Our brains are wired to perform very important tasks, some that we control consciously and some unconsciously. When it comes to brain health, addictions can be a difficult problem to correct. The American Society of Addiction Medicine issued a policy statement that defines addiction as "a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry." This is not a novel statement based on decades of research that have been spent studying addiction. The new definition does, however, bring to light the fact that addiction may not be a matter of simple self- control. The statement defines addiction as a disease, just as any other brain, heart, musculoskeletal or other organ functional problem may be defined. If addiction were simply a matter of will power, there may be more success stories of smoking cessation, ending bad eating habits or giving up alcohol addictions. Not many people want or choose to be controlled by these substances, but somehow they are. The statement also defines characteristics of addiction that may include inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, a craving for drugs or other substances, diminished recognition of significant problems with behaviors or relationships and a dysfunctional emotional response.
What substances or behaviors can be addicting? Drugs (illegal or prescription), alcohol, gambling, shopping and food are considered common addictives. Perhaps the increasing epidemic of obesity may be somewhat related to a food addiction. Food is often used as a motivator or source pleasure as opposed to being considered a fuel for the body. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, a leading expert on functional medicine, industrially processed, sugar-, fat- and salt-laden food, food that is made in a plant rather than grown on a plant is biologically addictive. Not many folks would eat a 2 pound bag of broccoli or a 5 pound bag of apples. But imagine a bag or potato chips, a plate of cookies, or an extra large pizza? The latter is easy to see vanishing unconsciously. Broccoli is not addictive, but chemically processed and refined foods will train our brain to unconsciously crave and consume them to excess.
The research also points to genetic factors as a reason for addiction. The likelihood that an individual will become addicted can be accounted for by genetics in approximately fifty percent of cases. This implies that if a person has a known family history of addictive behavior, they can be aware of their resulting risk and work to modify their genetic tendency by changing things like environmental influences and life experiences. Changing environmental influence may mean relocating to an area without emotional triggers, avoiding specific activities that cause addictive behaviors and focusing on creating positive life experiences that are free of potential habit forming substances. A comparison can be drawn between family history of cardiovascular disease and family history of alcoholism. A person may decide to modify diet and lifestyle, go for regular cholesterol checks and take medicines or supplements to lower cardiovascular risk. We wouldn’t want this person eating fast food every day, living a sedentary lifestyle, and avoiding regular doctor visits. The same goes for a family history of alcoholism. A person may focus on a diet and lifestyle that avoids activities and situations where drinking alcohol is a form of entertainment, motivation and reward. They may instead choose to focus on other activities of motivation and reward such as creative projects, recreation, or other activities that can be enjoyed socially, without potential addiction concerns.
Unfortunately, re-wiring the brain and changing genetic tendencies can be a process. Recognizing genetics and current habits is a way to start considering the risk for addiction. For those struggling with addiction, having the support of friends, family and loved ones can be a critical element of recovery. There are also many support groups available for individuals and friends and family members of those struggling with addiction.