Addicted To Sex or Dopamine?

After reading the article about research of the D4 gene and dopamine that I wrote about in a previous post my nurse brain decided to do a little investigation into the chemical reactions in the brains of Sex Addicts. The research is well documented and scientific; but it’s the conclusions that some make from the data that are debatable.

I won’t address the arguments for or against the theories about whether addicts are born or made, I’ll take on that discussion at a later time, but what I do want to explore here is the Sex Addict’s brain reactions to dopamine and how and if this can result in a true addiction.

Dopamine is a naturally produced chemical that stimulates certain parts of our brains during pleasurable activities such as sex. For that reason it has been dubbed the ‘pleasure chemical’. Now, because we all like to feel good we will instinctively seek out ways to make our brains give us that little burst of dopamine that produces a warm and fuzzy pleasurable sensation. Interestingly, fat foods stimulate more dopamine than fruits and veggies. And, recent studies have found that pain will also stimulate the production of dopamine, apparently as a way to help the body feel less pain.

I found this very interesting because Sex Addicts are plagued with emotional pain, shame, guilt and depression. Could they be seeking the ‘hit’ of dopamine not for the pleasure of the sex act but to alleviate the pain of their emotional anguish?  Have they simply found a convenient way to ease their hurt by using what most of us enjoy just for the pure pleasure of it? If you accept this idea, then it would also hold true for other types of non-chemical addictions like overeating, gambling, shopping and any other stimuli that produce a rush of dopamine.

Another interesting fact that supports this is that the brain sets up pathways specific to the stimulus. If we get a rush from a certain pornographic image, or by smelling a certain food or by purchasing an expensive pair of shoes, the brain immediately sets up a direct path for the dopamine to rush to our own particular pleasure point, which makes us feel good. The next time we experience that stimulus we get the immediate rush of pleasure because there is a direct route to that particular pleasure center.

Now, understanding that, we can also understand why addicts of all types need to escalate their stimuli to produce the same effect. Our brains just naturally tire of the same old same old and the usual amount of dopamine losses it’s ability to make us feel good. So, we need more and different stimuli to get the same effect. This may explain why addictive behavior always escalates.

If these theories hold water it would make sense that different methods to help the addict recover should be explored. There have been excellent results from using antidepressants with addicts, especially Sex Addicts, but maybe science will come up with a ‘magic pill’ that will somehow alleviate the pain that addicts are trying so hard to overcome.

Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain. ~Robert Gary Lee~

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