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Allostasis and Addiction

Your brain, in all its complexity, relies on an intricate balance of chemicals and interactions. When the brain is working correctly, we adapt and behave appropriately within our environments, learning and adjusting as necessary. When stressors upset this balance, the brain adapts to them in a process called allostasis. Addiction is one such stressor, causing chemical changes that move the brain from homeostasis to allostasis and disrupt its normal functioning.

What Is Homeostasis?

Homeostasis is your body’s natural state of balance. The brain oversees the body’s homeostasis, making adjustments to maintain a healthy, functioning system. In homeostasis, your brain is able to respond and adapt to its environment smoothly and constructively.

What Is Allostasis?

Allostasis (/ˌaləˈstāsis/) is the state your body enters as it seeks to restore balance. In the brain, this means that important chemicals are out of balance, and its normal functions are disrupted.

How Addiction Affects Homeostasis

Addiction, whether to drugs or to alcohol, disrupts homeostasis and interferes with the body’s ability to adapt to change. When your brain has difficulty achieving its ideal balance, it adjusts to cope with the addictive substances’ reactions. It then creates a new setpoint to account for the added stimulation; allostasis is the process by which the brain creates this new balance point.

Consequences of Allostasis

Your brain is incredibly adaptive, but that ability to create a new balance point through allostasis can change how it functions. The change in the balance point triggers particular behaviors and urges, including:

  • A need for the addictive substance: The new brain chemistry makes obtaining the drug the most important goal, regardless of consequences. This can cause people to behave in harmful ways, such as hurting themselves or others, bankrupting themselves, or committing crimes to get drugs.
  • Difficulty quitting: Ending the addiction is extremely hard, as the brain’s new balance point is dependent on the drug’s influence.
  • Lack of Interest in other activities: Feeding the addiction becomes all that matters; other priorities, such as work and family obligations, fall by the wayside.

Once homeostasis has been disrupted and allostasis achieved, the brain requires the addictive substance to maintain this new balance point.

Returning to Homeostasis

Because of the brain’s new state of homeostasis, you might not realize that your body has shifted and that you have become addicted to a substance such as alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, sedatives, stimulants, or tobacco.

Regardless of the substance, mental health professionals use four key criteria to identify a substance use disorder:

  • Impaired control: Due to homeostasis, you may ingest more than you intended or be unable to stop. You may also experience cravings so severe they override any other feeling.
  • Social impairment: Regardless of how your addiction harms others, you continue to engage in substance abuse.
  • Risky use: Despite being aware of the potential for physical harm, you may continue to take drugs. You may be so desperate to get your next fix you will put yourself at risk to get it.
  • Tolerance and withdrawal: Through tolerance, you will need more and more of the substance to get the same effects. You also may experience withdrawal symptoms if you don’t get the substance you crave.

To restore health, you must reestablish your body’s normal homeostasis—your body’s natural setpoints in the absence of foreign substances. This entails treatment of the substance use disorder, typically through psychological and sometimes medication therapy.

When you are addicted to a substance, you are continually overstimulating parts of the brain, making it more difficult for your body to maintain balance.

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