The concept of addiction has evolved over the last decades. Now it is considered a disease, not as a failing of a weak person as it once was. The brain disease model of addiction is strongly supported by scientific evidence, as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).[1]

Addiction is defined as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use (with whatever the drug of choice is), despite harmful consequences.” It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs and alcohol.[2]

“Animal and human studies have shown that critical brain structures and behaviors are disrupted by chronic exposure to drugs and alcohol,” Dr. Nora Volkow and Dr. George Koob write.[3] “These findings, along with ongoing research, are helping to explain how drugs and alcohol affect brain processes associated with loss of control, compulsive drug taking, inflexible behavior and negative emotional states associated with addiction.”

In other words, addiction is a chronic disease similar to other chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.[4] Addiction shares many features with these and other chronic illnesses, including the following:

Heritability4 Reasons Addiction Is Considered a Disease

Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.[5] A person’s stage of development and other medical conditions they may have are also factors.

Environmental Influences

Human studies of addictive behaviors have clearly implicated both environmental and genetic influences as well as interactions between the two, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “While genetics play a major role in defining who we are, the environment in which we are raised is just as influential.”[6] Sometimes people do choose behaviors that have undesirable effects, NIDA points out. “Personal responsibility and behavioral change are major components of any credible treatment program. Addiction, like heart disease, cancers and type II diabetes, is a real and complex disease.”

Biological Factors

There are definite neurological changes that contribute to an LGBT person engaging in addictive behaviors. Like other diseases, “addiction disrupts the normal, healthy functioning of the underlying organ, can have serious harmful consequences, and are preventable and treatable, but if left untreated, can last a lifetime.”[7]

Treatment Can Be Effective

Addiction is treatable. Physical diseases and addiction all have the ability to respond to appropriate treatment, which may include long-term lifestyle modification. Research in the science of addiction and the treatment of substance use disorders has led to the development of evidence-based interventions that help LGBT people stop abusing drugs and resume productive lives. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can usually be managed successfully. Treatment enables people to counteract addiction’s powerful disruptive effects on their brain and behavior and regain control of their lives.[8]

Drug abuse and mental illness often co-exist. In some cases, mental disorders such as anxiety, depression or schizophrenia may precede addiction, NIDA says. In other cases, drug abuse may trigger or exacerbate those mental disorders, particularly in people with specific vulnerabilities. However, there are specific approaches to treatment that can help these combinations, too.[9]

Ways in Which Addiction Is Not Like Other Diseases

Even though addictions of all kinds have many similarities to medical diseases, addiction does have characteristics that are unique. With addiction there is no infectious agent (as in tuberculosis), no pathological biological process (as in diabetes) and no biologically degenerative condition (as in Alzheimer’s disease), writes Michael Bader for Psychology Today. “The only ‘disease-like’ aspect of addiction is that if people do not deal with it, their lives tend to get worse.”[10]

Two common precursors to addiction include the following:

Dysfunctional interactions in childhood predicted higher rates of substance abuse later in life, Bader continues, primarily “because such interactions left behind toxic sediment of self-hatred that was so painful that subjects often sought drugs to diminish it. These researchers concluded that childhood trauma and abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease.”

Like a Physical Disease, There Is Help

Addiction is almost always about trying to fix feeling bad, writes Dr. Kelly McGonigal for Psychology Today. Whether your drug is food, shopping, sex, cigarettes or alcohol, it’s the lows that make you crave it the most.

“Just as the cause of addiction lies in certain toxic emotional and social environments that produce self-hatred and isolation, so too does its cure lie in supportive environments based on love and community,” writes Michael Bader.[12] With proper treatment, as with a physical disease, addiction can be overcome. If you or someone you love in the LGBT community would like some help with this, call our admissions coordinators who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at our toll-free helpline.

[1] “NIDA and NIAAA commentary strongly supports brain disease model of addiction,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), July 29, 2015, http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-noteworthy/nida-and-niaaa-commentary-strongly-supports-brain-disease-model.

[2]  “Drug Abuse and Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction

[3] “NIDA and NIAAA commentary strongly supports brain disease model of addiction,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), July 29, 2015, http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-noteworthy/nida-and-niaaa-commentary-strongly-supports-brain-disease-model

[4] “Addiction is a chronic disease,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, http://archives.drugabuse.gov/about/welcome/aboutdrugabuse/chronicdisease, visited Nov. 1, 2015.

[5] “Drug Abuse and Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated July 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction.

[6] “Addiction is a chronic disease,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, http://archives.drugabuse.gov/about/welcome/aboutdrugabuse/chronicdisease, visited Nov. 1, 2015.

[7] “Drug Abuse and Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated July 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction.

[8]  “Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated July 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery.

[9] “Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, updated July 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery.

[10]  “The Science of Addiction and Recovery: Addicts are Made, Not Born,” by Michael Bader, D.M.H., Psychology Today, Oct. 16, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-is-he-thinking/201510/the-science-addiction-and-recovery.

[11] “Stress Hormone Key to Alcohol Dependence,” by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2010.

[12] “The Science of Addiction and Recovery: Addicts are Made, Not Born,” by Michael Bader, D.M.H., Psychology Today, Oct. 16, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-is-he-thinking/201510/the-science-addiction-and-recovery.