The word addict comes from a Latin term meaning “to be enslaved by.” There is perhaps no better way to illustrate how it feels to be addicted to something. Addiction is most often associated with substances like tobacco, alcohol, and opiates, yet those are just three of the dozen or more other substances and behaviors we can become addicted to. For some, it may be specific substances, for others, it may be shopping, gambling, food, sex, or technology. The common thread is the way these substances and behaviors can affect the brains and the lives of those addicted to them.
If you or someone you’ve loved has ever suffered from an addiction, you can understand the sense of pain, powerlessness, guilt, and shame that comes with it. The good news is, by taking a brain-based, integrative approach to addiction, we are not only addressing the behavioral and cognitive aspects, but also the neurophysiological roots that are making it harder for you to break free from whatever has enslaved you.
You don’t have to be alone in this, and maybe it doesn’t have to be as hard as it has been. Rather than just “gritting your teeth and bearing it”, let us help you overcome your addiction by addressing the underlying imbalances in your brain that are making it harder for you to overcome your addiction – and that possibly led you to become addicted in the first place.
how it looks in the brain
Addiction is not an indication of a weak constitution or moral standing, but rather a consequence of the brain essentially being hijacked. The pleasure-reward circuits in the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens, are largely responsible for “feel-good” sensations and motivational processes. The hippocampus and the amygdala then store information related to past pleasurable and painful experiences to encourage us to either repeat or avoid the same behaviors in the future. This process is designed to help us learn what is good for us to encourage more of that behavior in the future. For example, eating food releases dopamine, which encourages us to continue seeking food to fuel our system. We also receive a dopamine response when we get rewarded for something, such as a “good job” from our boss.
When we consume or do something we’re addicted to, it activates this reward circuit and releases dopamine into our system. In most cases, this substance or behavior has served us in some way (at least initially). For some individuals, certain substances or behaviors actually flood the brain’s reward center with dopamine, creating a “high”, “rush”, or other pleasurable sensation that causes their brain to seek such pleasure again in the future. For others, the substance or behavior serves to relieve a pain or unpleasant sensation, such as anxiety, pain, or insomnia, causing their brain to seek the same relief again when presented with the same stimuli.
When this dopamine flooding occurs, these structures are especially likely to hang onto that memory and seek out that experience again. Some individuals might also be predisposed to addiction if these reward centers are not producing sufficient dopamine in the first place, leading them to seek substance or behaviors that induce a higher release of dopamine in an attempt to just find balance. Unfortunately, these dopamine surges actually interfere with the functioning of the reward system by overwhelming dopamine receptor sites, leading the brain to overcompensate by producing even less dopamine after the initial release. If this process continues over time, the brain will try to protect itself by further reducing the number of dopamine receptors in the brain. This means that people will need to do more of the same thing to get the same effect and can no longer recreate that “first high” experience, ultimately leading to tolerance and dependence. Alterations to dopamine production and receptors can also result in mood disturbances (e.g., depression and anxiety) and make it increasingly harder to feel joy and pleasure in everyday life.
How we can help
At NeuroGrove, the first step of any treatment package is a comprehensive assessment that includes QEEG brain mapping, LORETA 3D neuroimaging, various testing, and a thorough discussion of symptoms and goals. This allows us to assess for the brain patterns most commonly associated with addiction.
Both neurofeedback and neurostimulation can be used to restore healthy brainwave activity, such as balancing the pleasure-reward centers of the brain, calming overactive regions related to stress and emotion, and boosting power in regions required for healthy coping, impulse control, and future-oriented decision-making.
These neurotherapy interventions have also been found to improve the production of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, such as dopamine and serotonin. Furthermore, our remote neurofeedback services can be helpful for in-the-moment support when you are facing cravings or triggers.
Peripheral biofeedback and mindfulness training can further help you gain control over your autonomic nervous system, allowing you to improve your focus on the here-and-now and modulate physiological responses like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and muscle tension. This can help you be less overwhelmed by negative sensations, respond better to triggers, and more easily resist cravings.
Additionally, our unique, neuroscience-informed movement therapy will help you reconnect with your body in positive manner, as well as utilize physical releases for emotions and fight-or-flight responses, break out of “frozen” and emotionally numb states, stimulate deficient brain regions, and enhance self-awareness and self-empowerment. Functional medicine testing and nutritional coaching can also help address some common factors related to addiction such as diet, hormonal balance, inflammation, organ functioning, etc.
Whichever services you choose to engage with, we will work collaboratively with you to address your brain-body wellness from an integrative lens so you can be the best version of you!
What the research says
Addiction is as old as the human race. In fact, we’ve even observed addictive behaviors in several other animal species. While origin theories of addiction continue to evolve over time, we now have a better understanding of how our different body systems not only influence its development, but also how addiction influences our brain and body. By addressing the physical roots, we can create a more smooth and sustainable recovery.
One of the first studies on the use of neurofeedback for substance abuse was conducted with combat veterans struggling with comorbid PTSD and alcohol abuse (Peniston et al., 1993). The study utilized an alpha-theta neurofeedback training protocol combined with temperature biofeedback to calm emotional reactivity and make addictive substances less pleasurable to the brain. Results showed a significant decrease in symptoms related to both PTSD and substance abuse in the neurofeedback trainees. These improvements were consistent with significant changes in brainwave activity, which changed in the appropriate direction of training (e.g., theta-alpha crossover pattern). There were also significant improvements in connectivity between occipital, parietal, and frontal brain regions. In a follow-up assessment 26 months later, 80% of the participants reported maintaining complete absence of symptoms and alcohol abuse. This is much better than the average for other treatment interventions, as most studies have found that 40-85% of individuals relapse within the first year following treatment.
Another study by Calloway & Bodenheimer-Davis investigated the use of this same protocol with individuals who had been diagnosed with a substance use disorder. One group received neurofeedback while the comparison group did not. Results showed that 80% of participants from the neurofeedback group were abstinent at 74 and 98 months post-treatment. This not only suggests that neurofeedback can help participants get sober, but also stay sober long-term.
Based on evidence that food addictions are correlated with atypical activity in the brain’s reward system, Leong et al., (2018) questioned whether transcranial pink noise stimulation (a form of neurostimulation) targeting the anterior cingulate cortex would affect cravings and brain activity. Participants in the study were all females dealing with food addiction and obesity. They either received 20 minutes of neurostimulation or a sham treatment every other day for two weeks. Cravings were assessed using the Food Cravings Questionnaire Scale, while brain activity was recorded via EEG. Results showed reduction in food cravings, accompanied by a significant reduction of beta activity in the anterior cingulate cortex for participants who received the neurostimulation. This suggests that this treatment protocol could be an effective tool for managing food addictions.
For more research on the use of neurotherapy for addiction, please see our Research page.
Calloway, T. G., & Bodenheimer-Davis, E. (2008). Long-term follow-up of a clinical replication of the Peniston Protocol for chemical dependency. Journal of Neurotherapy: Investigations in Neuromodulation, Neurofeedback and Applied Neuroscience, 12(4), 243–259.
Leong, S. L., Ridder, D. de, Vanneste, S., Ross, S., Sutherland, W., & Manning, P. (2017). Effect of transcranial pink noise stimulation of anterior cingulate cortex on food craving. Brain Stimulation: Basic, Translational, and Clinical Research in Neuromodulation, 10(2), 351. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brs.2017.01.028
Peniston, E. G., Marrinan, D. A., Deming, W. A., & Kulkosky, P. J. (1993). EEG alpha-theta brainwave synchronization in Vietnam theater veterans with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol abuse. Advances in Medical Psychotherapy, 6, 37–50.