Is Addiction a Disease? How Drug Addiction Changes the Brain

Is Addiction a Disease? How Drug Addiction Changes the Brain

Addiction is an issue that affects many Canadians. And it’s known that there can be a genetic component to it. The ideology of old that addiction is somehow solely a choice is being done away with, as it should be. It’s outdated.

However, that alone doesn’t necessarily make addiction a disease.  

So, is it one?

Is addiction a disease?

Is Addiction a Disease

In short, yes. Addiction is classified as a disease, specifically a brain disease.

In Canada, addiction is considered a chronic brain disease by the Canadian Medical Association (as it can be seen being referred to as in this document), and is commonly referred to as such by others as well.

However, there has been some controversy surrounding this.

There are articles and papers that disagree with this notion you can find available on the internet, like Psychology Today’s article Is Addiction a Disease? and a 2012 paper by Tim Holden available on the National Library of Medicine called, “Addiction is not a disease.”

However, you will still commonly see it referred to as a disease. For instance, this paper is titled, “Understanding the Disease of Addiction.” It specifically cites the recognition by the American Medical Association (AMA) of addiction as a disease in 1987.

The other common name you’ll see given to addiction is a disorder.

We’ve outlined in the table below the difference between a disorder and a disease.

Disease Disorder
The definition of disease is when the normal or functional state of a living organism negatively deviates. Diseases typically have common symptoms that can be noted.

Different diseases will exhibit different symptoms, but there will be a variety of symptoms common to specific diseases.

When referring specifically to the condition of a living organism, the definition of disorder refers to the abnormality of that condition, either physically or mentally.


A disorder is just a more general, more encompassing term than a disease.

Types of Addiction 

Addictions are not all the same. There are different types. Some of those types include:

  1. Drug addictions
  2. Prescription drug addictions
  3. Alcohol addictions
  4. Behavioural addictions

Drug Addiction 

Drug addiction in a way can be considered the umbrella term for the rest of the types of addictions listed (excluding behavioural). Alcohol and prescription drug addictions are still classified as drug addictions.

 However, for simplicity’s sake, in this section, we’ll be narrowing the scope specifically to refer to recreational drug addictions, excluding alcohol.

What is meant by recreational drugs is drugs that are not used for any sort of medical purpose.

So recreational drug addiction is a dependency (to the point of addiction) on a drug that has a recreational rather than medical purpose. This can include drugs such as crystal meth, cocaine, etc.

Recreational drug addiction is often the most conjured image when thinking about drug addiction. And it is an issue in Canada. According to 6 Facts on Drug and Alcohol Addiction Statistics in Canada, the number of criminal violations involving methamphetamines increased between 2013 and 2018, with some jurisdictions having numbers triple, for instance.

However, as will be laid out below, there are other types of addictions, as well.

Prescription Drug Addiction 

Prescription drug addiction is when someone has developed a dependency (to the point of addiction) for drugs they’ve been prescribed.  This dependency develops when the dosage is increased over time, or when the patient has withdrawals after prescription use, and so keeps taking it. Opioids are a particularly common substance with this kind of addiction. Benzodiazepines are another.

Opioids are commonly used as pain medication that can be prescribed after medical procedures such as surgeries. Benzodiazepines can be used to treat anxiety and sleep issues.

If you are someone prone to addictions, or who has a history of addiction in your family, you may want to discuss with your doctor if you should be prescribed alternative medications rather than those that can have addictive elements.

Alcohol Addiction 

Alcohol addiction is when someone develops a dependency (to the point of addiction) on alcohol. As a readily available, legal drug in Canada (if you’re over the legal age), it is the most common, as stated by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Like other addictive substances, it is possible to consume it without developing an addiction. And many do. It’s not uncommon to see someone enjoy a beer after work, or a glass of wine over dinner.

However, alcohol addiction still affects many Canadians. For example, according to a report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, alcohol was involved in nearly 15,000 deaths in 2014, which is 22% of deaths that could be attributed to substance use.

Being around others who are consuming alcohol can be a source of temptation for those addicted to alcohol, especially those in the beginning stages, or recently released from recovery. Different people will have different tolerances for whether or not they can be around alcohol when sober.

Behavioural Addiction

Behavioural addictions are when someone becomes dependent (to the point of addiction) on a certain behaviour rather than a substance. Behavioural addictions do not function the same way the other types of addictions in this list are. The physical aspect of addiction will not be present in the same way, where the body grows to have a physical dependency on the substance. However, those with behavioural addictions will still be compelled to do those addicted behaviours.

