Reasons Why Addiction is Compared to a Disease in Canada

Reasons Why Addiction is Compared to a Disease in Canada

Addiction is Not a Disease

Addiction is a neurological disorder that involves convoluted interactions among the brain ’ s circuits, resulting in the intense urge to engage in a variety of irresistible behaviours. Addiction itself is characterized as a mental disorder.  So would a drug addiction be characterized as a disease? No, addiction is a neurological disorder.

is addiction a disease

The Connection Between the Brain and Addiction 

When a structure is interfered with, interferences change the function and effects the apparatus, this cause-and-effect system is no different from the brain. When there is a change to the system of the neurological pathway, changes occur in the brain as well; “Addictions centre around alterations in a single pathway in the brain: the “reward” circuit, within the limbic system”(Powledge, 1999).


Areas of the brain that are affected by addiction:


Area of the Brain

Normal Function

Altered Brain Function with Substance Addiction 

Basal Ganglia
  • Motor Control
  • Motor Learning
  • Executive Functions
  • Behaviour 
  • Emotion
Essential for positive motivation and pleasure reactions, substances trigger the reward circuit.
  • Processes fearful stimuli
  • Detection of fear-related behaviour like anxiety 
Withdrawal symptoms occur here when a high fades.
Prefrontal Cortex
  • Thinking
  • Problem Solving
Compulsive behaviour stems from this area of the brain. 


Basal Ganglia:  When drugs interfere with this area, they create a high. When the drugs become a regular occurrence for that pleasure of the high, the reward circuit becomes accustomed to that drug and relies on it to feel any kind of pleasure.


Amygdala : The more substance abuse that occurs, the more sensitive the area becomes, and the reliance on the substance grows.


Prefrontal Cortex:  The prefrontal cortex is the covering of the front area of the frontal lobe. When compulsive behaviour occurs it is due to a diminution in impulse control in this area of the brain.


Why is Addiction Compared to a Disease?

  • Addiction changes how the brain responds in different scenarios involving, stress, impulse control, and motivation for reward. 
  • Changes that occur as a result are long-term and can continue long after an individual has stopped using drugs. 


When you compare how your body is affected by substance abuse and how your body is affected by another medical disease, you will find that they are quite similar in the way your physiological makeup is affected.

  • Both addiction and other diseases disturb the normal functioning of an organ in your body.
  • Both addiction and other diseases can lead to a decreased quality of life and an increased risk of untimely death.
  • Addiction and other diseases such as heart disease are largely preventable by partaking in a healthy lifestyle, daily exercise, and avoiding poor choices.
  • Both addiction and disease are treatable and can prevent further damage.  


Addiction involves periods of recovery and potential for relapse, this is similar to other diseases that must be managed through a lifetime including:

  • Hypertension
  • Type-2 Diabetes
  • Crohn’s
  • IBS
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • COPD


These are lifelong conditions that require continuous management to keep symptoms at bay. Symptoms are likely to return in all of these if there are periods when adherence to treatment takes a backseat on the list of priorities, and symptoms will likely eliminate when treatment begins once again. The argument is that it ’ s no different with addiction.


There are many different perspectives of many different individuals, all who have their opinions and of course those who think their opinions are the only ones that exist. Those who see addiction as a disease have their arguments to support that statement. Though, there are arguments to support that addiction is not a disease as well. Carl Fisher wrote an article in the New York Times regarding his personal journey with addiction.


“It is something you did, rather than something that happened to you”, “I thought addiction was an extreme mental illness — a ”disease,” as I learned in medical school and later, in rehab. I understood addiction as a damaged condition that neatly divided me from the normal population.”,“Descriptions of “brain disease” imply that people have no capacity for choice of self control”(Carl Fisher, 2022, New York Times). These are all solid statements to support the element of ownership when it comes to addiction. Carl Fisher also stated that “the disease analogy helps some of those in recovery and their families make sense of their struggles” but that’s what it is, an analogy.


Is Addiction a Decision?

The determination that substance abuse is a disease, is not agreeable to all. Some will contend that addiction is not a disease because:

  • Addiction is not contagious
  • Addiction is not auto-immune or degenerative 
  • Addiction is fuelled by a decision to acquire something, which means the individual gives the condition to themselves.


This way of thinking allows for more emphasis on the social and environmental factors that play a role in addiction. Whichever way one defines addiction or substance abuse, one thing that cannot be argued is many substances, illicit and prescribed are quite addictive and addiction is a huge problem across the nation in North Vancouver, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, and all across Canada.


Reiterated the words of Carl Fisher “brain disease” implies that people have no capacity for choice of self-control, this is something you did, rather than something that happened to you”.


Why are Substances like Opiates, Heroin, and Fentanyl Addictive?

The cause of addiction for many individuals is the result of many reasons. One major factor behind the addictiveness of substances is because of the euphoric result. The euphoria is the reward the substance abusers are seeking, which is why it is paired with addictive tendencies. When the high where ’ s off, it leaves you wanting more. The more substances are used to accomplish this, the harder it is to accomplish the rewarding feeling without the assistance of drugs. The pleasure and motivation area of the brain is severely impacted which is why natural pleasure becomes harder to compete with.


We all search for wins throughout the day that come naturally, this can be your favourite meal, a song you love to dance to, endorphin release after exercise, or stress alleviation after sex, but the results received with drugs are something different, more so the consequences. The high received from abusing a substance is larger, louder, and more pleasurable than anything that will come under normal physiological circumstances. The everyday natural reward becomes smaller and quieter when you contrast it with the effects of these drugs.


