By Dr. Chas Gant, M.D., Ph.D.
Did you know that addiction is, by far, the number one cause of death and disability, with tobacco use alone responsible for more than 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and over 5 million worldwide? If we ignore addictions (which some would call “denial”), then it would appear that cardiovascular disease, cancer, suicide and cirrhosis lead the mortality statistics, but addiction looms behind many of those statistics as the root cause.
Over the years, various approaches to solving addictions have been tried with marginal success. Historically, addiction was first thought to be a moral problem to be addressed by law enforcement. In the early 20th century, a psychological/psychoanalytic model was adopted, based on the poorly substantiated belief that addicts and alcoholics were simply medicating their emotional wounds.
Alcoholics Anonymous then emerged and achieved a modicum of success by promoting the 12-step philosophy, which bypasses immorality or psychological rationales as the cause, focusing instead on spirituality. The psychopharmacological approach came next. It was based on the assumption that addiction is caused by a Valium or Prozac deficiency in the brain. Substantial education and prevention efforts have also been made for decades. For the most part, addictions are currently handled by some combination of these models, but with marginal success. How can we do better? All of these approaches have made contributions, but none of them fully addresses the critical brain/body connection, so let’s explore the little known scientific facts about addiction.
Psychotropic chemicals encompass a broad range of substances, including some that are medically prescribed. Whether the individual knows it or not, use of psychotropic chemicals has a simple intent behind it. It is an attempt to replace the brain’s normal “feel-good” chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, in order to achieve their desired effects.
Here’s how they work. Most antidepressants artificially boost serotonin (the brain’s “natural Prozac”), Ritalin and Adderall work on dopamine (the brain’s “natural cocaine”), Ativan and Xanax and other benzodiazepines fit into GABA receptors (the brain’s “natural Valium”), nicotine wiggles into acetylcholine receptors, oxycontin and other opioids replace endorphins and enkephalins (the brain’s “natural morphine”) and cannabinoids tweak anadamide and other endocannabinoid receptors (the brain’s “natural marijuana”). When artificial chemicals are used in this way, the brain naturally adapts to over-stimulation of receptor sites by lowering its production of endogenous, natural neurotransmitters, thus leaving an individual shortchanged when the drug wears off, which is what we call “withdrawal”.
Regular use of psychotropic chemicals, whether prescribed, herbal, illicit, OTC (over-the-counter) or legal/recreational (alcohol, nicotine) can markedly deplete and rearrange the brain’s natural “feel-good” neurotransmitters to seriously disrupt homeostasis (balance). The notion that any xenobiotic (xeno = foreign, biotic = to life) chemical can bring balance to brain chemistry is not accurate. The notion that any psychotropic drug does not cause addiction and withdrawal when the drug is discontinued is also untrue. The notion that disruption of the brain’s natural homeostasis with a chemical is anything but a very last treatment of resort option just does not make sense.
The only way to re-establish euthymia (normal, balanced mood) is to supply the precursors (usually amino acids from protein) and vitamin and mineral co-factors which support the natural healthy balance of neurotransmitters. These come from the diet or through supplementation. Brain toxicities can also disrupt homeostasis and euthymia, due to an over-abundance of heavy metals and toxicities derived from chronic infections such as candida and Lyme.
These need to be identified and treated properly. Metabolic disturbances such as hypoglycemia and hormone imbalances such as testosterone deficiencies may need to be addressed as they interfere with normal mood and functioning. Food allergies can also cause brain chemistry imbalances in neurotransmitters. All of these factors can conspire against an individual to medicate their dysthymia (unpleasant mood) into the relief of euphoria (very heightened mood), which disrupts brain chemistry more and leads to everlasting spirals of relapse and chemical abuse.
The good news is, we now have the tools to break this hopeless cycle. The unique metabolic imbalances, neurotransmitter precursor and cofactor deficiencies, food allergies, brain toxicities, chronic infections and genetic factors which compel addicts to keep relapsing can be diagnosed through laboratory testing which is almost entirely insurance-covered. Genetic vulnerabilities to all of the above can now be identified and the most advanced clinicians are now diligently examining these, especially in those with a strong family history of addiction. A treatment plan which is rationally designed to address these causative factors, along with adjunctive integrative medicine options of IVs, saunas, hyperbaric oxygen, acupuncture, low intensity laser therapies, massage and many other interventions can be very useful as well.
Finally, the older methods of counseling and psychotherapy, especially family therapy, the occasional, temporary, last-resort boost of psychotropic medication, 12-step and other support groups, education and yes, even the legal incentives and disincentives, can all be useful in a comprehensive recovery plan.
When a comprehensive approach is taken as outlined here, outcome studies suggest sustained recovery rates of more than 80 percent. The necessary ingredient which is missing in most treatment approaches, and which undermines good outcomes when not part of treatment, is the neuronutritional, comprehensive detoxification and genetic interventions. Once these approaches are incorporated into education, prevention, treatment and enforcement models, we can look forward to a day when addictions no longer are the number one cause of death and disability in the world.
Dr. Chas Gant, M.D., Ph.D., is an author, physician and practitioner, specializing in functional medicine, molecular health and healing. For more information, call 202-237-7000, ext. 104 or visit DrChasMD.com.
To hear Dr. Chas speak on this topic, attend the free seminar/webinar on DATE from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. with discussion beginning at 7 p.m.