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Disease Theory of Addiction

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Experts have debated the disease theory of addiction against the idea that perpetuating substance abuse is a choice for years. After World War II, negative stigmas on alcohol abuse and alcoholism began to shift with the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, a group focused on healing addicts instead of shunning and punishing them.

Often referred to as the father of the disease theory of addiction, E. M. Jellinek, published his highly acclaimed book, The Disease Theory of Alcoholism, in 1960. His theory regarding alcohol dependence was based on four main concepts, as published by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD):

Today, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a disease affecting the incentive circuitry in the brain as related to motivation and pleasure, creating changes in behavior, emotions, and cognition.”2

This model calls addiction a chronic and relapsing brain disease with relapse rates similar to those associated with other chronic medical illnesses, such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes, at around 40 to 60 percent. The disease theory of addiction identifies drug-seeking behavior as compulsive rather than a conscious choice due to chemical changes in the brain that happen with regular substance abuse.

NIDA compares addiction to other medical diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Both cause dysfunction in healthy organs, are treatable and preventable, have serious consequences if left untreated, and without proper care may continue throughout one’s lifetime.3

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Addiction and the Brain

illustration of man examining brainFor many people, one of the biggest contributing factors to the development of addiction is genetics. In other words, because of their genetic make-up, some people are just more prone to the disease than others. According to a study published in Psychology Today, the link between genetics and addiction is as high as 40 percent in some people.4

Environmental factors may also play a role in the development of addiction. Childhood trauma, high levels of stress, low parental involvement, and peer pressure may all lead to experimentation with substances. And studies show that the earlier a person has their first experience with drugs or alcohol, the more likely he or she is to develop addiction later in life. Drug or alcohol abuse may also be an attempt to self-medicate an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one-third of alcohol users and one-half of drug users also suffer from a mental disorder, for instance.5 Drugs or alcohol may provide a temporary numbing effect for mental health symptoms, but the need to continue using for symptom relief makes it impossible for the user to stop. With continued use, the person struggling with addiction will experience intense drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms when the next dose is due.

Addiction as a Mental Health Disorder

In order to be classified with a substance abuse disorder, you or your loved one must display at least two of the following within a 12-month period, as published by NIDA:

  • Taking more of the substance than intended during a sitting or for a longer duration than intended
  • Drug or alcohol cravings
  • Tolerance to the substance
  • Withdrawal symptoms when the substance is removed
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop using the substance
  • Excessive amounts of time spent obtaining, using and recovering from the effects of the drugs or alcohol
  • Substance abuse interferes with the fulfillment of familial, school, or occupational obligations
  • Continued substance abuse despite negative physical or social consequences
  • Withdrawal from activities previously enjoyed due to substance abuse
  • Repetitive use of substance in physically dangerous situations6

If you or a loved one has any of these symptoms, it’s time to get help.

Finding Help for Drug or Alcohol Addiction

Addiction is a highly treatable disease. Michael’s House offers a supportive care environment focused on healing the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. Our comprehensive treatment plans, including recreation and other holistic options, can help you move forward and begin recovery. Call our toll-free helpline, 760.548.4032, 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.


1 Beresford, MD. Thomas. "Models of Alcoholism: Medical / Physiological Causes." NCADD Blog Roll. 1 Feb. 2016.

2 "Definition of Addiction." American Society of Addiction Medicine. 22 Feb. 2018.

3 Drug Abuse and Addiction." National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA. July 2014.

4 Derringer, Jaime. "A twin study primer." Psychology Today. 1 Apr. 2012.

5 "Dual Diagnosis." National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI. Aug. 2017.

6 "The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics." National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA. Oct. 2016.