Understanding the Physical Side of Addiction
Based on Chapter 2 of Christian Families in Recovery
by Robert and Stephanie Tucker
God designed our bodies with amazing processes. In His vast and incomprehensible design, He gave us systems that could sustain and carry out life functions. However, the reality of sin damaged God’s design for our physical life. The same body created with glorious features now has a fallen and broken system operating at its core. The Bible refers to this as the flesh or the natural man. Not only is it broken, it was born separated (disconnected) from God.
Without a spiritual perspective of God as our Creator and sin as a human malady, we simply become material creatures left to be interpreted through a scientific model. We see this same mentality in understanding creation itself. When you take God out of the equation, you must find ways to account for life minus His power and ability. Much of modern-day science tries to explain both God-created functions and the fallen realities that occur as the result of mankind’s sin. In both cases, science leaves wide and unanswered gaps—answers that can only be grasped through a spiritual understanding of people. While science can provide legitimate insight into how amazingly our bodies function (or malfunction), it does nothing to resolve the deepest need in each person’s life—to be reestablished and brought into wholeness with God. That’s because the body can operate without a spiritual connection, but it will have to manage and deal with a wide variety of deficiencies in the meantime. Humans are designed to be connected to God. Like an appliance without a power source, life without God can only be a shell not aligned with the purpose for which it was created—to love and worship our Creator. As healthy as the shell can become, it will still be fundamentally void.
The science of addiction, in every sense of the word, is dealing with that physical shell. While the physical aspect can’t explain the deeper roots of addiction, it is crucial because the body under the influence of addiction has malfunctioning processes occurring in the brain. As we study this, it’s vital we understand that true science is God—not a replacement theory for Him. Science can’t outsmart the One who created human life and everything in it. On the other side of the spectrum, simply ignoring the bodily functions leaves us lacking insight about the power of addiction.
Addiction and Neurotransmission
The brain is simply amazing. It houses billions of neurons (nerve cells) that send signals which are transported back and forth from one cell to another. These neurons send messages that provide the brain with information necessary to perform various functions. While the process is complex, basically the neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages from one cell to the next. Depending on their set task, these neurotransmitters can excite or depress the function of the neurons. For example, a neurotransmitter called dopamine releases a euphoric or pleasurable response. Its job is to tell the brain that something positive just occurred and should be repeated. Medical science calls this our reward system—it is linked to processes that drive us to “want more.” Eating, for example, is driven by this system so that we will sustain life and nourish our bodies. Other neurotransmitters have different purposes and can activate areas of the brain associated with mood, emotion, and other feelings. Regarding the physical side of addiction, it is important to understand that these neurotransmitters are often the physicalarea where addiction takes hold.
We must keep in mind that the “reward system” of human beings is fundamentally driven by a fallen fleshly nature. The Bible repeatedly tells us to put away the lust of our flesh. Thus, the “pleasure” side of our lives can be misaligned without spiritual remedy. It is not that God doesn’t want us to experience pleasure, but pleasure must be derived under His touch, not simply by our unchecked desires.
How Drugs Affect the Production of Neurotransmitters
Drugs are chemicals that can trick the body by either mimicking neurotransmitters or by causing them to flood the system. This creates an ultra-sense of euphoria. This alteration of neurotransmitter function creates a wave of problems. Because they are used excessively, the massive stimulation will drain the body’s natural supply of neurotransmitters or cause the body to dramatically slow production. For example, introducing cocaine to the brain prompts the body to release a rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives the user a euphoric high. The rush of the drug, however, will eventually deplete the body’s natural supply of dopamine and provoke a crash. The addict will then need greater doses of drugs to satisfy the depletion and to access a high. But satisfaction is never attainedbecause the body has been tricked from its intended “normal” state. Thus, a vicious cycle is set in motion.
For example, Kimberly takes her first hit of cocaine and experiences a high. Her body responds positively at first and she is stimulated to want more. The normal function of her “reward system” is meant to urge her to repeat this activity. However, the drug alters this purpose and provokes an out-of-control cycle. As she continues to use cocaine, her body lessens production of its own supply of dopamine. Her body learns to adapt to the feeling the drug brings and begins to crave more. The more she uses the more her body adapts to that drug level. Then it takes more of the drug to satisfy her. Her brain is out of balance, and now it can’t be satisfied by the compensating drug to get high. This is how a 20-year-old “nice girl next door” can become a prostitute or thief. It certainly isn’t just a chemical issue, but the drug is an instrument from hell that places her into bondage. Her physical body is serving her cravings and addiction.
Now, Kimberly can’t experience pleasure of anysort without the drug. Her body will become physically dependent on the drug and she will get sick without it in her system. Kimberly will also experience what are known as “cravings”—the very thoughtof the drug causes surges in brain chemistry that can drive her to insane efforts to find that “next high.”
Understanding the science of addiction does not supersede the ability of God to bring healing. Yet, we must understand the power and grip it has on a person to lead them into a bondage where they lose the ability to make rational choices. Also, once addiction has altered the brain, it cannot be healed from a negative reaction to drugs. An addict’s brain is permanently broken in its ability to say “stop.” The moment substance is re-introduced to the brain, a person who had quit using is forced back under the compelling influence. This is also why it is not wise to “switch” chemicals. For instance, a person with a heroin addiction may justify using alcohol in its place. But because the brain is defective in its ability to say “no” this proves a very detrimental choice. In fact, the only way to assure true healing is never to use any chemical substance with a mind-altering effect; some prescription drugs may even be included in the mix and need strict oversight by a physician. While this is often questioned in terms of God’s healing ability, it has been our experience that once a person is an addict, he or she should never pick up addictive drugs again. As we’ll learn, this is not only linked to the physical body but has spiritual ramifications as well. This is why other activities, including eating, sex and gambling, can also become a source of addiction if not carefully monitored in recovery.
How Drugs Hurt the Body
We know the cycle of addiction leads to unthinkable chaos and shatters lives in unimaginable ways. In this chapter, we sought to understand the toxic effects of drug addiction solely in terms of how it harms the body. As we’ve learned, the brain is deeply impacted and led into bondage. However, the devastation of addiction doesn’t end there. Different drugs erode different areas of the body such as the lungs, the heart and various internal organs. The purpose of this book is not to diagnose or give medical advice in any way. However, if you are dealing with a certain type of drug in your family member’s addiction (or your own), it is wise to do specific research to understand the physical implications. Some drugs have a long-term impact on the body while others can lead to an immediate fatal overdose. Your research will help you gain a sense of the seriousness of the addict’s condition.
Most people experience positive physical changes immediately upon detox, and the body will typically begin to heal in the absence of the drug. But this process can be painful and difficult. The brain may also be flat and dull without the drug’s presence. The addict will find it hard to adjust to a drug-free life without a spiritual remedy.
Many programs treat addiction with other drugs to offset the uncomfortable periods of detox. Some Christians believe this is acceptable for a very short period of time, but ultimately the goal is for people to allow the Spirit of God into every area of their lives. In this chapter, we are only assessing the physical side of addiction. People who don’t seek out the whole picture of addiction will usually stop right here and conclude that a medical solution alone must be sought. We want you to see the entire person suffering from addiction in order to assign a total solution.
Chart 1.1—Drugs, Effects and Health Risks