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The Science of Addiction

By Dr. Jason Peñaranda
Medical Associate, Aegle Wellness Center

The understanding of addiction has come a long way since the beginning of the 20th century. What was previously thought to be an effect of flawed morals or demonic possession is now shown to be the result of various factors, from biological to environmental, from individual to communal, from chemical to behavioral. 

Substance addiction, or substance use disorder, is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug/substance seeking and use despite harmful consequences. It is regarded as a disease of the brain because it alters not just the physical structure of the brain but also its functionality. These changes are most often seen as behavioral (aggressive behavior, lethargy, indifference) but may also be physiological (insomnia, anorexia). Such effects may be long-term and can be deteriorating.

How users get started

To understand why people get addicted, we need to understand why they start in the first place. Whether a person takes drugs, smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol, or uses any substance, there are common underlying factors that bring about that first “try.” One very common driving force is the need to feel good. A user’s stress and anxiety can be dispelled once the “high” sets in. 

Another reason may be to feel better. In socially awkward situations, alcohol boosts confidence. Some people may feel they look cool when they smoke and can somehow make up for their lack of self-esteem. 

For others, addiction starts with the need to do better. Some of the most common substances for this type of addiction are anabolic or androgenic steroids that enhance physical performance. A person’s competitive nature can be a driving force for the continued use of these substances that eventually develops into addiction. 

An equally important factor is the need to belong. Trying to emulate someone or be part of a “trend” is a strong driving force. How many people do you know who weren’t smokers but started vaping because “everybody is doing it”? At a time in our history and technological age where anyone can aspire to be a model, there is constantly someone new to imitate and adopt a habit from which can eventually lead to addiction.

Effects on the brain

Substances of abuse alter normal brain function by interfering with how the neurons of the brain communicate with one another. They may mimic the effects of some neurotransmitters, and may also exaggerate or dampen certain emotional and behavioral reactions. Most substances of abuse flood the brain with dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. On the other hand, nicotine from cigarette smoking stimulates production of adrenaline, the neurotransmitter responsible for the “rush.” Targeting the brain’s reward system and overstimulating the production of dopamine produces euphoria, which can be a strong motivation for the user to continue using the substance.

Because the human body is an intelligent, self-regulating organism, it will try to balance things and maintain a normal state. As drugs stimulate dopamine production, the brain counters this by reducing dopamine production and by making nerve receptors less reactive to dopamine. The result is a balanced dopamine effect on the system. If the user stops or lessens the use of the substance, the overall dopamine effect is reduced and he will experience anxiety, lethargy, and depression. As such, the user will feel the need to start using the substance again, most likely with either a higher dose or frequency. 

As the vicious cycle continues, subtle changes occur in the brain. Brain cells establish and strengthen new networks while weakening other circuits. Unfortunately, the areas responsible for judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavior control are affected. This makes it even harder to quit, and the user sinks deeper into the addiction.

Risk factors 

Researchers have identified a list of risk factors and protective factors that are related to drug addiction.

According to the National Institute for Drug Addiction (NIDA) of the United States of America, prevention is still the best way to manage addiction. Identifying one’s risk factors and addressing them accordingly can help avoid addiction.

Should you wish to have a consultation or learn more about addiction, visit us at Aegle Wellness Center or set an appointment at or +632-737-0077.

Dr. Jason A. Peñaranda

Pursuing integrative medicine right after graduating from medical school, Dr. Peñaranda braved the turbulent waters of clinical practice as a pioneer of this once obscure specialty. Specializing in electronic medical education, he is known for writing many of the materials on advancing lifestyle and functional medicine, maximizing the reach of digital networks and social media. He established authority in wellness advocacies and lifestyle articles among his colleagues—a skill he uses in educating his patients in achieving their health

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