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How Genes And The Brain Influence Addictive Behavior & Where to Seek Help

More Than Psychology

Addiction starts out voluntarily before it becomes physically binding. There is a psychological factor involved, but what science has discovered is that activity actually fundamentally changes genes. The term they use to describe this relationship is “epigenetics”. Essentially, addiction changes your DNA--at least according to the NCBI.

Think of epigenetics like this: when you go to the gym and work out, your body changes in proportion to the effort you put toward personal development. Eventually, you’ll get muscles which end up sticking around longer. To sum it all up to a single pithy phrase: you get out what you put in. The more you put in, the more you get out.

When you work out, your body’s genetic code is rewritten at a fundamental level. The brain establishes neurological pathways which essentially rewire your brain toward whatever activity you’ve been involved with. This happens whether or not you intend it to. If you’re in the sun regularly, you’ll burn before you tan, then you won’t burn anymore. This is genetic. 


A Closer Look At Bodily Function

Working out builds muscle, and similarly, substance abuse builds up a tolerance, and even interdependence. Long-term alcoholics actually come to physically depend on their “poison”. The liver constantly processes the alcohol, and eventually, the body begins to metabolize it much like it does bread.

This physical/chemical dependency is so acute that an alcoholic who stops drinking cold-turkey can die. It’s not just alcohol that does this, either; even over-the-counter prescription drugs just used for general aches and pains can have this effect with overuse. 


A Real-Life Example Of Physical Addiction

In Wyoming, Texas, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, Oklahoma, and to a lesser extent, Colorado, there are a lot of cowboys. These cowboys have rodeos. Rodeos feature rodeo clowns. Rodeo clowns distract angry bulls and keep the momentum of the event going while allowing bucked-off cowboys to escape.

Now the bull does “catch” the rodeo clown every now and again, and that results in broken bones, flesh wounds, bruises, and a ubiquity of physical pain which persists. I knew a man who was once a rodeo clown. For the sake of respect, let’s call him Carson. Carson had been a rodeo clown for decades, and become used to painkillers.

He was an old-school cowboy type who didn’t take “no” for an answer, rolled his own cigarettes, swallowed tobacco if he chewed it, and all the cliches you’re familiar with. The thing was, he began experiencing side effects from the substantial over-the-counter pain medication he was taking. This got so noticeable he went to a doctor.

The doctor pointed out that he had been taking these painkillers too long, and this was destroying his internal organs. Well being a cowboy, Carson took that under advisement, and quit cold turkey. He dropped dead within forty-eight hours. His case isn’t unique, either. 


The Body Changes At A Genetic Level From Behavior

The body rewires itself to match your behavior. There’s an old adage which says “you are what you eat”. There’s a proverb that says “we soon become the things we do”. As it turns out, these sayings have some scientific truth to them. Addiction becomes a physical component of the body through the brain rewiring genes. This happens through neuroplasticity and epigenetics--more on neuroplasticity in a moment.

This news is both good and bad. It’s bad news in that negative behaviors that are encouraged will come to define you at the physical level. It’s good news in that this means you have the ability to break that behavior with your will, and with time--but a strategy will be required for best results; a careful strategy.

If you or a loved one has a physical dependency on alcohol, getting off “the sauce” will require a regiment that steadily dials back alcohol usage until the body is no longer dependent. This is why many AA attendees with sponsors smoke like chimneys. 

While smoking isn’t healthy and is itself an addiction, it can be helpful in deferring the physical and psychological dependence on alcohol which transpires from continuously soaking the brain and body in this poison on a regular basis. The same kind of thinking informs treatment at methadone clinics, where opiate users go to break their habits. Basically, at both methadone clinics and alcohol rehab centers, addicts are weaned. 


Psychological Anodynes

Alcohol, opium, and nicotine are exceptionally addictive. Unfortunately, many prescription painkillers are opiate derivatives. Antidepressants, oxycontin, and other mainstream drugs are exceptionally addictive. They start out as a sort of psychological “teddy bear”--an anodyne--and become both mentally and physically addictive with time.

