Addiction to narcotics and alcohol may be more common than we think – and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) it remains one of the leading causes of death for all Americans. In fact, NIDA recently released data and statistics of drug overdoses in the United States, and in the period from 1999 to 2017, drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines and opioids rose from 547 to 10,333:
Drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines rose from 1,135 in 1999 to 11,537 in 2017. Drug overdose deaths involving antidepressants rose from 1,749 in 1999 to 5,269 in 2017. Drug overdose deaths involving any opioid – prescription opioids (including methadone), synthetic opioids, and heroin – rose from 18,515 deaths in 2007 to 47,600 deaths in 2017; 68% of deaths occurred among males.
There also seems to be a substantial gender difference when it comes to addiction: studies show that men are much more likely to die from overdose than women.
According to the National Center of Health Statistics, men were almost twice as likely to die from overdose than women: 46,552 versus 23,685 in 2018.
What are the Physiological Effects of Addiction?
It is commonly understood that the use of alcohol and drugs has a profoundly horrific impact on brain chemistry and our overall cognitive functioning. So, how exactly do drugs interfere with our brain? When a person uses alcohol or any narcotic, there is considerable interference with the brain’s neural pathways – effectively creating a barrier to the brain’s activation center. This inhibits neurons from sending, receiving, and processing information through neurotransmitters, essentially leaving a person in a dissociative state. People become addicted to certain substances simply because the drugs mimic chemicals that are not naturally activated through the brain’s neurotransmitters. Stimulants – such as cocaine and amphetamines – cause neurons to release higher-than-normal levels of natural neurotransmitters. In essence, the brain is prevented from having a regular chemical recycling system, which in turn disrupts messages and signals from being transported through neural pathways.
But not all cognitive functions are treated equally. Areas of the brain most acutely affected are those areas which are responsible for motivation to engage in daily activities and routine, emotional regulation, problem solving/decision making, and impulse control. In essence, when the area of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotions (amygdala) is affected, it follows that a person using alcohol or narcotics is going to be motivated to increase the use of whatever substance brought them that altered level of emotional well-being.
Opioids present a unique danger. Opiates and opioids – such as heroin and oxycontin, respectively – affect the brain stem which is responsible for the body’s life functions such as breathing, heart rate, and sleep cycle, and provides some insight to the direct relationship between opiate/opioid overdose rates, and the number of deaths directly attributable to those overdoses.
Effective Treatment for Addiction: There are Solutions!
There are a myriad of methods for treating individuals who suffer from substance or alcohol use disorder (SUD/AUD). Although addiction is classified as both a mental health disorder and medical disease, it is a disease that can be treated, and some believe even cured, depending on the severity of the disorder and what our definition of “cure” is.
One treatment approach that has shown great promise in relapse prevention is Naltrexone (common brand names include Vivitrol or Revia). It’s success is largely dependent on being used in conjunction with other forms of conventional clinical treatment and therapy.
Naltrexone/Vivitrol works as an opiate antagonist. What does that mean? Opiate antagonists prevent cravings and the pleasurable sensations which we would otherwise achieve from the use of opiates, opioids, and alcohol. Naltrexone binds itself to receptors in the brain and blocks other opioids from entering. This, of course, causes a reduction of dopamine in the brain’s reward system which would otherwise cause a change in mood and create the “high.” Vivitrol – used as a monthly injection – helps detoxify a person who is has been dependent on alcohol, opiates, and opioids… but doesn’t necessarily stop a person from going through withdrawals.
For as many substances that we’ve discovered as a society – and have learned to develop for the sake of altering the world around us – there are an equal number of treatment possibilities which offer a degree of hope and promise. Therein lies our greatest challenge: understanding how to meet that need effectively and with due care and sensitivity to the people around patients and clients: husbands, wives, children, friends, employers, and so on.
Medically assisted treatment, or MAT, using buprenorphine or naltrexone is a core component of harm reduction and a stable program treatment element… but it’s not a solution that can stand alone. More reliable modalities ought to be brought to bear which allow clients and families the opportunity to find reconciliation and treatment which can last a lifetime. It’s only through the collaborative application of different theories and modalities that we can hope to address the addiction and the underlying causes which exist.