We are all affected in some way by addiction, whether our own or that of someone we care about. Yet no physical disorder that affects so many of us in so many ways is so little recognized and so little understood. Other efforts to be healthy will fail as long as addiction—whether to alcohol, illegal drugs, sugar, nicotine, or prescription medications—is actively affecting our lives.
What is not recognized about addiction is that it is a physical disorder originating in the brain.1 Another little understood aspect of the nature of addiction is that there are painful symptoms that occur during abstinence that interfere with the ability to stay sober: craving, obsession, compulsion, stress sensitivity, anxiety, depression, mental confusion, and hypersensitivity to the environment.2 Most people are unaware that the pain of staying sober can be, and frequently is, so severe that it interferes with the ability to function, even when the desire for and commitment to recovery is strong.
Neurotransmitters and Addiction
We all seek physical and emotional comfort. We want to feel good. Chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters play a significant role in feelings of pleasure and well-being. A deficiency or excess of any neurotransmitter will give rise to uncomfortable feelings. Most of the actions we take are chosen to produce good feelings or relieve bad feelings. We eat because it produces a reward of good feelings. We eat certain foods because they produce a better reward than others (chocolate produces more reward for most people than parsley). We have sex because it produces a powerful release of pleasurable chemicals. We work because the work itself is rewarding for us or because the end result produces a reward. We refrain from certain actions because they do not produce the feeling of reward we are seeking. We all differ in what gives us satisfaction and in the depth of satisfaction we experience, but we are all motivated by chemical actions in the brain that nature uses to keep us alive, motivated, functioning, and reproducing.
An imbalance in the interaction of neurotransmitters can result in a reward deficiency3 that can manifest as restlessness, anxiety, emptiness, lack of satisfaction, and vague or specific cravings. This is the brain’s message to us to take action to right the imbalance. This need can lead to use of a mood-altering substance or behavior to self-medicate the discomfort.
There are substances and activities that change our biochemistry so much that we want to do them over and over. And if the person has a reward deficit that predisposes to addiction, the activity that works will be repeated as often as necessary to get the desired reward. For the person predisposed to addiction, the chosen activity will rapidly go from self-medication to addiction.
But because a substance does not lead to out-of-control behavior does not mean that it is not dangerous. Many socially acceptable addictions can lead to serious health problems and even death. Nicotine usually does not lead to intoxication but does lead to serious health problems. It is far more addicting than alcohol or illegal drugs and is usually accompanied by severe withdrawal symptoms when smoking ceases and can be as painful as withdrawing from alcohol or cocaine. Prescription painkillers and antidepressants can be highly addictive. Withdrawal, especially from benzodiazepines, can be very serious and can even lead to death. For some people, food is the most powerful mood-altering substance available. Most people believe that overeating is a lack of willpower or self-discipline. But the people most susceptible to it often have a physical condition that keeps them from feeling satisfied from normal eating. Some addictions are not to substances but to behaviors such gambling, compulsive working, or excessive spending. The problem does not lie in the behavior itself, but in how it is done. If any behavior is accompanied by compulsion, obsession, and negative consequences, it is a problem and requires some action to learn to manage the behavior in a healthy way.
Healing the Addicted Brain
While research has opened doors to new understandings of the nature of addiction and its effect on the brain, little of this information has been applied to actually helping people get well from this devastating disease. There are scientifically based strategies that change the brain chemistry of the addicted person, removing the discomfort of withdrawal, eliminating cravings, and relieving the abstinence-based symptoms of addiction. These include nutritional therapy, acupuncture, auriculotherapy, and brain wave biofeedback. The most important is the nutritional approach, especially with the use of amino acids, which is the focus of this discussion.
Amino Acid Therapy
Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. The nervous system is regulated almost entirely by amino acids and their biochemical companions, vitamins and minerals. There are key neurotransmitters that are affected by addiction and need to be restored to their normal state for the recovering person to be free of cravings and anxiety. The amino acids, precursors to neurotransmitters, can be taken separately, as a formulated compound, or intravenously. Intravenous delivery has the advantage of bypassing the digestive system. This offers hope for the thousands of people whose digestive systems have been damaged by addiction to alcohol or drugs, caffeine, or junk food. Certain vitamins—especially B vitamins—activate and potentiate the effects of amino acids.