To get over an addiction, what you need to do is establish good habits and stick to them. According to the science behind neuroplasticity, it takes approximately three weeks to build a neurological pathway in the brain. This involves growing new cells. What they used to tell us as children is wrong--you don’t have finite brain cells. 

To summarize for people who don’t read medical textbooks for fun, neuroplasticity is a term that means the brain has flexibility and malleability--it can be altered by action. When you learn a new skill, new neural pathways develop.

If you bang your head on a table, you’ll kill some brain cells. But they won’t be gone for good. As you establish new habits, you build new neurological pathways, which facilitate an increase in the cellular growth of your brain. The thing is, just because you have the neurological pathway doesn’t mean you’ve established the habit.

Three weeks is the physical time necessary, in accordance with recent breakthroughs in neuroplasticity, to build a habit in the brain. From there, you’ve got to diligently follow through with that habit to cement it into your regular egress. The good news is, once you have the physical habit built, the psychological habit is easier to keep. But all the same, this can take time. 


Natural Solutions

Physically working out and eating right will help you to reach your fullest flourish as an individual, but that takes a lot of work. It’s easy to say what you need to do to find your peak. It’s hard to actually find that peak. And there’s a third component beyond physicality and psychology that you need to consider as well: community.

Say you’ve been drinking every night for twenty years. After work, you meet up with your friends, and you average a $50 bill doing shots, bar food, cigarettes, and pool. That’s $350 a week, or $1,400 a month--but you’re pulling down $4k a month at a sales job with regularity, and you can afford it.

For two decades you’ve had your routine, and it’s been fine. But now you’re noticing none of your belts fit, you’re wheezing all the time, you’re sleeping weird, there are bags under your eyes, and you’re experiencing sexual dysfunction. It’s time to cut out the sauce. You’ve got not only your mind and body to fight with now, but your friends.

If your community is as steeped in addiction as you are, breaking free will be doubly difficult psychologically. Part of what facilitates patterns in the mind is what’s known as “enabling”. If you’re the parent of an addict, consider these tips to keep you from enabling addicted sons or daughters, and help you feel less alone in a difficult situation.

team spirit

Why Community Involvement Is Key

If you’re not a parent, you should consider that the community you’re involved in likewise enables you in whatever addiction binds you. It’s a kind of reinforcement on a psycho-spiritual level fostered by your relationships. Oftentimes breaking an addiction means totally changing the community you belong to.

Now this need not be a permanent thing. All you really need to do is get a break from the community that enables you long enough to get off whatever you’re addicted to and establish a physical habit. 

From there, give it a few more weeks so that you’re psychologically enabled. After that, then dip your metaphysical “toe” in the “waters” of that old community, and see if you can resist temptation. If you can’t, back out quick. Different people will have different issues in this regard. Sometimes it will be easier for you to quit some sort of substance abuse cold-turkey, sometimes it won’t. 

Even coffee is physically addictive, as it acts on the mind like a sort of analgesic, synthetically replacing chemicals the brain naturally produces such that when you miss your daily dose, you get a headache, because the body has “catch-up” in supplying the natural supplement it quit providing owing to your addiction. 

Goal-Oriented Change

What can really help is setting goals--things to work toward. True, you should never quit using a substance to impress someone you’re in a relationship with. However, this can also be a good motivator toward overcoming. The issue with using a relationship as a goal is the future of that relationship. If it ends, you’re back to old habits.

However, if you make your goal something like achieving outcomes impossible while under the influence of your addiction, this can be effective. For example, consider scuba diving. If you’re always on some sort of opiate, painkiller, or antidepressant, you should not scuba dive. You need to be sober and awake, or you could very well die.

However, when you do get under those waves, swim along the reefs, hear the silence punctuated by the sound of your respirator, encounter the sea life, and experience the uncanny feeling of “flying” via neutrally-buoyant flotation underwater, you may find it so agreeable that you never go back to your old addiction. 