Some examples of behavioural addictions include:

  • Sex
  • Gambling
  • Food
  • Internet

6 Stages of Addiction 

There are 6 stages of addiction, as outlined in the table below. Those stages include:

  1. Initial use
  2. Experimentation
  3. Regular use
  4. Risky use
  5. Dependence
  6. Addiction
Stage of Addiction Description
Initial Use This is the first time a user takes the drug
Experimentation This is when the user experiments with drug use, potentially in social settings
Regular Use This is when the user has incorporated the drug use into his/her/their routine (although not necessarily daily)
Use with Risk This is when the drug use has begun to have a negative impact of the user’s life. The user is engaging in more risky behaviour related to drug use. Potentially is less worried about negative consequences
Dependence This is when the user becomes dependent on the drug.
Addiction This is when that dependency becomes a full-blown addiction.

Source 1, 2, 3

How to Prevent Addiction 

There are some ways to prevent addiction. However, in order to better understand those, it’s important to understand some of the risk factors for addiction.

Some of those risk factors include:

Genetics: Those whose families have a history of substance abuse may be more at risk of developing substance abuse issues him/her/themselves.

Mental Illness: Those who suffer from mental illnesses can be more at risk of developing substance abuse issues.

Childhood Trauma: Those who have childhood trauma in their pasts can also be more at risk of developing substance abuse issues.

Childhood trauma leading to addiction

Some tips to prevent addiction include:

  • Abstain from drug use
  • Look after your mental health
  • Seek help if you recognize you’re developing a problem
  • Understand the risk factors
  • Stay vigilant with your children
  • Intervention

Abstain from Drug-Use

The only way to 100% guarantee you won’t develop a drug addiction is to abstain from using any drugs (within reason), including alcohol or addictive prescription drugs.

This may seem like a harsh or extreme way to prevent addiction, which is why it is not the only one contained on this list. Although it’s the only way to guarantee it, there are other tips you can use to help prevent addiction as well.

Looking After Mental Health

Because mental illness can be a risk factor for addiction, an addiction prevention tip can be to look after your mental health. There are a variety of ways to do that, considering your experience with mental illnesses and mental health struggles.

For instance, if you so suffer from mental illnesses, or suffer from traumas, it can be a good idea to seek treatment, in the form of counselling, therapy, etc. A mental health professional should be able to help guide you through your struggles. Knowledge is power, and discussing your mental health with a professional, and any illnesses or disorders you may have can be beneficial for your mental health.

Another potential aid could be maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including getting enough sleep, eating healthily, and exercising regularly. This sort of lifestyle is also recommended for those in addiction recovery.

Whether or not you are specifically looking to prevent addiction, seeking professional help for your mental health, particularly if that is an area you struggle with, is always a good idea.

Seek Help

If you recognize you are beginning to develop a substance issue with drugs (or a specific drug), for instance maybe you’re in the regular use stage of the addiction stages discussed earlier, then you can always seek help. Again, you could speak to a mental health professional, but you could also speak to a doctor, you could seek treatment or join group counselling meetings.

You could also speak to friends and family that you trust to create a support group around you. Perhaps they could help you establish boundaries with yourself for substance use (and stopping it).

This is a tip recommended to prevent addiction. In the case that an addiction has developed, the recommendation is to seek professional help, especially if you plan on abstaining from the drug, which can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms without the proper medical protections.

Understand Risk Factors

As stated previously, knowledge is power. And understanding the risk factors and how they relate to you can be an aid in preventing addiction.

For instance, if you know there’s a strong history of drug use in your family, you may be more careful in using drugs, and may be more vigilant in how much you use, how often, how your body responds, and you feel about it.

If you struggle with mental health issues, it’s important to be aware of the risks of deciding to self-medicate with drugs like alcohol.

Similarly, with childhood traumas, it’s important to understand the risks associated with self-medicating to forget the experience, or numb the pain.

It is much healthier to seek professional treatment from a therapist, psychologist etc than to experiment with drugs.

However, all this is not to say that if you don’t have a history of substance abuse in your family, mental health issues, or major childhood traumas you are immune from developing an addiction. These are the risk factors of addiction, but they are not the only factors of addiction.

