SciTech

Health Talk: Addictions

The addictive element of cigarettes is nicotine, which increases the body’s output of chemicals, like dopamine, that cause relaxation. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) The addictive element of cigarettes is nicotine, which increases the body’s output of chemicals, like dopamine, that cause relaxation. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Heroin, once legal, is now known to be severly addictive and harmful. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Heroin, once legal, is now known to be severly addictive and harmful. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Many people have daily habits and nervous tics. Some people bite their nails; others crack their knuckles. But when dangerous habits become compulsive or even an obsession, it may be a sign of an addiction.

Addictions can take many forms, although scientifically they only represent behaviors that will harm an organism if not stopped.
However, in everyday terms, addiction can present itself as any sort of compulsive behavior.

Probably one of the most common addictions today is smoking. According to www.alternet.org, one-fifth of the world’s population, or 1.2 billion people, are smokers. The habit-forming chemical in cigarettes is nicotine, a natural chemical found in certain plants, including those of the Solanaceae family, of which tobacco is a member.

In our body, only a few chemicals can cross the blood-brain barrier, which is the physical separation between the bloodstream and the brain involving capillary walls. For example, oxygen molecules and hormones can cross this barrier. Nicotine can also pass into the brain, and it is in the brain that it binds to and activates cell receptors. Cell receptors are present on the surface of cells, and when certain molecules attach to them, they affect neurotransmitter production.
Nicotine causes cells to release more neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which cause feelings of relaxation and euphoria. Nicotine can also activate receptors in other parts of the body, causing the release of chemicals such as epinephrine and endorphins. Some of these chemicals are naturally associated with reduced feelings of pain and increased alertness. However, other chemicals in cigarette smoke are known carcinogens, substances that cause cancer.

Addiction to other drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, works similarly to nicotine. They artificially increase the levels of certain chemicals in the body that cause feelings of euphoria. Because drugs work with a greater effectiveness than natural chemicals, the body starts to depend on the drugs rather than natural chemicals to achieve the same physical feelings, causing an addiction.

Alcoholism is another common addiction. According to www.mayoclinic.com, drinking alcohol alters the chemical composition in the brain. One important chemical, GABA, is increased. This causes depression of the nervous system and makes the drinker feel relaxed and happy, but also uncoordinated and confused. Dopamine production is also increased, as with smoking.

Over time, chemical imbalances cause drinkers to feel a need for alcohol to be relaxed or happy again. However, as the tolerance to alcohol increases, the amount of alcohol one needs to drink to restore an adequate amount of chemicals is increased. Alcoholism may eventually cause serious diseases including cirrhosis of the liver, cognitive problems, and epilepsy. Death may also be a consequence of alcoholism.

Many factors, including age and gender, are responsible for an individual becoming addicted to any drug. In addition, genetics play a role in how easily one becomes addicted to certain drugs. For example, people with a family history of alcoholism may be more likely to become alcoholics.

Addictions can also manifest themselves as compulsive behavior or an inability to control impulses. Oniomania is a medical term for an addiction to shopping. People with this disorder often find themselves irritable when they are not shopping, or always think about buying. In addition, shopping becomes so sustained that other activities, like working at a job, become compromised, leading to financial hardship.

A gambling problem, or ludomania, causes people to become preoccupied with gambling. They may think constantly about winning and may bet higher and higher wagers to sustain a “rush” feeling. Often other people are affected by people with gambling addictions.

Another addiction that has only recently existed is an Internet addiction. According to www.nurseweek.com, this addiction was first created as a hoax, but has become accepted as a psychological condition. Usually, Internet addiction is described in subcategories, like obsessive social networking site usage and excessive Internet shopping.

All addictions can be characterized by withdrawal symptoms when the behavior is stopped. According to www.aafp.org, these withdrawal symptoms can include irritability, depression, physical sickness such as nausea, and even insomnia. However, all addictions can be treated through psychological counseling and support from friends and family. It is never too late to rehabilitate an addict.