What is Addiction? Exploring the Biology of Addiction

Addiction is a dirty word. It conjures up images that many of us would rather avoid, and that most of us feel we could never relate to: the “junkie” who would sell his kidney for another hit; the “drunk” puking into the gutter outside the local dive-bar; the woman who would sell her body to the lowest bidder to shoot up in the alley and pay off her pimp. Our repulsion has been exacerbated by society’s pervasive stigmatism towards the addicted human, rooted in the broader vision of a world that exists to pit us against one another and to keep us tethered to the false promise of finding joy, acceptance and happiness in the next purchase or “hit”. We are inundated with both subtle and not-so-subtle messages that we are “never enough”. Simply “being” is not enough. This relentless assault on our psyches to achieve more, do more, have more, is effectively chipping away at our essential self and creating a great chasm of self-loathing and an “us” versus “them” mentality, where compassion, understanding, love and connection once existed. The reality is that we all have addictive tendencies, and while some may appear more extreme than others, this is simply beside the point: As a society, we have become separated from our essence as spiritual beings. We have lost sight of the idea that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. As spiritual beings, we cannot survive wholly without human connection, love, compassion and understanding, and when this need is not met, when there is a lack, or a hole, or an emptiness, we strive to fill that hole, sometimes at the great cost of our own lives and the lives of others. We fill the emptiness with drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships, video games, the internet, television, food and consumerism. We must begin to ask a new question, posed by modern addictions-recovery specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate: Not why the addiction, but why the pain?

Re-framing our understanding of addiction in this way can begin to shed light on how we view and treat the addicted human, and most importantly, in how we can begin to move forward with providing a compassionate and dignified space for healing. In short, we can understand addictions as a coping mechanism for an over-taxed stress-response. When we are constantly striving to keep up and get ahead, we are in a hyper-active state of “fight or flight”, an activation of the sympathetic nervous system which produces chemicals including cortisol and adrenalin. These chemicals are useful when we are actually under severe, life-threatening conditions, but when we are not, and our bodies are still continuing to produce these chemicals in high doses, it creates an imbalance in our systems, altering the natural homeostasis that exists to keep our body-mind connection in balance. This imbalance leads us to find something, an external source to lean on: alcohol and cigarettes to “calm the nerves”, coffee and cocaine for a “pick-me-up”, television for a “distraction” from feeling and observing our emotions, and so on.

So how does the ancient healing wisdom of Ayurveda and yoga fit in with this modern re-frame of addiction? Ayurveda and yoga, often referred to as “Sister Sciences”, are based upon ancient teachings of creating balance within the body, mind and spirit, encouraging a harmonious existence with our Anamaya kosha (physical “sheath”) and the sophisticated intelligence of the natural world with our spiritual selves. The use of ayurvedic yoga therapy to prevent, treat and heal addictive behaviours makes perfect sense. With the practices of meditation, we learn to observe our thoughts and to be with our emotions as they come up, allowing them to pass through without engaging in reactive tendencies that can cause stress that, as we now understand, can lead to addictive behaviours and a build-up of ama (toxins) in the tissues of the body. Eventually, this toxic build-up can create illness and dis-ease. With pranayama (breathing techniques) and physical yoga forms, we learn to release the accumulated emotional trauma in our bodies, creating new space for healing and a greater understanding of our connections with all living beings. Within ayurvedic practices, we address the nutritional deficiencies that can coincide with addiction with a new understanding of our physical and mental constitutions and how to support the healing process with diet and cleansing routines. The summation of support on all levels, emotional, spiritual and physical, creates a sophisticated healing system for a loving, gentle, compassionate and effective process to address addictive behaviours.

What is Addiction?

Our understanding of addiction is rooted in the word itself, formed from the Latin word “addictus”, and has several meanings, including “to yield, sacrifice, devote, sell-out” and addicted: to give over or award (oneself) to someone or some practice”. This definition attached itself specifically to narcotics at the turn of the century, but modern addictions-recovery specialists and doctors, including expert Dr.Gabor Mate, have re-defined the term to include any strong physical, emotional and/or psychological dependence on a substance or behaviour that has progressed beyond voluntary control. Regardless of the outcome or potential to cause personal harm, or to disrupt close relationships, this person will continue using the substance or partaking in the behaviour.  Addiction is a chronic and progressive condition with genetic, neurobiological, hormonal, nutritional, psychosocial, environmental and spiritual factors contributing to its development and manifestation. In short, addiction is much more complex than what we can see on the surface.

