This is a guest post by Cynthia Perkins, M.Ed. You can find Cynthia at www.alternatives-for-alcoholism.com.
The most up-to-date research in the field of addiction suggests that all addiction is rooted in impaired brain chemistry, not lack of will power, character defects, personality disorders or spirituality.
In the brain, we have chemicals called neurotransmitters that regulate how we think, feel and behave. The neurotransmitters involved most frequently with an addiction of any kind include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, endorphins, and norepinephrine, but acetylcholine and anandamide may also be involved in some addictions. Serotonin functions like a natural anti-depressant.
Dopamine provides feelings of pleasure, motivation and focus, while GABA is similar to a natural sedative providing us with relaxation. Endorphins are like natural opiates that provide relief for emotional and physical pain and each of these provide feelings of well-being and inner peace. Norepinephrine provides energy, but in excess it’s actually toxic to the brain, while acetylcholine regulates the autonomic nervous system, cognitive functions and memory. Anandamide has a dampening effect on all other neurotransmitters.
In order for the brain to function adequately, neurotransmitters must be present in just the right amounts. Not enough or too many can result in a wide variety of symptoms including, but not limited to: depression, anxiety, irritability, violence, inability to concentrate or remember, insomnia, hyperactivity and cravings for mind-altering substances of all kinds.
Neurotransmitters may be out of balance prior to an addiction because of a poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, a genetic polymorphism, chronic stress, childhood abuse, environmental toxins, or brain trauma like a concussion, which becomes the driving force for an addiction to develop, or they may become imbalanced from the psychotropic substance itself.
All psychotropic substances artificially and temporarily alter neurotransmitters in the brain. Their effects are achieved in two different ways; they stimulate an intense supply of neurotransmitters to be released all at once and they mimic the effects of the natural neurotransmitter.
For example, sugar and alcohol increase dopamine, serotonin, GABA and endorphins, while heroin and other opioids mimic endorphins. Marijuana and chocolate affect anandamide. Nicotine affects acetylcholine. Cocaine and amphetamines increase dopamine, and Ativan or Valium mimic GABA. All addictive substances increase dopamine. Elevated levels of serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and endorphins generate profound euphoria, joy, relaxation, pleasure and happiness, alleviate physical and emotional pain and produce an exaggerated sense of well-being and inner peace, which is commonly referred to as “being high.”
In End Your Addiction Now, Dr. Charles Gant explains that the brain responds to artificial stimulation of neurotransmitters by either reducing production of and responsiveness to the particular neurotransmitter or reducing the number of receptors for the neurotransmitter.
This leaves the brain dependent upon the psychotropic substance to perform the duties of the impaired neurotransmitter. The addict is not really craving the addictive substance; they are craving what the substance does for the brain.
The more depleted the neurotransmitters become, the more dependent one becomes on the addictive substance. Since the brain is no longer producing or responding appropriately to its own neurotransmitter, then cravings and withdrawal are experienced when the substance is not present in the system to carry out the functions of the depleted neurotransmitter.
Neurotransmitters can be restored to balance with the right diet, nutritional supplements, and other lifestyle changes. When this is achieved, then cravings for the addictive substance simply dissipate and maintaining sobriety is no longer a struggle.
Cynthia Perkins, M.Ed., is a sobriety coach and a recovered addict of many substances with 25 years of craving-free and uninterrupted sobriety and the founder of the Clean and Sober for Life Jump-Start Program, a 12 step alternative based on science. Learn more at www.alternatives-for-alcoholism.com.
Gant, Charles, Dr. End Your Addiction Now, Square One Publishers Inc. 2009
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Last reviewed: 2 Jul 2013