I’m addicted to food, coffee, and nicotine. Food is the most serious problem of the three. My obesity puts a strain on the circulatory system and affects my freedom of movement as well as being a risk factor for diabetes. Coffee can be protective against Alzheimer’s and cancer; but I suffer headaches (a withdrawal symptom) on the second consecutive day of not drinking it. Nicotine gum seems to relieve the stress and boredom of working at Walmart. Moreover, research indicates that nicotine may improve cognitive performance. With both food and nicotine, however, I experience the cravings that are symptoms of addiction.
Dopamine is the chemical culprit of substance abuse. This neurotransmitter has long been known as the “pleasure molecule.” More accurately, dopamine is the “motivation molecule” that causes us to seek out sources of pleasure. Thus, a dopamine-deficient rat experiences pleasure when eating food placed in its mouth but is not motivated enough to move toward and eat food placed a short distance away.
Drugs of abuse—heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol (to name a few)—increase the activity of dopaminergic brain cells. Under the influence of such drugs, the brain makes more dopamine and pleasurable sensations—even intense euphoria—are the result. However, as the brain makes more dopamine because of artificial drug stimulation, natural brain processes try to decrease the excess dopamine to a normal base level. If then, a dopaminergic drug is suddenly stopped, there’s no dopamine from the drug and—with a lower-than-normal base level of dopamine—the total amount of dopamine in the brain plummets. Craving and painful withdrawal symptoms are the result. The process is a physiological see-saw. Sometimes dopamine is “up” because of the drug, sometimes it's “down” as the body tries to maintain homeostasis or balance.
Dopamine is not just implicated in substance abuse. It plays a role in addictive behaviors as well. The compulsive gambler, the gamer who plays video games hour after hour, the Netflix devotee who binge-watches all night, the person who constantly engages in casual sex, the social media fan who can’t stop clicking on links—all are examples of behaviors that raise the level of dopamine in the brain. When the behavior temporarily stops, dopamine reduction processes win out; and the result is withdrawal pain—symptoms such as insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and depression.
Unfortunately, our competitive American culture encourages dopamine generating activities like ruthless money-making, compulsive sex, and frenetic shopping. If we rely too much on such activities, we can bounce back and forth between artificial highs and lows, between hypomania and mild depression.
For example, maybe we are compulsive and obsessive about our job. If we manage to work or think about work continuously, we use it much as an addict uses methamphetamine. If our job or career suddenly loses its meaning for us, we may sink into a mild (or severe) depression.
There is an alternative. There is the Quaker vision of a life in which, not pleasure, but satisfaction is the goal. We may not be deliriously happy, but neither are we pathologically depressed. We are fulfilled by what we do; and our brain enjoys the steady, normal dopamine levels of homeostasis. Our Inner Light doesn’t suddenly blaze up nor dim toward extinction. We are stable, resting in the security of a relationship with God or at least bolstered by a belief in some humanistic philosophy. We live in quiet joy.
(This article is partly based on Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation together with a podcast interview of her. Listen to How Dopamine Drives Our Addictions by clicking HERE.)
~ Richard Russell
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