When Behaviors Become Addictions
by Vonda Schaefer, MFT, NNTS, Alliance Member
Is shopping, gaming, over-exercising, bulimia, gambling, gaming, or porn a problem?
A colleague referred “Jim” to me because the couples' work he was doing with Jim and his wife was at a standstill. The therapist felt he had reached an impasse with the couple because Jim’s issues were likely more chemical than psychological.
Jim had struggled with pornography for decades and had spent the last three years "white-knuckling" it - avoiding porn but then later substituting it with increased alcohol use.
If you are in an addiction your #1 relationship is with the addiction - no one else can compete.
You may argue with this statement and I say, if you do not believe it then get clean and see how your relationships change. I have walked the journey with enough clients to promise you that you will agree with me.
But knowing this and saying this to Jim (or to anyone locked in an addiction) doesn’t help.
I had to help him understand the underlying root cause of his addictions: what his body chemistry was lacking that made him crave the porn (and then the alcohol) in the first place.
After doing an assessment with Jim I trialed the supplement DLPA (D-phenylalanine + L-phenylalanine). DLPA builds-up both endorphins and dopamine in the brain. These are the same neurotransmitters that porn (and other behavior addictions) can temporarily activate. I recommended other supplements as well, and we discussed Jim’s diet and how to make a few changes that would be helpful. Within a couple weeks, Jim was telling me he, much to his surprise, really didn’t think about porn at all and he was able to drink less.
I know it seems too simple, but it is very logical and scientific. When any of our key neurotransmitters are low, our body craves a way to balance them, even if it is temporary. This can include behaviors such as porn, bulimia, shopping, gambling, over-exercising, internet addiction, or gaming. The problem is that none of these behaviors give us a lasting boost of endorphins or dopamine, so the behavior must be repeated in order for us to feel ok.
And this is where addiction begins.
When behaviors force a flood of neurotransmitters in the brain, the brain adapts by making less of them and becoming less responsive to their effects (tolerance) needing more time and more intensity to feel the same “high.” The neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex actually weaken. Because the prefrontal cortex is responsible for taming our impulses, this makes it harder to stop the dopamine and endorphin-flooding behaviors.
Dr. Kenneth Blum helped the scientific and medical community by discovering what he called the Reward Gene, which is a dopamine receptor gene. Since his discovery, there have been over 3,000 studies showing the association of the Dopamine D2 receptor gene and addiction reward dependency disorders.
Douglas Gentile began studying video gaming in 1999 because he wanted to prove that there was no such thing as an addiction to gaming. He was shocked by his own results! Read his full article: The Impact of Video Games on Children and Youth
Of course, no one amino acid supplement stands alone. It's important to ensure that all the building blocks are present so the body can maintain its own optimal levels of all the neurotransmitters. It's also important to make lifestyle changes: 1) Improve the diet, its protein content in particular (protein is composed of amino acids). A pro-recovery diet also regulates blood sugar, which further reduces cravings and negative moods. We can also use yoga, breathing, and any form of exercise as all enhance the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.
Vonda Schaefer speaks in teleclass for the Alliance for Addiction Solutions on this topic [link coming soon]. Also, to learn more in a self-study method, you can take a look at Vonda’s ecourses which explain neurotransmitters and the nutritional connection in more depth.
Amino Acids Treating Borderline Personality Disorder
Research-Based Direction for the Use of Amino-Acid Therapy
in the Treatment of Addicts with Borderline Personality Disorder
by Christina Veselak, LMFT
In our programs and practices, we have all seen the chronically relapsing addict, who did not respond sufficiently to neurotransmitter support. Many of these patients have rapidly switching moods and perceptions, a history of anger and violence (often against themselves), unstable relationships, many different compulsive or addictive behaviors, and a history of trauma. These are the clients who often abruptly terminate treatment, for no understandable causes. Such patients can leave therapists feeling exhausted, off-balance, rejected and incompetent. In this article, I wish to discuss clients with Borderline Personality Disorder, provide tools for identifying and diagnosing them, and offer natural biochemical treatment strategies and limitations.
What is a Personality Disorder?
A personality disorder is an "enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture. It is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations, is stable and of long duration. Its onset can be traced back to at least adolescence or early adulthood, and it leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of function."
This pattern is manifested in 2 or more of the following areas:
Cognition (ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other people, and events)
Affectivity (range, intensity, lability, and appropriateness of emotional response)
In other words, a personality disorder is a stable way of being in the world, a self or personality structure that was created within the first 5 years of life, usually as a result of the confluence of profound environmental deficits (often trauma and neglect) and genetic vulnerabilities. People do not choose to have a personality disorder; however, it shapes the way they think, feel, relate to themselves and others, and behave. Most personality disorders are due to attachment failure or deficits and shape their own adult attachment experiences.
Contemporary neuroscience is discovering how early attachment experiences and trauma actually affect and shape brain structures, and create enduring neuronal pathways. In turn, these pathways create automatic responses which can be changed, but only with focused attention, practice, and new interpersonal experiences, such as those created in long-term therapy.
