Morph an Addiction

19 Jan

Our basic premise is that your body is amazing. You get a do over. It doesn’t take that long, and it isn’t that hard if you know what to do. In these notes, we give you a short course in what to do so it becomes easy for you, and for you to teach others. We want you to know how much control you have over both the quality and length of your life.

You know that tobacco addiction ages you—your blood vessels and your immune system become older so you suffer disabilities earlier –18 years of disability before death on average—and die 10 years earlier. But addiction isn’t limited to just tobacco. Addiction is everyone’s problem – and it’s time to get real about our nation’s most urgent health crisis. One in three American households bear the burden of life-changing addictions, so you likely know someone who’s faced the fear and frustration that surrounds this disease. The ripples touch the lives of 85 million people, harming friends, family, and co-workers.

Right now, more than 17 million Americans are dependent on alcohol; 1.9 million on prescription pain killers; 855,000 have a dependence on cocaine, and more than a half-million are addicted to heroin. When University of Southern California researchers looked at 11 types of addiction, they concluded that half of those addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or drugs are dependent on more than one substance. Still more were also addicted to sex, gambling, or overspending as well.

Drug-related deaths have increased three to five-fold since 2001 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as more and more children, teens, and adults get hooked on alcohol, prescription pain killers, heroin, and other chemicals. A life is lost every minute. Yet, 90 percent of those who need treatment cannot get it.

Beyond the War on Drugs

Addiction is a reversible brain disease — not a moral failing. It’s a result of dysfunction deep within brain circuits involved with reward, motivation, and memory. While criminals should be punished, we agree with Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s recent remarks that “we simply cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We also have to address the root causes of addiction and focus on treatment.” Indiana has seen a tenfold increase in the number of deaths from heroin overdoses from 2005 to 2013 — as well as a rise in child abuse and neglect related to substance abuse. Now, that state, like Ohio and like many medical centers, is among the many who are looking for a new direction. People struggling with addiction need access to research-based treatment, but it’s often is too expensive, too far away, or has a waiting list that’s too long. You cannot break an addiction without your brain being busy with something else… your brain needs a new addiction like walking, or talking to a buddy, or both.

The reason breaking addictions poses such a biological test is that repeated and addictive behavior actually changes your brain circuitry. When you learn a behavior, neurons communicate with one another, telling you,

“This is how you do the task,” whatever it might be. New connections are made to enable you to add numbers, solve problems, translate foreign languages, serve a tennis ball, learn guitar chords—anything.

Two things happen when you’re learning that skill or action. One, the connections between those neurons strengthen. Use those neurons, and they become tough so that the once-difficult skill becomes easy. It’s why learning piano may be difficult at first, but then you practice and practice until the neighbors are so sick of hearing “Chopsticks” that playing the song becomes second nature. Your neurons know what to do and do it quickly. It’s an example of biological efficiency: you need energy at first to learn the behavior, but not so much once you know it.

Two, while those connections between neurons are strengthening, the ones you aren’t using are being whittled away. It’s the whole “Use it or lose it” maxim. Let’s say that you learned Spanish in elementary school but haven’t used a lick of it since. If you try to remember it when you’re fifty-five, you may sputter a few words or phrases, but you won’t recall much at all. Those neurons said essentially, “This bozo knows nada about Spanish, so why are we wasting our time firing off ‘uno, dos, tres, cuatro’ to one another? Forget about it. We’re outta here.” And in the process, you lose those connections; you lose that ability.

So, how does this apply to addictions and habits? When you’re addicted to drinking or cigarettes or Lucky Charms, it works the same way. The repeated behavior rewires your brain to perform that action like you do when you learn to play Beethoven’s Fifth. I eat, therefore I smoke. I talk on the phone, therefore I smoke. I have sex, therefore I smoke. You have created the brain circuitry to reinforce those unhealthy habits because your brain wants the temporary high that comes from them, no matter the damage that follows.

Therefore, the answer lies in the problem. We need to use that same circuitry to discover new habits that allow us to build new connections so that the destructive ones can be pruned. But here’s the thing: you can’t expect the cigarette or other addictive circuitry to whittle away by itself; you have to put something in its place. You have to find new circuitry boards to build so that your brain stops investing its energy in the connections that make you want to do the destructive behavior, like smoke. This is where the power of habit comes into play. As long as there are no adverse effects associated with that repeated habit, then you are going to rewire your brain away from the addiction and into a healthy habit.

That’s the ultimate goal of peer-to-peer and professional treatment: Creating new brain circuits that support healthy habits as you let the old, addictive circuitry wither. It can be a long, painful process, but it’s the path to freedom. We can only get there by working as a team. Don’t intervene alone; get help; remember you are showing love by helping the addicted person live longer, and with less disability. All of us have a role.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send questions—to youdocs@gmail.com, and some of them we may know enough to answer (we’ll try to get answers for you if we do not know).

Young Dr Mike Roizen (aka, The Enforcer)

NOTE: You should NOT take this as medical advice. This article is of the opinion of its author. Before you do anything, please consult with your doctor.

You can follow Dr Roizen on twitter @YoungDrMike (and get updates on the latest and most important medical stories of the week). The YOU docs have tow newly revised books: The patron saint “book” of this column YOU Staying Young—revised and YOU: The Owner’s Manual…revised —yes a revision of the book that started Dr Oz to being Dr Oz. These makes great gifts—so do YOU: ON a Diet and YOU: The Owner’s Manual for teens. And, the new book by Dr Mike Roizen: This is YOUR Do-Over

Michael F. Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. His radio show streams live on http://www.radioMD.com Saturdays from 5-7 p.m. He is the co-author of 4 #1 NY Times Best Sellers including: YOU Staying Young.

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