Written by Dr. George Papanicolaou, DO
7 Ways to Heal Addiction: A Functional Medicine Approach

7 Ways to Heal Addiction: A Functional Medicine Approach

Addiction is a powerful force that can sabotage your life and hurt those who surround you. Whereas researchers once considered addiction a weakness of character, in recent decades we’ve learned that brain-chemistry imbalances often underlie addiction to drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.


Rather than slap another drug onto that addiction, Functional Medicine seeks to find the root cause of those behaviors. Functional Medicine doctors dig deeply to ask what triggers those behaviors, what continues to mediate the behaviors in a positive or negative way, and identify biologic systems that have been disrupted. Once we find those, we can craft interventions to help the systems recover from addictions.

Among the imbalances that contribute to addiction is dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation and reinforcement. Even low alcohol doses can increase dopamine release, contributing to its rewarding effects that can lead to addiction. Likewise, drugs like cocaine can release two to 10 times the amount of dopamine as natural responses.


That impact on your brain’s pleasure circuit dwarfs the natural feel-good rewards for things like food and even sex. Your brain becomes stimulated and you’re motivated to reach for those drugs again and again, reinforcing the addiction.


To complicate matters, for about 30 percent of the population, genetics also impacts addiction. Researchers now know we have at least two variant forms of the human dopamine D2 receptor gene (DRD2), which regulates the number of D2 receptors and how much dopamine our brain receives.  Those carrying one form—the DRD2 A1 form—get less dopamine and are more prone to addiction.


Considering about 30 percent of us are born with low dopamine brain function, how can we avoid excessive craving behavior that leads to addiction?


In Functional Medicine, we believe while genetics play some role in addiction, they are far from the entire picture. Lifestyle factors including sleep, exercise, stress, and diet can dramatically impact gene expression and help you manage addiction.

Addiction is very complicated and involves numerous imbalances, including your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin as well as hormones like testosterone. While Functional Medicine never takes a one-size-fits-all approach to any issue, addiction especially demands an individualized approach.

At the same time, how you live and eat can have a profound affect, and Functional Medicine creates a solid foundation to treat addiction. In my practice, I’ve found these 7 strategies help patients manage addiction and create positive change in their lives:

  1. Change your plate. What you put on the end of your fork can have profound impacts on addiction. Studies show eating a high-sugar diet can create a dopamine release similar to drug addiction. (It’s no exaggeration, in fact, to call sugar a drug.) On the other hand, eating a protein-rich diet provides neurotransmitter precursors like the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine that help build dopamine, and the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in wild-caught seafood can help balance neurotransmitters while improving mood and cognition. 
  2. Fix your gut. Your gut is enveloped in a neural network that feeds directly back to the brain on a superhighway called the vagus nerve, producing a wide range of hormones and around 40 different neurotransmitters. Gut bacteria help create these mood-impacting neurotransmitters including dopamine and feel-good serotonin. In fact, your gut produces about 95 percent of serotonin, and neurons in your gut can generate as much dopamine as those in your brain. Intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and other gut problems can have a profound effect on your mood, and healing these issues can positively impact addiction. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and I highly recommend working with a Functional Medicine practitioner if you suspect gut issues.  However, almost everyone benefits from eating fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut that support good gut bacteria. Prebiotic-rich foods like dandelion greens can help feed those good gut bugs, and I recommend taking a probiotic supplement for additional support.
  3. Manage stress. Research shows chronically feeling stressed out lowers dopamine. Among its benefits, yoga can help balance neurotransmitters like serotonin and improve your overall quality of life. So can meditation, deep breathing, or any other activity that balances the chronic stress that permeates 21st-century life. The important thing is to find things that work for you and do them regularly.
  4. Get great sleep. Researchers find sleep deprivation can adversely alter serotonin production,  setting the stage for mood disorders and other neurotransmitter imbalances. At the very least, aim for 7 hours (preferably 8 or 9) of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. Sleep hygiene becomes crucial here. Turn off electronics a few hours before bed and find a way to unwind into deep, restorative sleep.
  5. Exercise regularly. You’re likely familiar with that invigorating feeling after a great workout. That’s because regular exercise boosts feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin.  Burst training and weight resistance make great exercise, but the important thing is to find something that works for you and that you’ll stick with.
  6. Nutrients can help balance neurotransmitters. Research shows 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a clinically effective serotonin precursor, acid (GABA) can influence dopamine activity.  I recommend working with a Functional Medicine practitioner or knowledgeable nutritionist who can find the correct doses for these and other neurotransmitter-balancing nutrients.
  7. Practice random acts of kindness. Studies show when we help others, we can also help ourselves. Among its benefits, doing something kind for others can boost dopamine levels, helping you feel happier. The next time you’re down, try buying a stranger a cup of coffee or tip an extra few dollars at a restaurant and see if that doesn’t make you feel better than retail therapy.  

    Addiction is a highly complex condition that presents a challenge like few others in Functional Medicine. At the same time, the Functional Medicine paradigm becomes the perfect way to address complex chronic conditions like addiction that require both dietary and lifestyle modifications to successfully alter negative behaviors.  

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