Understanding Why We Call Addiction a “Disease”

Psychiatrists – because they are doctors – rely on categories to understand people’s problems. Every mental and emotional problem fits a medical label, from borderline personality disorder to autism to depression to addiction.

These conditions are listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)

The idea that addiction is a type of disease or disorder has a lot of support being that addiction is a brain disease. It is a condition that changes the way the brain works, similar to how diabetes changes the way the pancreas works. Specifically, the dopamine system is altered so that only the substance of choice is capable of triggering dopamine release to the nucleus accumbens (ventral striatum), while other potential rewards do so less and less. The nucleus accumbens (NAC) is responsible for goal-directed behavior and for the motivation to pursue goals.

Different theories view dopamine differently. For some, dopamine means pleasure. The object of addiction become “sensitized,” so they greatly increase dopamine and therefore attraction…which turns to craving when the goal is not immediately available. But pretty much all the major theories agree that dopamine metabolism is seriously altered by addiction, and that’s why it counts as a disease. The brain is part of the body, after all.

The definition, “disease” is pretty accurate. It accounts for the neurobiology of addiction better than other definitions. It explains the helplessness addicts feel: they are in the grip of a disease, and so they can’t get better by themselves. It explains the incredible persistence of addiction, its proneness to relapse; and why “choice” is not the answer (or even the question), because choice is governed by motivation, which is governed by dopamine, and your dopamine system is “diseased.”

An individual with diabetes can’t recover from their disease unless they are given the proper tools of how to maintain a healthy diet, insulin and treatment to help them improve their illness. Similarly, an addict can recover from their disease with talk therapy, recovery meetings, proper nutrition and medication. Drug addiction and alcoholism are deadly if not treated.

Recovery is fueled by hope and courage and an exploration of the underlying factors such as trauma. Our treatment driven by compassionate and trauma-informed care provides the foundation of recovery and healing.

– Valerie M. Kading, DNP, MBA, MSN, PMHNP-BC, Chief Executive Officer
Marks of Quality Care
These accreditations are an official recognition of our dedication to providing treatment that exceeds the standards and best practices of quality care.
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
  • California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)