In the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), a distinction is made between Axis 1 and Axis 2 disorders. Axis 1 disorders are those mood and behavior disorders that are often considered to have a biochemical etiology and treatment.
Axis 1 problems include all the major and minor mental disorders, developmental disorders and learning disabilities, such as:
Anxiety Disorders (e.g. panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder)
Mood Disorders (e.g. major depression, bipolar disorder)
Eating Disorders (e.g. anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa)
Substance Use Disorders
Axis 2 disorders include Personality Disorders and Mental Retardation.
What is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?
BPD is strongly represented in addicted populations. People with BPD have severe emotional and impulse dysregulation, which leads to intensely painful shame, abandonment terror, mood swings, self-destructive behaviors, and anger. These feelings are so uncomfortable that people are driven to self-medicate with mood-regulating behaviors, such as substance abuse, process addictions and self-injurious behaviors like cutting, eating disorders and suicide.
According to the DSM IV-TR, cited above, people who are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder have at least five of the following symptoms.
Engage in frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
Have a pattern of difficult relationships, caused by alternating between extremes of intense admiration and hatred of others.
Have an unstable self-image, or be unsure of his or her own identity.
Act impulsively in ways that are self-damaging, such as extravagant spending, frequent and unprotected sex with many partners, substance abuse, binge eating, or reckless driving.
Have recurring suicidal thoughts, make repeated suicide attempts, or cause self-injury through mutilation, such as cutting or burning himself or herself.
Have frequent emotional overreactions or intense mood swings, including feeling depressed, irritable, or anxious. These mood swings usually only last a few hours at a time; in rare cases, they may last a day or two.
Have long-term feelings of emptiness.
Have inappropriate, fierce anger, or problems controlling anger. The person may often display temper tantrums, or get involved in physical fights.
Have temporary episodes of feeling suspicious of others without reason (paranoia), or of losing a sense of reality.
While these symptoms may not be apparent upon first meeting a client with BPD, a careful history will reveal many of these longstanding patterns. The diagnosis should be suspected, and therefore ruled in or out, in clients who have abruptly dropped out of treatment, or terminated therapeutic relationships without good reason.
BPD should be considered in those clients who have initiated litigation repeatedly, those who keep changing sponsors, and those who just can’t stay clean and sober, no matter what treatment approach is used, and no matter how many biochemical interventions (including amino acids) are tried. How are we to understand this, and how can we, as biochemically sophisticated providers, create an effective, systematic treatment plan for this very challenging population?
Understanding Deep Brain Structures of Clients with BPD
Ongoing research into BPD has revealed that many brain structures and neurotransmitter systems are affected. Such target systems are different from those in people with other personality disorders, and from normal controls. Louis Cozolino, (2) in his book The Neuroscience of Human Relations: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, describes the complexity of neurodevelopmental dysfunction in the borderline brain. These complex interrelationships make any attempts at biochemical intervention tricky at best, and ineffective at worst.
We need to understand that neurotransmitters are simply the messengers. If they have only one freeway to drive on, that is the road they will take, until more freeways are created, and the person/brain has more options. With people who have PTSD and/or a personality disorder, the brain’s highway system is simplified and limited, especially in the areas that regulate arousal and social engagement. Rather than explore the array of the complexity of the BPD brain’s dysfunction, I will concentrate on the limbic system and neurotransmitters.
The amygdala is the part of the limbic system which searches for potential dangers and creates reactions to signs of perceived danger. This part of the brain has a hard time forgetting past injury, especially bonding failures of early childhood. When it is activated, the person moves into a state of sympathetic arousal, where access is blocked to the reality testing and problem-solving skills of the prefrontal cortex. Such a state leads to automatic and often out of control reactions.
In BPD, the brain is primed to look for and react to abandonment cues, however small, with the stress response. (3) Research indicates that the release of norepinephrine during the stress response increases amydgal activation, further blocking access to the potentially calming and modulating prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. (4) Therefore, the person with BPD frequently lives in a state of hypervigilance and hyperarousal.
Possible Treatment Strategies:
It is preferable to feed the brain before “tweaking” it. In this context, therefore, we would support the use of indicated neurotransmitter precursor amino acids, before trying psychotropic drugs. Medication research is inconclusive, so some researchers are recommending treatment of different symptom clusters, rather than the disorder itself. (5) This strategy lends itself to our approach.
An initial biochemical treatment strategy would be to assess and support adrenal function, using saliva testing, glandulars, nutrients and hydrocortisone or substitutes, as indicated. Norepinephrine release needs to be attenuated. This can be accomplished using L-Theanine (6,7) and Sam-E. Low serotonin synthesis and diminished serotonin regulation in the prefrontal cortex is also evident in BPD. (8,9,10) Experimenting with serotonin precursors, such as 5HTP or L-Tryptophan, would be called for here, dosed throughout the day, and not just at night. It is interesting to note that the endorphin system has a role in attachment, bonding and distance/closeness regulation. Endorphin levels rise, fall and rise again in both infant and mother as they draw near one another, separate and reunite.