Stay Vigilant with Children

If you are a parent, guardian, or someone who otherwise looks after children, particularly teenagers, you will want to make sure you are watching for signs of drug use in your children. Signs of persistent drug use can include:

  • Weight loss
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Often hungover
  • Ignoring responsibilities
  • Asking for or stealing money

However, being vigilant doesn’t just include watching your children for signs of drug use, but also arming them with the knowledge they need to make responsible decisions, and ensuring that their mental health, as well as their physical health, is being looked after.

The best ways to do that will depend on the children and families involved.


If you are noticing a friend or family member may be beginning to display troubling signs of drug use, you can always stage an intervention. Interventions can be done as an informal affair, or using a professional service, like Andy Bhatti. However, more information on interventions is included in the section below.

How to Overcome Addiction 

overcoming addiction

When answering the question Is addiction a disease? we may have answered in the affirmative. However, although it may be a disease, it’s one that can be overcome. There are a variety of professional resources available to help with this.

And although it is possible to overcome an addiction without using professional addiction services, it’s recommended to seek professional help in treatment as it’s safer for the user and typically has a higher success rate.

Some of those professional addiction services include:

  • Intervention services
  • Addiction counselling
  • Detox centers
  • Rehabilitation
  • Sober living homes

If you’re interested in learning more about addiction services, check out some of our addiction services guides, like 8 Top-Rated Addiction Services Edmonton [2022 Edition].

Intervention Services 

As stated previously, interventions can be informal, or they can be done using a professional service. Professional intervention services, like Andy Bhatti offers along the west coast and in various places across the country, including Ontario, allow professionals with the proper experience and expertise to lead the intervention.

The point of an intervention is to set up a meeting to intervene in the problematic behaviour (in this case addiction) of the one exhibiting that behaviour while still creating a safe space where that person can feel loved and supported.

Allowing a professional to take charge in this situation allows a mediator to be there that can help create a rehabilitation plan and mitigate any potential arguments or disagreements.  

Addiction Counselling

Addiction counselling services allow someone who suffers from an addiction to talk through issues with a professional, while also learning to understand his/her/their addiction, strategies to change his/her/their thinking surrounding the substance use, and strategies to discontinue substance use in the future. Addiction counselling can be used as part of a rehabilitation treatment plan, or as an individual service.

There are many different types of addiction counselling, including group or individual counselling.

Detox Centers

Detox centers are centers where intoxicated people who suffer from addiction can allow the substance to naturally leave their bodies. This process will be done using a plan created and monitored by medical and/or healthcare professionals. Detox centers are often the first step of rehabilitation.

It’s always recommended that those suffering from addiction detox at a center where detox can be done safely and they can be monitored. Withdrawal symptoms can be not only painful but potentially dangerous. A medical and/or healthcare professional will best be able to establish the safest way for those suffering from addiction to detox so they can get clean.


Rehabilitation can include the plan and/or the treatment center where those suffering from addiction get treatment. There are many different forms of rehabilitation and rehabilitation centers including:

  1. Government-funded vs privately-owned
  2. Inpatient vs outpatient

Government-funded rehabilitation centers are often cheaper, or even free, however, offer more generalized programs.

Privately-owned rehabilitation centers are often more expensive, but they’re able to offer more specialized services.

Inpatient services refer to services offered where the patients live in the rehabilitation center.

Outpatient services refer to services offered where the patient comes into the rehabilitation center for scheduled treatment but lives somewhere else.

If you want to learn more about rehabilitation services, you can check out our guides on the subject, including A Guide to Alcohol Rehab Ontario [Practical Info & Resources].

Sober Living Homes

Sober living homes are homes those who suffer from addiction can live in where everyone is sober. These homes will be staffed by medical and/or healthcare professionals. Different homes will have different rules, amenities, types of counselling, etc and different people at different levels of addiction. Some may be functioning addicts who maintain a job, and others may have a more severe case of addiction. However, if someone’s struggling with addiction, they could also get treatment in a sober living home.


“Why drug addiction is a disease?”

Drug addiction is (generally considered) disease because it’s been decided that it fits the definition. Qualified organizations have looked at the question, “Is addiction a disease? Does it qualify?” and decided that the answer was yes.

“How is drug addiction a disease?”

Drug addiction is considered a disease because of the way it affects your brain. Addiction fits into the earlier laid out definition of a disease that it’s a negative deviation from the norm, with recognizable symptoms.

In Conclusion

So, is addiction a disease?

Yes. It’s a chronic brain disease. However, it can be prevented, and it can be overcome.

If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction, please contact Andy Bhatti to discuss intervention and treatment options.

Other treatment services available:



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