How Does Someone Become Addicted to Drugs?
Author: Justin Mckibben
We now know that addiction to drugs or alcohol is not as black and white as people used to picture it. There is so much more involved in how an addiction to substances develops beyond the old mindset of a faulty morality. Beyond the assumptions that used to come from the surface, science and psychology have taught us there are many elements to an addiction. So many people believe it could never happen to them, but yet it does. Many families and friends find out that sometimes it can happen to the ones they least expected.
So, how does someone become addicted to drugs?
The Science of Dopamine and Tolerance
The human body is actually biologically designed to seek the natural pleasures in life as a necessity for survival. The limbic system creates appetites for these pleasures, so when you experience joy, that is your limbic system. In a survival capacity, this process gives us pleasure from things like eating or drinking water, which later drives our behavior to seek out food and water. We can experience a similar driving force of pleasure in intimate relationships and physical activity.
Dopamine is the magic chemical reaction that carries the meaning in the brain, activating circuits to cause pleasure. So the first time someone uses drugs they experience unnaturally intense feelings of pleasure as dopamine activates the reward circuits of the brain.
But the trouble comes when the unnatural flood of neurotransmitters actually begins to change the brain itself. With more than enough dopamine coming in, the neurons could begin to reduce the nature number of dopamine receptors to balance it, or the brain could just stop producing as much dopamine on its own.
Ultimately, there is less dopamine signaling in the brain. Thus, the natural ability for dopamine to cause pleasure without the substance is severely debilitated. The individual must then use drugs to receive the same amount of joy it used to produce on its own. The use of a substance may even become vital to avoid feelings of depression or lifeless. This is how a tolerance is created. The amounts of the drug will increase to achieve the same effects as the brain adjusts to the unnatural cause of dopamine.
Nature VS Nurture
Some would still say that addiction runs in their family. They insist there is an ‘addiction gene’ that dooms people to addiction. Others also assume the only reason people become addicted is because of their circumstances in life, and that if they made better choices and had more willpower they would be able to drink alcohol or use drugs “with moderation”.
So is it nature or nurture?
The truth is- it’s both… and neither.
From a genetics stand point, there are biological differences that may make someone more or less vulnerable to addiction. Certain genes or combinations of genes may make it more difficult for people to stop once they have started, or they may experience withdrawal symptoms differently than other drug users. However, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, your genetic makeup will never guarantee you will become an addict. Their website states:
“Scientists will never find just one single addiction gene. Like most other diseases, addiction vulnerability is a very complex trait. Many factors determine the likelihood that someone will become an addict, including both inherited and environmental factors.”
While researchers do admit that addiction is influence by genes, there are various combinations of genetics that can make some more susceptible to certain substances, but addiction is complex to the point that there is an element of environmental factors as well.
The impact of the social and familial factors for individuals does matter to the likelihood of developing an addiction. In general, research has shown that an individual’s health is the result of interactions between their genes and their environment.
For instance; genetics to impact the risk of high blood pressure, but so does diet, exercise and stress. Studies from the Nation Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) support that an individual’s surroundings also have a particular impact on drug use. According to the NIDA,
“Exposure to drugs or stress in a person’s social or cultural environment can alter both gene expression and gene function, which, in some cases, may persist throughout a person’s life. Research also suggests that genes can play a part in how a person responds to his or her environment, placing some people at higher risk for disease than others.”
Those who are exposed to a different life-style will also have a different risk of developing an addiction. It could be stress or trauma, or exposure to drugs and alcohol, depending on how these elements impact their development. This all leads into what is considered Epigenetics.
This is the study of functional, and sometimes inherited, changes in the regulation of gene activity that are not dependent on gene sequencing. In short, it means to examine how environmental exposures or choices people make can actually remodel (mark) the structure of DNA at the cell level or even at the level of the whole organism.
Every cell type in the human body effectively contains the same genetic information, but this means epigenetic regulatory systems enable the development of different cell types, like skin or nerve cells, in response to the environment.
So using certain drugs can mark the DNA and change the chemical balance of the body, remodeling the individual’s biology in a way that reinforces the addictive behaviors. So in a way, your habitat can cause a kind of “evolution” through adaptation in the cells.
How Does Someone Become Addicted to Drugs?
Based on all this and other information, it is safe to say there is a combination of genetic predisposition to addiction that can be activated by the outside circumstances and risk behaviors of the person. Essentially, everyone has some variation of “addiction genes” that are activated through a “perfect storm” of nature and nurture.
Use of a drug that disrupts the balance of pleasure neurotransmitters in the brain gradually overtime can mean it takes some longer to become addicted than others, which could be different depending on the substance.
At the end of the day, anyone can become addicted given enough time and the right chemical reactions. The medical community is now recognizing that addiction is a substance use disorder in the brain, not a moral failing or character flaw. Drug use and the environment it comes with can literally rewire the brain and rewrite the DNA. That is why a huge part of real recovery is not just removing the drugs, but also working to create new coping skills and to rebuild the dopamine response to natural pleasures again.
This is why recovery takes work, and a great foundation can make all the difference.
Make the foundation for your recovery mean something. Understanding addiction is one thing, but learning how to make the life worth living beyond addiction takes a strong beginning. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free now.
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