There have been people dealing with addiction throughout much of human history, with many theories articulated about possible causes. In understanding what causes addiction, we can hope to find new and better ways to cure ourselves and break these destructive habits.
Science is just beginning to discover a possible answer as to why people become addicted to certain substances. This emerging research suggests that, regardless of the drug in question, certain things are going on in the addicted brain. Dopamine is a very important part of this puzzle.
The reward cycle
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that communicates with your brain to produce feelings of calm, well being, and pleasure. In other words, dopamine is the reason pleasurable things are pleasurable. Because an activity that produces dopamine creates happy feelings, you want to do them again.
The human species has evolved in such a way that eating food, having sex, and engaging in physical activity produce dopamine, thus encouraging us to do the very things upon which our survival depends. But whether the activity is truly beneficial or not, receiving dopamine from it can create a powerful incentive to do it again.
Drugs hijack this system
Drugs produce high levels of dopamine, flooding the brain with more of this pleasurable chemical than it can produce naturally. Eating usually produces dopamine levels 100 per cent above a "baseline" level and sex gets up to 200, making it one of the more powerful ways to create dopamine naturally.Cocaine raises these leaves up to 350, and methamphetamine floods the brain with levels around 1,000.
Interestingly, a 2013 study at McGill University found that alcohol raises the level of dopamine receptors in everyone, but that people in greater danger of alcoholism receive more dopamine than people likely to maintain moderate levels of consumption. This is further evidence of the power of dopamine to control our behavior and increase powerful appeals that can easily turn into addictions.
The problem with this is that high level of dopamine isn't sustained forever. The brain adjusts by decreasing its ability to receive dopamine, so that the pleasant feelings get muted over time.
This creates two problems. First, it means that your sensitivity to the drug becomes muted, as your body builds up a sense of tolerance. You now have to use more of a certain drug in order to get the same effects.
As your dosage increases, so does the danger of using. Secondly, your own ability to take pleasure in other things is decreased, since, as mentioned before, enjoyable activities produce far less dopamine than these abusive substances.
Your motivation to engage in enjoyable things in life decreases, so that the addiction takes over. No matter what else you're doing, you may find yourself obsessing over what you can do to get your next fix, unable to get enjoyment out of anything else.
The good news is that, although it may take some time, it is possible to break a chain of dependence, and find alternative, natural ways of raising your mood and dopamine levels to truly experience the joy of everyday life.
In fact, doing this is an essential part of becoming sober. The drugs that exhibited such a strong pull on your life are not simply going to go away and be replaced by nothing. By taking time to care for yourself, do enjoyable activities, and enjoy the support of friends, you can slowly "rewire" your brain to receive good feelings from these natural processes.
Over time, you can begin to enjoy these habits, and do what is loving to yourself. And your body will thank you by giving you a more deep, abiding happiness.