When substances enter the brains pathway they:

  • Mimic naturally occurring brain chemicals
  • Trigger the release of other Brian chemicals in large amounts
  • Prevent brain chemicals from being reused and reabsorbed into the brain


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in your brain and is responsible for allowing you to feel satisfaction and pleasure and giving you motivation. When you feel good after an accomplishment it is due to an influx of dopamine to the brain. Dopamine is also a major contributor to the addictive power of substances. The natural surge of dopamine after the achievement is intended to encourage repetition and allow for life to keep on going with the motivation to receive that feeling again. The encouragement of repetition also allows for the potential of addiction, the drive to feel great again. When substance abuse occurs, the dopamine rush tells the brain that using drugs is important and should be repeated, making it easier for an individual to repeat the experience.


With recreating these bursts of dopamine over and over again, in turn the dopamine tells the brain to prioritize the value of drugs more than what you receive with natural rewards and the brain will adjust how it prioritizes the “ rewards” it receives. This leaves the brain susceptible to depression when drugs are not being used.


The brain ’ s response to the drugs produces changes in the brain’s circuit associated with the development of addiction. With this, a person may become tolerant of higher doses and depend on the drug just to feel “ normal”. Tolerance and dependency occur because of the alterations the brain makes to manage all the changes that the continuous presence of substances brings. The brain essentially makes room for its new “ roommate”.


Definitions You Should Know…

Tolerance:  This is an individual’s declined response to a substance. Tolerance occurs when a drug is used repeatedly and the body adapts to the presence of the drug and it becomes a part of the new “ normal” function of the body. To atone for this, the individual will consume more or a higher dose or both, developing an addiction and increased likelihood of overdose.


Dependency:  Physical dependency is the position a person is in when the use of a substance or alcohol is required to feel normal. Without the substances, the body has grown to require, the withdrawal will then occur. Depending on the substance the body has become reliant on, withdrawal symptoms can range from uncomfortable to life-threatening.


Tolerance and Physical Dependence are two separate entities and they do not need one another to exist. An individual who is prescribed opioid pain medications can develop some physiological dependence but may not exhibit the compulsive behaviours of addiction. Vice versa, some substances may be used in a compulsive manner that is evident of addiction without the physical reliance on it to feel normal.


How to Identify an Addiction: DSM 5 Criteria

  • Using a substance for long periods or in larger amounts than intended
  • Unable to cut down or stop using the substance
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of the substance
  • Constant cravings, intense desires or urges for the substance
  • Failure to manage obligations at home, work, or school
  • Continuing substance abuse despite the awareness of the consequences that have resulted because of it. 
  • Giving up social, or occupational activities due to substance use
  • Continuing substance abuse despite having a physical or mental problem that is likely for substance use.
  • Tolerance or needing more of the substance to achieve previous effects. 
  • Withdrawal is an unpleasant symptom after the elimination of substance use. 


Consequential Factors of Addiction 

There are multiple causes of addiction. One person ’ s journey through addiction may look very different from another. Prescription drug abuse aside, there are 4 main reasons people may try substances:

  • To feel good
  • To feel better
  • To do better
  • To fit in or experiment 


Substances may attract people with the accomplishment of a euphoric high, feeling powerful, feeling confident, energetic, or relaxed. Individuals with anxiety, high stress, or depression may turn to drugs to assist in the management of these symptoms. Some drugs have a track record of improving performance in athletics or academia, resulting in people being tempted to get assistance in getting ahead or keeping up with deadlines. Lastly, especially teens and young adults may begin using substances due to curiosity or peer pressure.


Not everyone responds the same to the effects of drugs and alcohol, but some have such a great experience their first time that they learn the behaviour that allows them to feel good and this is the root of where addiction can stem from.


Possible Biological and Environmental Risk Factors for Addiction include:

  • Genetics
  • Family history of addiction 
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Rough home life
  • Childhood experiences including neglect, physical, mental, or sexual abuse
  • Rejection of parents and friends
  • Unsupportive community
  • Poor school achievement
  • Easy access to drugs and alcohol

(Bellés et al, 2021)


If you or your loved one is abusing substances, it ’ s not too late to ask for help. Andy Bhatti Interventions and Addiction Services prioritize helping family and friends of addicts create and implement an addiction treatment plan, including assistance with an intervention for you or your loved one. You – as a family member, friend, spouse, or loved one of an addict – know your ultimate goal. You want your loved one to be able to achieve recovery, and stay sober. Getting to that goal is much more complicated, and families do need the help of professionals to ensure that there is a clear and concise long-term treatment plan.


Working with Andy Bhatti Intervention and Addiction Services, you will receive professional help to get your loved one on their journey to sobriety.


Call us today and let us help you set up a treatment plan that has succeeded as the long-term goal, for someone you care for.




Information references

Bellés, L., Dimiziani, A., Herrmann, F. R., & Ginovart, N. (2021). Early environmental enrichment and impoverishment differentially affect addiction-related behavioral traits, cocaine-taking, and dopamine D2/3 receptor signaling in a rat model of vulnerability to drug abuse. Psychopharmacology , 238 (12), 3543–3557.

Fisher, C. E. (2022, January 16). Calling Addiction a Disease Is Misleading. New York Times , 3(L).

Tabitha M. Powledge, Addiction and the brain: The dopamine pathway is helping researchers find their way through the addiction maze, BioScience , Volume 49, Issue 7, July 1999, Pages 513–519,

[templatera id="17199"]