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Understanding the Neurobiology of Addiction

Neurobiology refers to the biology of the nervous system. Drugs and alcohol can lead to changes within the neurobiological system, often creating the typical symptoms of addiction: craving, tolerance and physical dependence, acute abstinence syndrome and post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

Over time, the excessive use of drugs and alcohol creates marked changes within the brain. These neurobiological changes are indicative of addiction being classified as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry by the American Medical Association, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Prolonged drug and alcohol use has a major impact on the limbic system, which is the brain’s reward circuit. The chemicals which make up substances of abuse flood the brain with excessive amounts of dopamine, and set off the phenomenon of craving for addicts and alcoholics. This phenomenon manifests itself in the repeated behavior of drug seeking and drug use, despite negative consequences.

Repeated use of drugs or alcohol builds up a tolerance, which requires more of the same to reach a baseline or feeling of normalcy, and even more to achieve the much sought-after high. When the brain is below the baseline, symptoms of physical dependence such as shaking, nausea, chills, and seizures may present as the withdrawal process begins.

The good news, is that as much as the brain’s neuroplasticity changed toward the pathway of addiction, it can also change toward the road of recovery. Healing the brain is a process that requires time, patience, and dedication. As more time is placed in between the last drink or drug use, the more chance the reward circuit has had to begin reparations.

Where drugs and alcohol created a chemical high, new and enjoyable experiences can create a natural high for the addict and alcoholic in recovery. Similar to mindfulness, when an individual begins replacing old, unhealthy behaviors with new, enriching behaviors, the brain learns to enjoy these as pleasurable experiences, and will continue to do so over time.

The process of healing isn’t easy. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome can last anywhere from weeks to around two years. In order for recovery to work, the brain must be given the opportunity to heal. Addiction usually doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does recovery. If you are wanting to get clean and sober or are new to the process, be gentle on yourself, and ask for the help you need.

The Serenity Recovery Center stands as a landmark of the Encino Hospital Medical Center offering the best of detox. Committed to providing comfort and care, our private detox program supports the first foundational steps of sobriety. Contact us today for information: 866.294.9401