Scientists say that all addictions are largely the same in the brain. They explain that addiction has a “common neural currency.” This is because of the involvement of the primary neurotransmitter dopamine and how neurons are affected in the limbic reward center.
Drugs that are taken into the body such as alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine over-stimulate the limbic reward center in the brain by spiking dopamine at abnormally high levels.1
For some, the notion of “all addictions being the same” may seem counter-intuitive because some drugs, such as opium and alcohol are classified as depressants, while others are stimulants. Some make us sleepy, while others give us energy.
But the reason for these apparent differences is caused by how the particular addictive behavior affects non-dopamine neural networks.2 This explains why particular drugs are more appealing to some than to others.
Furthermore, aside from the chemical similarities in the brain, addictions have obsessive and compulsive components. An addict will have obsessive thoughts about using his or her drug of choice and then act out on it (compulsive side).
The excessive rumination and preoccupation on thoughts to use impels the addict to engage in addictive behaviors. Once the addict uses his or her drug of choice it delivers a quick respite from those intrusive thoughts and powerful cravings.
This is a naturally reinforcing and dangerous cycle.
To some extent, all addicts have characteristics of OCD, but not all individuals with OCD are addicts.
Tanning for example, can be addictive because of its obsessive and compulsive components. In one study, females that screened positive for OCD and body dysmorphic disorder were significantly associated with tanning dependence.3
Research shows that those addicted to tanning have obsessive thoughts about it, and when they tan, it gives them relaxation and a respite from their obsessive thoughts. Obsessive thoughts and compulsions are very common characteristics with individuals struggling with substance abuse.
But what about other addictions?
One study found that nearly one in eight individuals engage in internet addiction. Internet addictions are characterized by compulsively checking email, web pages or chat rooms and excessively using computers for nonessential purposes.4
We may all be addicted to something, to some extent.
Addictions can range from pornography, masturbation, gambling, sex, food, tanning, social networking, video games and internet use, resulting in an over-stimulation of the reward center which disrupts the brain’s normal activity .5
Scientists conclude that addictions have more in common than in how they differ.6 Essentially, addicts have obsessive thoughts about using because they crave a chemical boost in the brain.
This is why alcohol, drug, tobacco, tanning, overeating and pornography addictions are really chemical addictions.
Drugs can be ingested, snorted or smoked. Some addictions come in from the skin, such as tanning. While other addictions enter through the eyes (such as pornography, texting and internet use). These things which are often thought of as being vastly different are actually quite similar. The means of administration is notably different.
This can also help explain why most all drugs are really “gateway” drugs. If an addict’s drug of choice is no longer available, he/she will most likely seek a substitute. This is often referred to as “cross-addiction.”
A poor practice in conventional treatment centers is to supply caffeine and high sugary foods to addicts in recovery. Research shows that addicts often replace their addiction with high amounts of caffeine and sugar that boosts dopamine in the brain.7
Instead of an instant spike of dopamine (and blood glucose levels), using key nutrients that give sustained energy which help to rebuild the neurotransmitters that are depleted, is the best option.