Everyone is familiar with addiction to some degree, whether it’s that daily dose of chocolate you can’t give up or watching a loved one succumb to drug abuse. Many factors play a role in addiction, but some research suggests loneliness plays a pivotal role in encouraging addiction, and that taking measures to remedy loneliness can be powerful therapy.
Addiction can apply to any substance or activity (alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, food, gambling, Facebook, etc.) that delivers pleasure but becomes compulsive and interferes with daily life and health. The addict is often not aware his or her behavior is out of control. Addiction is recognized as being a reaction to emotional stress; loneliness is so stressful it carries the same mortality risk as smoking and is twice as dangerous as obesity. Our physiological aversion to loneliness stems from our days as hunters and gatherers, when connection with others improved the odds of survival.
Research shows loneliness impairs the brain’s ability to exercise control over our desires, emotions, and behaviors –- the sort of qualities necessary to maintain healthy habits and avoid bad ones. This is called having executive control and without it, we are more susceptible to addictive behaviors. Loneliness also triggers our fight-or-flight stress hormones, further creating that need for relief that erodes willpower and propels addictive behavior.
In older studies on addiction, rats placed in cages with a bottle of pure water and a bottle of water laced with heroin or cocaine inevitably chose the drugged water until it killed them. The rats were alone.
However, rats kept in a comfortable cage with plenty of friends, fun activities and toys sampled the drug-laced water but mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats consumed. Also, unlike the isolated rats who became heavy drug users, none of the socialized rats died.
After two months of addictive drug use, researchers then took the isolated rats and put them in the fun, socially active cages. The rats exhibited withdrawal symptoms initially and then voluntarily gave up their addiction, despite the availability of the drug-laced water.
Researchers saw similar outcomes in humans during the Vietnam War, during which about 20 percent of soldiers became addicted to heroin. Of those who returned home, about 95 percent simply stopped using heroin, presumably because they shifted from a “terrifying” cage to a safer, more comfortable one.
And although painkiller addiction has become a serious national problem, the majority of people temporarily prescribed pain pills for an injury or surgery don’t become addicted, even after months of use. These examples show evidence that drug addiction is not just a chemical dependency.
With one of the worst drug problems in Europe, Portugal put these principles to test. It jettisoned the war on drugs and instead poured resources into reconnecting addicts with their own feelings, other people, and a feeling of purpose through job programs. A follow-up study showed the program reduced the use of injected drugs by 50 percent.
Humans are wired to connect and bond with one another. If we can’t bond with other people we bond with the source of our addiction. Nutritional therapy, supplemental support (amino acids in particular can positively influence brain chemistry), and other functional medicine strategies can encourage healthy brain behavior that reduces addictive tendencies. However, it’s vitally important to also address the psychological and spiritual underpinnings of addiction, which often include loneliness and isolation.
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