condition. Some of the most common issues seen in people with addictions include:

In order to overcome substance use disorders, any co-existing conditions must also be treated.


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. Your brain plays a central role in your vulnerability to addiction and your ability to recover and maintain sobriety. Unfortunately, many addiction specialists and recovery centers don’t recognize the essential organ of intervention—the brain.

Amen Clinics is different. We use brain SPECT imaging to help identify patterns in the brain associated with addictions (see the 6 Types of Addicts below). Brain SPECT imaging can be a very powerful tool in the treatment of substance use disorders because it helps:

  • Break through denial
  • Determine if there are co-existing conditions requiring treatment
  • Decrease shame and stigma
  • Show that addiction is a brain disorder, not a personal weakness or character flaw
  • Increase treatment compliance
  • Evaluate if treatment is working correctly or needs to be adjusted


Not all addicts are alike. Based on our brain imaging work, we have identified six types of brain patterns associated with addiction.

People with this type have trouble shifting their attention and tend to get stuck on obsessive thoughts of drinking or using drugs or some other substance. Regardless of what these people are addicted to, the thinking pattern and basic mechanism are the same. They tend to get locked into one course of action and have trouble seeing options. The most common brain SPECT finding in this type is increased anterior cingulate gyrus activity, which is most commonly caused by low brain serotonin levels.

People with this type have trouble with impulse control even though they may start each day with the intention of refraining from drinking or using drugs. The most common SPECT finding for this type is low activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), likely due to low levels of dopamine.

The PFC acts as the brain’s supervisor and is involved in impulse control, judgment, planning, follow through, decision-making, and attention. When the PFC is underactive, people can be easily distracted, bored, inattentive, and impulsive. This type is often seen in conjunction with ADD/ADHD and is more common in males.

People with this type have a combination of both impulsive and compulsive features. The brain SPECT scans tend to show low activity in the prefrontal cortex (associated with impulsivity, likely due to low dopamine levels) and too much activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (associated with compulsivity and low serotonin levels). This pattern is common in the children and grandchildren of alcoholics.

People with this type often use alcohol, marijuana, or painkillers to medicate underlying feelings of depression, boredom, or loneliness. This type is more commonly seen in women. The typical SPECT findings associated with this type are increased activity in the deep limbic system and low activity in the prefrontal cortex.

People with this type tend to use alcohol, marijuana, painkillers, or sleeping pills to medicate underlying feelings of anxiety, tension, nervousness, and fear. More commonly seen in women, this type tends to suffer physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension, headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations. People with this type tend to predict the worst and may be excessively shy or easily startled. The SPECT finding that correlates to this type is too much activity in the basal ganglia, likely due to low levels of GABA.

People with this type tend to have problems with temper, mood swings, learning, and memory. Abnormal activity in the temporal lobes is commonly due to past head injuries, infections, a lack of oxygen, exposure to environmental toxins (such as toxic mold), or it may be inherited. The SPECT findings typically show decreased activity in the temporal lobes, although sometimes increased activity is present.


Only about 1 in 5 people who have a substance use disorder receive the treatment they need, and of those who do seek help, an estimated 40-60% relapse. Enhancing your brain health can help you stay on track with a recovery program and reduce the risk of relapse.

At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive evaluation to diagnose and treat people with addictions. This helps us identify your particular type of addiction as well as any co-occurring conditions. In addition, we assess any biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors that may be contributing to substance abuse.

When it comes to treatment, one size does not fit all! What works for one person with a substance use disorder may not work for another—or could even make your symptoms worse! Based on your addiction type as well as the other factors in your life, we can create a personalized treatment plan using the least toxic, most effective therapies and strategies to optimize your brain function, overcome dependence on drugs or alcohol, and help you regain control of your life.

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