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What Does Chemically Dependent Mean?

We hear plenty in the news about addiction, but what is chemical dependency? Most people are unaware of the distinction between drug and alcohol addiction and chemical dependency. In reality, it is possible to be addicted to a substance and never develop a chemical dependency. On the flipside, someone who has become chemically dependent on a substance can also become addicted to it. The primary differentiation involves the brain’s reward system, which is impacted with addiction. So then what exactly is chemical dependency? Suppose a person with chronic back pain is prescribed an opioid for symptom relief. This patient will likely take the medication routinely for months, if not years. As the drug interacts daily with the central nervous system, the body develops a dependence on the substance. In essence, the body is no longer able to function normally without the drug. At some point, the individual’s medical condition may heal, and there is no longer a need to adhere to the painkiller regimen… so then what happens? There are two typical outcomes at this juncture:

  • The individual goes through a difficult detox and withdrawal program while the body adjusts to the diminishing levels of the substance in their system
  • The individual finds he or she is psychologically addicted to the substance as well, and will need to enter a treatment program for rehabilitation

The powerful affect of a substance on the central nervous system over time is difficult to overcome without professional intervention, regardless of whether the individual is chemically dependent and/or addicted to it.

What is Chemical Dependency

Chemical dependency results when an individual has been taking a medication or abusing a substance, such as alcohol, over a protracted period of time. With repeated use of the drug or substance the body begins to make adaptations in response to its presence in the bloodstream. As brain chemistry is altered over time, the person will begin to experience withdrawal symptoms if the substance is withheld. This indicates that chemical dependency has developed. Someone can become chemically dependent on a substance or medication without becoming addicted to it. However, it is possible to acquire the disease of addiction as a result of chemical dependency. It is easy to understand why people wonder what is chemical dependency versus addiction—it is a confusing distinction.

How is Chemical Dependency Different From Addiction

Both chemical dependency and addiction are conditions that result from repeated drug or alcohol use. Chemical dependency to a substance may evolve organically over time because of the ongoing use of the substance, which impacts the central nervous system and neural pathways. Chemical dependency may develop following long-term use of prescription medications, and have nothing to do with recreational substance abuse. The disease of addiction is also the end result of ongoing use of drugs and alcohol. Consumption increases along with the body’s tolerance to the substance, as more of the substance will be required to experience the initial desired effects. Addiction refers to the psychological and compulsive need to continue using the substance, even as negative consequences pile up. Addiction also features cravings, where chemical dependency does not. However, someone who is chemically dependent, such as having a severe alcohol use disorder, can also become addicted to the alcohol as demonstrated by intense alcohol cravings and continued compulsive drinking even in the face of dire life consequences.

chemical dependency alcohol

How Substances Affect the Brain

There is still no defined scientific explanation as to why one individual will become chemically dependent on a substance or medication—sometimes in as little as a week or two—while another will not. Some people may have abused drugs or alcohol for years and can easily quit, where another with the same substance use history will experience severe withdrawal symptoms and a long recovery journey. While certain risk factors, such as genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental factors are known to influence which individuals might be more vulnerable to acquiring chemical dependency issues, science is still emerging as to the exact causes. Substances target the brain’s reward system, activating a surge of dopamine that overwhelms the brain. In response, the brain reduces its natural production of dopamine and the number of brain receptors. With continued substance use, the individual will not be able to feel any pleasure or joy at all, having become chemically dependent on the drug that has taken over this key role in the brain. Addiction researcher Nora Volkow states, “Ultimately, intoxication and withdrawal initiate a feedback loop. You get high, you feel great, you crash, you feel horrible” and your brain learns to get more of the drug.” The results of brain imaging studies of addicted individuals were published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation [headed by Nora Volkow,], providing an informative visual glimpse into how the brain is impacted by drugs and alcohol. The study demonstrates how diverse the responses are on the neurotransmitter systems of different individuals to different substances. In the future this might lead to a better understanding of how neurochemical changes help predict a person’s vulnerability to chemical dependency and addiction.

Treatment for Drug Abuse or Dependence

To effectively treat chemical dependency requires an integrated program that features a variety of evidence-based treatment elements. These include:

  • Medical detox. A medically monitored detox will guide the individual through the phases of detox and withdrawal. To help subdue the withdrawal symptoms, medications and emotional support are provided.
  • Psychotherapy. Therapy is at the center of treatment for chemical dependency. Therapy provides a safe, supportive setting to process underlying emotional issues, while also providing a road map toward adopting healthier thought and behavior patterns.
  • MAT. Medication assisted treatment is beneficial for some individuals. The drugs work by attaching to the brain’s opioid receptors and tricking the brain into thinking it has received the drug of abuse. This helps the individual transition into recovery with a reduced risk of relapse, allowing them to stabilize.
  • Group support. Cultivating mutual peer support while in recovery is an essential treatment element. A licensed therapist will introduce discussion topics related to addiction and recovery that allow the participants to share their personal stories, challenges, and successes as they traverse the recovery journey together.
  • Complementary activities. Recreational activities promote both physical and mental wellness in recovery, while holistic and experiential activities help induce relaxation, introspection, and self-empowerment.

Overcoming Chemical Dependency and Healing the Brain

Fortunately, the plasticity of the brain enables it to restore and rewire itself in recovery. Just as addiction produces unhealthy neural pathways through the dopamine-driven reward system, new neural roadmaps can be developed using methods that are learned in treatment but continued in recovery. These might include practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and applying the concepts learned in CBT and DBT. By retraining the brain to respond differently to thoughts or triggers it is possible to change brain chemistry over time. Brain health can be improved, alongside ongoing outpatient therapy, by embracing a healthy diet that feeds brain cells. A strong association exists between nutrition and brain health, and that includes cognitive functioning and mental health. A diet rich in lean proteins like fish and turkey, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and pasta, nuts, and seeds will help restore brain health at the cellular level.

LifeSync Malibu a Leading Luxury Addiction Recovery Provider

LifeSync Malibu is a private addiction recovery program situated in breathtaking Malibu, California. While traversing through the evidence-based rehabilitation program, enjoy breathtaking panoramic ocean views and a serene setting that is perfect for healing. Contact our team today with any questions regarding what is chemical dependency and how it differs from addiction at (866) 491-4426.