Physician’s journey through addiction

Addiction is not a moral failure, said Stephen Loyd, MD, at the 2019 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

As a young physician, Loyd was teaching students and treating patients in the hospital. He was experiencing pain and stress and turned to opioid medications as a solution to his anxiety and depression. But he was able to get help through a functional medicine, mind-body-soul approach, which shaped the way he treats patients suffering from addiction.

“I don’t view addiction as a disease,” Loyd said. “I view it as a learning disorder, and that’s how I approach treatment."

Addiction is complex, Loyd said, which is why he simplifies the conventional “biopsychosocial” term into a three-pronged approach to evaluating the root cause of a person’s addiction:  

  1. Bio, family history
  2. Psycho, environment
  3. Social opportunity

We have to look at the root cause of addiction, Loyd said. First, look at the biology of the brain. The brain has two main systems, the “reward center” driven by pleasure, and the frontal lobe driven by insights, judgement, and empathy. When someone is suffering from addiction, there frontal lobe has little to no activity, meaning they are being primarily driven by the pleasure source of their brain. To treat addiction, we have to look at the brain.

Brain healing takes time, Loyd said. A PET scan of an addiction patient shows reduced brain activity even after 10 days of abstinence. After 100 days of abstinence, brain activity starts to recover. It takes two years for the brain to fully recover, Loyd said.

People relapse because of the phenomenon of cravings. Cravings are lifelong and they are 10 times stronger than food when you’re hungry and water when you’re thirsty. There are tools to manage cravings, and once patients start to show signs of insight and judgement and are in a supportive community that keeps them engaged, the frontal lobe will come back online.

A person’s environment is also critical, Loyd said.  Addiction often comes from trauma. Pills aren’t the problem, they’re the solution, he said.

“Until we start helping people with trauma, we aren’t going to make any kind of headway treating addiction,” said Loyd.

Opioid addiction is at an all-time high, Loyd said. While efforts to combat the opioid epidemic have decreased access to pain medications, we have not increased treatment or talked about mind-body-soul approach.

“We have to set the bar higher,” said Loyd. “We have to help the underlying problem in addiction patients.

The current treatment model for addiction is broken, Loyd said. Over 72,000 Americans died from a drug overdose last year. 90 percent of people suffering from drug addiction never get treatment. The average time it takes someone suffering from drug addiction to obtain one year of sobriety, averaging four stints in treatment, is eight years, he said.

To address this, Loyd created SeventyX7, a resource for opioid education, awareness, and application. Derived from the biblical model of forgiveness, Loyd says they believe everyone deserves a change to live a healthy, drug-free life, and SeventyX7 aims to help facilities improve treatment processes and help individuals suffering from addiction.

“The opposite of addiction is not recovery,” said Loyd. “The opposite of addiction is community and connection.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of Integrative Practitioner’s live coverage of the 2019 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference. For a full list of coverage, click here.