Early in human history there were probably few alcoholics or addicts, because the alcohol content available in fermented fruit was low, and plants that produced other intoxicating substances were relatively scarce.  The development of agriculture created food surpluses, especially of grain, the major ingredient in beer, and a class of workers that was not tied to food production.  These specialized occupations — brewing and raising non-food crops among them — allowed a gradual increase in the organized  production and consumption of mood-altering substances.

Brewing beer was widespread by around 6000 BC, and was extensively documented by the ancient Egyptians.  We know that alcoholism existed in biblical times, and that it was common by the time of the Greek and Roman empires.  It is likely that addiction to opiates and other drugs was present too, since images of opium poppies (Papavar somniferum) have been found in ancient Sumerian artifacts from around 4000 BC. The resin of these poppies was also known to the ancient Greeks, from whom it gained its modern name of opium. Humans being — well — human, it probably didn’t take long for the abuse of these and other drugs to begin.  Drug abuse has been around for a long time.

A field of opium poppies (DEA)

For thousands of years, excessive consumption of intoxicants was thought to be a completely voluntary act, and people who used them habitually were believed to be morally weak or deficient.  Around the end of the 19th Century some physicians began to consider the possibility that, beyond a certain point, chronic use of alcohol and other drugs might become involuntary.  Further study confirmed these beliefs, and the American Medical Association declared alcoholism to be a chronic disease in the mid-1950s.  As time passed, the “disease model” of addiction has become more clearly developed, and now many experts view all addictions as chronic diseases with a strong organic component.

Still, why don’t addicts stop using when it begins to destroy their lives?  To understand that, we need to look briefly at how the brain’s pleasure center functions.

We like to feel good.  We enjoy music, the company of people with whom we feel a connection, good food, a drink or two, maybe a hit or a line.  We enjoy sex, which feels good and satisfies our instinctive desire to bond intimately with another human.  We like to win at sports and other games.  We get a thrill when we hunt.  Our survival instincts are deeply involved with the pleasure center, which gives us positive reinforcement for survival-oriented behavior such as making friendships (allies), winning at games (and war), and successful competition in the arena of business.

We enjoy these good feelings and emotions for themselves, but they also provide a welcome change from the unpleasant aspects of daily living.  Many other activities, such as shopping and gambling, provide pleasure, thrills, and distractions from our humdrum lives.  All of these activities are rewarded by the pleasure center, and eventually we may find that we seek them out too often, or for too long.

So, people use drugs and most other substances — including food — because they make them feel good or satisfy a powerful need (survival again).  Adding certain chemicals to our bloodstreams through natural bodily responses, ingestion and other means causes production of other chemicals that stimulate receptor sites in the brain’s pleasure center. Sometimes the substances themselves mimic the presence of “feel good” chemicals that occur naturally in the body.  Whatever the case, the results are various combinations of pleasure, satisfaction, and euphoria–sometimes all three.  It is important to note that these changes occur in parts of the brain over which we exercise no direct control.  When these good feelings begin to become the focus of our lives, rather than an occasional pleasure, we are well on the way to addiction.

But what is addiction, and why is it so powerful?  We’ll cover that in Part II.  Stay tuned.

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