The Origins of Addiction

We must begin asking a new series of questions: Not WHY the addiction, but WHY the PAIN? Addictions recovery specialist and expert, Dr. Gabor Mate, journalist and author Johann Hari and a host of researchers, doctors and modern specialists are uncovering provocative research and evidence to support the idea that addiction manifests in a person due to traumatic incidences in childhood. We can break this even further down to say that it is not simply the incident but the separation from essential SELF that occurs within the trauma; a separation from our spirit, from our essence as a spiritual being and the pain that follows. Let’s explore this even further, with an understanding that as a spiritual being, we need love and connection with other spiritual beings and when this need is not met, when there is a LACK, or a hole, or an emptiness, we strive at any cost to fill that hole, and perhaps not with what is actually lacking. We fill the emptiness, the hole, the space, the LACK with drugs, food, sex, video games, television, shopping and so on. This incredibly important re-frame is at the heart of understanding not only what addiction is, but how it can be successfully treated.  

 We live in an addicted society. We are programmed to see ourselves as “never enough”, never having enough, never doing enough. Simply “being” is not encouraged, we are under constant assault through advertising, consumerism and news outlets to buy more, do more and compete with each other to HAVE more. We are told it is “normal” to wake up by drinking coffee every morning and to wind down from the day with a boozy drink in the evening. The reality is that this is far from normal. Our bodies are vastly intelligent. If we learn to listen to what they are telling us, we can use this intelligence to heal and thrive, without the use of uppers and downers.



 The biology of addiction

The biological processes at work in the addicted brain are complex and intricate. We will attempt to cut through the doctorate-level education and stick to the basics of how the addicted brain functions. Observing the brain in this objective way will serve to empower you with the knowledge you need to self-regulate and to teach others how this process works.

Stress and Addiction

Stress is a primer for addictive behaviours. Think back to the last time you were stressed, did you reach for a cigarette, a coffee, a toke? Did you go online and distract yourself with funny cat videos? It is very common for us to adopt these behaviours as habits to deal with stress. So what is stress? Stress is when your body and mind have reached their capacity to know how to adapt or cope with a particular situation; when the demands of others and/or our environment become too much for our current ability to cope, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

The Stress Response

When we are stressed, our bodies react by releasing two types of chemical messengers. The process goes like this: >>STRESS TRIGGER (event) >> STRESS (release of chemicals) >> REACTION/THOUGHT >>MEMORY ACTIVATION (created in the hippocampus) >> EMOTIONAL RESPONSE (anger, fear, dread, anxiety, created in the amygdala)

**AMYGDALA: assesses whether an experience creates pleasure or aversion, and whether or not that experience should be repeated or avoided

**HIPPOCAMPUS: records memories of an experience, including where, when and with whom it occurred.

This response is then communicated chemically through neurotransmitters to the hypothalamus and registered as a hormonal secretion, communicated first to the pituitary gland and finally to the adrenal glands, producing cortisol, the dominant hormone in the stress cycle.

Hypothalamus > Pituitary > Adrenals = HPA Axis

HORMONES – secreted by glands and circulated throughout the body with the blood.

Released through the adrenal glands, our primary hormones related to stress are:

  • Cortisol

  • Adrenalin

  • Noradrenalin 

NEUROTRANSMITTERS – produced by the brain and in the intestinal tract. Certain chemical messengers can act as both hormone and neurotransmitters. Addictive substances produce their specific effects on the brain by altering the activity of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters involved in addiction include:

  • Dopamine (most important!)

  • GABA

  • Acetylcholine

  • Serotonin

  • Epinephrine/Norepinephrine

  • Glutamate

  • Endorphins and Enkephalins

  • Aspartate

People with addictions have a lower threshold for stress and can be triggered to re-lapse, or partake in the addictive behaviour, by minor incidences. These people have an overactive stress response, resulting in consistently high levels of cortisol.


  • less sleep

  • anxiety

  • agitation

  • elevated heart beat

  • elevated blood pressure

  • mood swings

People with HIGH CORTISOL seek substances that act as depressants, or “downers” to counteract the imbalance, including:

  • sedatives

  • alcohol

  • tranquilizers

  • sleeping pills

  • certain strains of marijuana

After an extended period of time operating with high levels of cortisol, it is common for the body to experience what we often call “burn out”. Chemically, cortisol levels become much lower than average, resulting in an under-active stress response, or the inability to react at all, to any given stress.

People with LOW CORTISOL seek substances that act as stimulants, or “uppers” including:

  • coffee

  • speed

  • sugar

  • chocolate

  • crystal meth

  • cocaine

  • cigarettes

  • “energy” drinks

    When our cortisol levels are out of whack, we refer to this as an adrenal imbalance. Causes of adrenal imbalance include what you might suspect: stress, overexertion, too much work and not enough play, imbalanced breathing, imbalanced diet and nutritional deficiencies, food sensitivities, inadequate water and salt intake, excess alcohol, smoking, imbalanced exercise (too much or too little), shift work, emotional trauma and/or abuse, overwhelming shock, death of a loved one, compounding grief, negative thought patterns and emotions, *imbalances in the chakras. *more on this next week!

