How Does Addiction Change Homeostasis?

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The brain is an incredibly complex organ, with its unique functions essential for our survival and everyday life. When our brain is working correctly, we adapt and behave appropriately within our environments, learning and adjusting to different factors. However, your brain's chemistry can be significantly impacted in the case of addiction.

Addiction and Homeostasis

Addiction, whether to drugs or to alcohol, can change your brain's natural balance, also known as its state of homeostasis.

The brain oversees or monitors the body's homeostasis, making adjustments to maintain a healthy, functioning system. Drugs or alcohol can interfere with the process, harming your body's state of homeostasis.

When you are addicted to a substance, you are continually over-stimulating parts of the brain, making it more difficult for your body to balance out.

When your brain has difficulty achieving its ideal balance, it adjusts to cope with the addictive substances' reactions. It then creates a new set-point to account for the added stimulation; the creation of this new balance point is known as allostasis. 

The Problem With Allostasis

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

  • The need to get or ingest drugs: The new brain chemistry makes obtaining the drug the most important goal, regardless of consequences. This can cause people to hurt themselves or others, bankrupt themselves or commit crimes in order 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: The new brain balance means that feeding the addiction is all that matters; other priorities, such as work or family obligations, become minimized.

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

Identifying Addiction to a Substance

Because of the brain's new state of homeostasis, it sometimes can be difficult for you to be aware that your body has shifted and that you have become addicted to a substance. The criteria used to identify addiction establishes nine substance-related disorders, including alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, sedatives, stimulants and tobacco.

Regardless of the substance, an addiction is defined by four key characteristics:

  1. 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.
  2. Social Impairment: Regardless of how your addiction harms others, you continue to engage in substance abuse.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Roh E, Song DK, Kim MS. Emerging role of the brain in the homeostatic regulation of energy and glucose metabolismExp Mol Med. 2016;48(3):e216. doi:10.1038/emm.2016.4

  2. Ramsay DS, Woods SC. Clarifying the roles of homeostasis and allostasis in physiological regulationPsychol Rev. 2014;121(2):225–247. doi:10.1037/a0035942

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition. 2013.
  • Horvarth, T. "How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?" MentalHelp.Net. 2016.