There are treatment centers that offer nutritional therapy intravenously. This form of treatment is extremely effective in relieving withdrawal symptoms and in helping people maintain long-term sobriety.
Amino acids and vitamin supplements are essential for nourishing the brain recovering from addiction. But supplements are not more important than the foods you eat daily. Long-term recovery from addiction requires healthful eating and an adequate supply of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals—not for a short period of time, not just until you are feeling better, and not just until the initial withdrawal and craving are gone. A person seeking freedom from the discomfort of addiction must make the same kind of commitment to healthful eating that a diabetic must make. At this point in time, we have no magic bullet to fix either the pancreas or the brain once and for all. Dysfunction of both takes special care on a regular basis.
Depending on what amino acids they contain, some foods increase mental alertness, concentration, and energy, while others are natural tranquilizers that calm feelings of anxiety and stress. The neurotransmitter tyrosine synthesizes to dopamine and norepinephrine, increasing energy and alertness. Foods highest in tyrosine are foods derived from animal protein: chicken, turkey, pork, beef, dairy, and eggs. Moderate amounts of tyrosine are found in plant foods such as beans, corn, spinach, oatmeal, nuts, and seeds.
The neurotransmitter tryptophan synthesizes to serotonin, producing relaxation and sleep. Foods high in tryptophan are turkey, green leafy vegetables, dairy products, bananas, pineapple, avocado, soy, lentils, sesame seeds, and pumpkin. There is not an abundance of foods that contain tryptophan, and those that do may not contain amounts sufficient to make it into the brain if they are competing with other amino acids, especially tyrosine. However, carbohydrates help carry the tryptophan to the brain. But if you eat a carbohydrate-rich meal early in the day, it can cause drowsiness. It is better to eat tryptophan-rich foods and carbohydrates in the evening when you want to relax and prepare for sleep, rather than for breakfast, when you want to become alert and energized.
A very important thing to know about a diet for recovery is that protein contains all the essential amino acids. Therefore a high-protein diet will give your brain more of what it needs. Complete protein foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. The body stores very little protein, so you should eat it at least three times a day. And for the sake of both energy and your brain, we recommend three meals and three snacks daily.
To support healing of the brain, other healthy lifestyle choices are important. A support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous, regular exercise, yoga, rest, relaxation, fun, and creative living are important to reduce stress and increase a sense of serenity and well-being.
Healthy living with good nutrition at its center is the key to recovery from addiction. For people who have given up hope that they can ever overcome the compulsion and obsession related to an addictive substance or the agony of abstinence, there is a way they might not have tried. If you or someone you know is looking for an addiction treatment center, find one that offers nutritional therapy (preferably in the form of intravenous nutritional therapy). The miracle of amino acid therapy combined with other healthy ways of living has given hope to many for regaining freedom from addiction and for enriching their lives.
Gant, Charles, and Greg Lewis. End Your Addiction Now. New York: Warner Books, 2002.
Miller, David, and Kenneth Blum. Overload: Attention Deficit Disorder and the Addictive Brain. St. Louis: Miller, 2000.
Miller, Merlene, and David Miller. Staying Clean and Sober: Complementary and Natural Strategies for Healing the Addicted Brain. Orem, UT: Woodland, 2005.
Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Health”, visit http://selfgrowth.com/healthbook3.html
Merlene Miller, MA, is an educator and author with 25 years in the addiction field, specializing in relapse prevention. She works with LIfeStream Solutions (http://www.lifestream-solutions.com) to promote the use of intravenous nutritional therapy. She is director of educational development for Bridging the Gaps, an addiction treatment center in Winchester, Virginia that utilizes complementary treatment methods, including intravenous nutritional therapy (http//www.bridgingthegaps.com). She has authored or co-authored numerous books including Staying Clean and Sober: Complementary and Natural Strategies for Healing the Addicted Brain, ( with David Miller), Reversing the Regression Spiral (with David Miller) , and Learning to Live Again: A Guide to Recovery from Chemical Dependency (with Terence Gorski and David Miller). Visit http://www.miller-associates.org.