Therefore, Cozolino (11) postulates that “the endorphin system and its role in the modulation of attachment and proximity may be central to borderline pathology, and account for the lack of treatment success with antidepressant medication, which targets serotonergic and dopaminergic neurotransmitter systems.”
Endogenous opioids are implicated in severe cases of self-harm and suicide. Cozolino further postulates that in the borderline brain, the endogenous opioid system may not become activated under normal circumstances; therefore, self-harm may be a way to move beyond a higher threshold for endorphin release. DPA,(D-Phenylalanine), dosed throughout the day, may be useful to reduce self-harmful behaviors and increase the possibility of more secure attachments.
(12) Seizure medications are used to treat an intermittent explosive disorder in children. (13) Depakote and Divalproex Sodium have been reported as useful for people with BPD. (14, 15, 16) This research, along with potentially high scores in the GABA section of an assessment tool that we use, called the Amino Acid Therapy Chart (17), would suggest the use of GABA-related amino acids, including GABA, Taurine, Glycine, to promote relaxation and decrease explosiveness.
My experience in treating recovering addicts who have BPD is that the therapeutic process is slow but rewarding. I use the Amino Acid Therapy Chart initially, to create an amino acid program that is tailored to the individual (even though all the scores are usually high, initially). I then teach my clients to use the chart themselves, to direct the use of amino acids for symptoms as they appear.
Amino acids do not completely eliminate symptoms, as they might in a non-BPD addict. However, these nutrients are used as a biochemical support, while the client is going through the arduous treatment process. When used religiously, amino acids may prevent or lessen the use of addictive substances and self-harm behaviors, as emotion regulation tools.
When treating the borderline addict, it is vital to remember that addiction is an illness with three components: biochemical, psychological and social/spiritual. All three components need to be addressed simultaneously, to achieve the most successful recovery experience. Just like trying to sit on a three-legged stool that has only one or two functional legs, trying to recover from an addiction, by addressing only one or two of the above components, is most likely doomed to failure.
Therefore, for the borderline addict, I recommend a treatment approach that follows traditional chemical dependency treatment methods, combined with biochemical support, long-term trauma-sensitive psychodynamic psychotherapy with a therapist specializing in addiction treatment, emotion regulation skills training, such as is taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and the training of family members in the most effective responses (see the book Stop Walking on Eggshells).18 This multi-faceted treatment approach provides the most comprehensive strategy, to help a recovering addict with Borderline Personality Disorder find long-lasting healing.
Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV-TR, pg
Cozolino, L.J. The Neuroscience of Human Relations: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (pg 263) Norton & Co. 2006
Ibid, pg 264.
Siever, Larry J. MD. “The Biology of Borderline Personality Disorder”,
Nissen T., Tidsskr Nor Laegeforen 2000 Aug 10;120(18):2135-‐41 (Article in Norwegian)
Yokogoshi H, et al. Effect of Theanine, r-glutamylethylamide, on Brain Monoamines, striatal dopamine release and some kinds of behavior in rats. Nutrition 2000, Sep; 16(9):776-777
Kakuda, T. et al. Inhibiting effects of theanine on caffeine stimulation evaluated by EEG in the rat. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem 2000 Feb;64(2):287-93
Cozolino, L.J. The Neuroscience of Human Relations: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, pg 262. Norton & Co. 2006
Rinne T, van den Brink W, Wouters L, van Dyck R., SSRI treatment of borderline personality disorder:
a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial for female patients with borderline personality disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Dec;159(12):2048-54.
Rinne T, de Kloet ER, Wouters L, Goekoop JG, de Rijk RH, van den Brink W. Fluvoxamine reduces responsiveness of HPA axis in adult female BPD patients with a history of sustained childhood abuse. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003 Jan;28(1):126-32.
Cozolino, L.J. The Neuroscience of Human Relations: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, pg 265. Norton & Co. 2006
Jukić T, Rojc B, Boben-Bardutzky D, Hafner M, Ihan A.
The use of a food supplementation with D-phenylalanine, L-glutamine, and L-5-hydroxytriptophan in the alleviation of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Coll Antropol. 2011 Dec;35(4):1225-30.
Conversation with Mary Braud, MD, Denver, CO, 2012
Biancosino, Bruno, et al. Gabapentin treatment of impulsive‐aggressive behavior. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 47(5) June 2002
Frankenburg FR, Zanarini MC. Divalproex sodium treatment of women with borderline personality disorder and bipolar II disorder: a double-blind placebo-controlled pilot study. J Clin Psychiatry 2002 May; 63(5):442-6.
Hollander E, Allen A, Lopez RP, Bienstock CA, Grossman R, Siever LJ, Merkatz L, Stein DJ.
A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of divalproex sodium in borderline personality disorder. J Clin Psychiatry 2001 Mar;62(3):199-203
Ross, Julia MA; Recovery Systems, Mill Valley, C
Kreger, Randi & Mason, Paul T., (1998). Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care about Has Borderline Personality Disorder. New Harbinger Pubns Inc.