    Your Adrenal Glands Need Support Too!

    Here are a few practical ways to adjust one’s lifestyle to support the balance of the adrenal glands and thus, cortisol levels. Following these practices will help you and your clients greatly in reducing addictive behaviours.

    • 20 minutes per day of intentional breathing exercises

    • Limit sugar, caffeine, chocolate, and high-glycemic carbs (bread, baked goods, pasta etc)

    • Do your best to eat your meals at consistent times throughout each day

    • Take a 20 minute break between 3pm and 5pm each day. Your cortisol levels are low during this time, so a nap, breathing exercise, meditation, walk, bath, savasana are HIGHLY recommended.

    • LAUGH!!!! Find a funny video, talk to a hilarious friend about something silly, whatever it takes.

    • 40 minutes of exercise, doing something you ENJOY. Yoga, hiking, biking, jogging, solo-dance-partying. Whatever gets you moving and increases stress-busting endorphins in a healthy way. **Endorphins are neurotransmitters that inhibit the stress response. Naturally produced endorphins can decrease the stress response and lower cortisol. They produce sensations of euphoria, enhance pleasure and suppress emotional and physical pain. When endorphins are low, we will often crave fatty foods, chocolate and salty foods, such as potato chips, foods we refer to as comfort foods as they temporarily increase endorphins but can also have a negative impact on our overall health and can cause a crash in cortisol levels that activities such as laughter and exercise can efficiently sustain.

     The Reward Pathway – Neurological Freeway to Pleasure

    The central job of the brain’s reward pathway is to make us feel good when we engage in behaviours that are necessary to our survival. These behaviours include eating, drinking, touch sensation, having sex and giving and receiving nurturing. The reward pathway reinforces the repetition of these behaviours, through a complex series of transmissions with several parts of the brain and neurotransmitters, as mentioned earlier, dopamine being primary.

    The problem is, we’ve replaced many of these “natural” activities with “unnatural” activities that light-up the brain’s reward pathway and produce dopamine in the same manner, including but not limited to, gambling, snorting cocaine, shopping, logging into Facebook and watching internet porn. You can see that eating, drinking water and having sex contribute to human survival in ways that gambling, snorting cocaine and internet porn do not.

    This pathway is influenced by the endocrine system (stress response > adrenal glands > cortisol) and the autonomic nervous system (aka responsible for our “fight or flight” response) via the hypothalamus (remember that guy?) and the pituitary gland (you know the one). The hypothalamus integrates the nervous system with the glandular system. It sends hormones into the blood to cause the pituitary to increase or decrease the volume of hormones it produces to activate the other glands. IN SHORT, the hypothalamus is the control centre that connects the reward pathway to the glandular system, affecting how all of the other organs function. When we replace “natural” behaviours with seemingly “unnatural” behaviours, we begin to alter the chemical transmissions of the brain and reinforce behaviours that contribute to our demise, not to our ability to thrive and survive.

 WEEK two: course goals

This week, we’ll continue with the reflective practices that we started last week (Morning Pages, or something similar that works for you!) plus additional practices to help you to integrate the knowledge you’ve learned about the biology of addiction.

  1. Read the Course Content (download the pages if you choose!)
  2. Watch the Video with Mercedes (at your own leisure, it will be available later this week)
  3. Continue your Morning Pages OR alternative daily journaling practice
  4. Review and Complete this week’s Reflective Exercise: Let’s Get Real: Recognizing Addictive Behaviours & Cultivating New Behaviours
  5. Complete and SUBMIT this week’s Home Activity: Identifying Stressors

 week two: reflective exercise

Let’s Get Real: Recognizing Addictive Behaviours & Cultivating New Behaviours

In your journal, or on the downloadable PDF available below, write down 5 behaviours that you would like to decrease or stop, followed by 5 behaviours to cultivate and maintain. During our week two on Facebook, let’s discuss how we can support each other and how you can best support yourself to cultivate and maintain these new behaviours. As we journey over the weeks, we can check in on each other to see how it’s going! Choose at least one activity to engage in this week that will help you to maintain your positive, new behaviours!

Identifying Addictive Behaviours & Cultivating New Behaviours


      Week two: home activity

Identifying Stressors

As you move through the week, pay close attention to potential stressors that arise for you. In relation to what you learned about the biology of the “Stress Response”, identify each stage as best you can. You will then submit this activity to me, by email to mercedes@yogavedainstitute.com. **You can either print this form out, fill it out and scan it to me OR you can type out the assignment in your own document and email it directly to me. We are currently looking for a system that allows you to SUBMIT your answers to us directly through this platform. Thank you for your patience as we make things easier for you! <3

Identifying Stressors


Dr. Gabor Mate on the power of addiction, and the addiction to power. Feel free to look-up more of his talks, he has brilliant insight into what addiction means in the modern world. <3


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