If you’re seeking assistance for addiction, you can consider seeking professional counseling advice from Horizon Counseling Services or ask your friends for recommendation. There’s a reason many rehabilitation clinics involve hiking, outdoor activities, arts, crafts, journaling, and the creation of music.

Addiction Isn’t Always A Death Sentence

There was a study in the seventies and eighties where they gave rats the choice of water or a drug in their little cages. Every time, the rats chose the drug and consumed it until they died. But recently, a new experiment was conducted which challenged this old one.

In the new experiment, scientists made a sort of rat fantasia--a Disneyland for rodents. There were wheels, there was food, there were other rats, there were things to play with--there was a true vermin community. Among choices of activities, the rats had access to drugs; and most of them would sample them. However, they didn’t become addicted to death as in the previous experiment.

Why? Well, the rats had alternatives--they had community. Addiction is often something which transpires as a result of isolation, depression, or community exclusion. People don’t have a reason to live, so they dull the pain through the use of drugs or alcohol. But when people have a reason to live, and something to live for, drugs are less attractive. Don’t be fooled, addictive compounds still have a chemical effect on the mind. 

The issue with having that in the back of yours is that this can become an excuse to maintain addiction. “I can’t quit, I’m chemically addicted!” Well, yes, you may have a chemical addiction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t quit. It just means quitting will be harder, and likely require community involvement. 

Predisposition Is Not A Sentence To Lifelong Addiction

Consider where you’re at, or where those who are in your family, or your friends, find themselves. Sometimes those addicted in your life just need a reason to live, and the addiction will clear up all on its own with time. Even for those who are genetically predisposed toward addiction, will and habit can break the trend.

There are people who have a greater genetic likelihood of becoming alcoholics or addicted to other compounds. Alcoholism is often defined as a generational disease. But it’s not really a disease, because even those predisposed toward addiction have the ability to choose. 

It is a disease in the same sense that crime in a city is a “disease”, but not in the classic sense where something infectious or contagious. Technically, medical professionals would define alcoholism as a “conditioned” disease; but that’s not what people contending with the addiction understand the term “disease” to mean. They tend to think of it like a virus. 

Now an addicted person can choose to succumb or to overcome. You can’t choose not to become infected by some unseen microbe. Diabetes is a disease, but it’s one that is unlikely to happen except through lifestyle. If you eat too much sugar, don’t work out enough, and keep at it for decades, you’ll overload your pancreas and it will quit. 

Some people may have genes which make this more likely than others, but the sugar isn’t going to jump into your pancreas and overload it just because you ate the wrong candy bar. It’s a consequence of activity and time--of self-directed conditioning. Certainly, physical and mental changes transpire, but certain diseases are of a type you can opt into. 

Alcoholism is one of them, so is virtually any drug addiction. Those who are Japanese or Native American will have different tolerances than other ethnicities, and an increased risk of alcoholism. But alcohol isn’t a germ that latches onto you in a viral way. As far as “disease” goes, it’s something that can be totally avoided, or encountered and then overcome, owing to its nature as a conditioned ailment. 

The reason not to think about it like a disease is the same reason not to dwell on the chemical dependency of any compound. If you dwell on chemical dependency, this becomes an additional mental block against recovery. If in your mind you think: “Well I have a disease!” that may be very true--it may also be a crutch you use to prolong your “infection” with this “disease”. Alcoholism is conditioned into a mind, and playing into that conditioning will make overcoming it harder. 

Accordingly, choose to overcome, and you will--if you keep at it. This is scientifically proven at the genetic, cerebral, and psychological level through neuroplasticity, epigenetics, and varying studies like the rat fantasia experiment alluded to earlier. But don’t be fooled: it’s going to be hard. Anything worth doing is hard. Don’t shy away. Accept the challenge, and discard the shackles of addiction.

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