Is Addiction a Disease?

Last Updated on April 14, 2021

Is Addiction a Disease?

Addiction is a serious problem in America. More than 130 people die daily from opioid overdose1 and 1 in 10 adults died from excessive alcohol use between 2006 and 2010.2 With addiction being one of the leading preventable causes of death in the United States, it’s essential that we thoroughly understand what addiction is so we know how to treat it.

What is the Definition of Addiction?

Findings from decades of research support the conclusion that addiction is a chronic disease.

Some people choose to dispute this claim and argue that addiction occurs as a result of a series of bad choices and a lack of willpower. However, addiction is defined as a chronic disease by several reputable and well-known organizations and medical associations, including:

  • The American Society of Addiction Medicine
  • The American Psychiatric Association
  • The American Society of Addiction Medicine
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse.3,4,5,6

In November of 2016, addiction was also publicly confirmed as a chronic illness by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D. He made the following statement, “It’s time to change how we view addiction,” said Dr. Murthy. “Not as a moral failing but as a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency, and compassion. The way we address this crisis is a test for America.”7

What is the Disease Model of Addiction?

According to the Center on Addiction, the disease model of addiction states that addiction is a disease that is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. A person’s genetics can also have a great impact on the likelihood that they will develop an addiction (about 50 percent).5

The disease model of addiction also makes it clear that addiction changes the way the brain functions, and that if left untreated, addiction may increase in severity and eventually become life-threatening.

Although the disease model of addiction is strongly supported by scientific evidence, it is still controversial. Some experts and individuals do not believe the evidence supports this, that its distinction as a disease has not led to more effective treatment methods, and that its impact on public policy has been modest.8

How Does Addiction Change the Brain?

We mentioned above that drug and alcohol addiction changes the way the brain functions. But how? To put it simply, addiction hijacks the brain in three main ways:

  • It changes the way the brain communicates
  • It changes the brain’s natural chemistry and balance
  • It changes the brain’s structure and functions9

When a person abuses drugs or alcohol, the brain releases a powerful surge of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that naturally exists in the brain. It also releases glutamate, which is another neurotransmitter that makes a person remember the extreme pleasure and euphoria they felt when they were under the influence.

Over time, with continued drug and alcohol abuse, the brain rewires itself to prioritize the drugs over everything else, including the necessities for life like food, water, and sleep.10

Chronic substance abuse destroys a person’s sense of self-control and the addiction is characterized by compulsive substance abuse behaviors, despite the negative side effects and consequences they may experience.

The effects of addiction should be no surprise when you consider the three main parts of the brain that drug abuse affects:

  • The limbic system: This is the part of the brain that remembers pleasure and motivates you to continue the pleasure-causing behaviors.
  • The prefrontal cortex: This is the part of the brain that is associated with decision-making, self-control, reasoning, and other higher functions.
  • The midbrain: This is the part of the brain that is responsible for basic survival, like our fight or flight response.

Why Isn’t Willpower Enough to Overcome Addiction?

Willpower is a powerful tool and motivator, but even the most determined people will struggle to overcome a substance use disorder without help.

At some point, an addicted person probably believed they had their substance use under control, but despite their best efforts, it got out of control. Regaining control of a lifestyle of addiction often requires professional assistance and behavioral therapy. Although willpower is an important part of recovery, it’s not the only ingredient.

Additionally, making the decision to get sober is an essential part of recovery, but in order to be successful in that endeavor, most people need support. Going it alone makes it all too easy to give up and relapse when things get difficult.

Relying on willpower alone to overcome addiction also encourages the idea that a person doesn’t need anyone else to succeed in recovery. On the contrary, peer support is regularly cited as one of the most important aspects of a successful recovery from addiction.11 In addition to health, home, and purpose, a sober community can round out a lifestyle of recovery by providing support, hope, and friendship.

Treating Addiction as a Disease

Addiction is a chronic disease that requires ongoing management over the course of a person’s life. Effectively treating addiction requires treatment for the whole person, not just the symptoms of addiction.12

A fruitful treatment program for addiction should consist of several different treatment episodes, including detox, rehab, and aftercare services like IOP, peer support and monitoring, or a sober living program.

The addiction treatment process is often comprised of the following methods:

Recovery is a highly personalized process and no single method will work for everyone. Finding an addiction treatment program that provides individualized treatment, comprehensive care, and evidence-based treatment methods is key to overcoming addiction.

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol, call Nova Recovery Center today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2014/13_0293.htm
  3. https://www.asam.org/resources/definition-of-addiction
  4. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
  5. https://www.centeronaddiction.org/what-addiction/addiction-disease
  6. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/preface
  7. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-noteworthy/surgeon-general-issues-landmark-report-alcohol-drugs-and-health
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2215036615002369
  9. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain
  10. https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/brain-health/science-says-addiction-a-chronic-disease-not-a-moral-failing
  11. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/recovery
  12. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment
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