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Most People With Addictions Overcome Them

Repeatedly relapsing isn't the standard experience.

Key points

  • Three-quarters of Americans who report a substance use problem recover.
  • Researchers have found that there are more success stories of overcoming addiction than people who are addicted.
  • Three years after treatment with buprenorphine/naloxone, the vast majority of opioid abuse patients are no longer addicted.
  • Medication and counseling triple a person's chance of quitting cigarettes.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

I think beating an addiction is heroic. But here is a fact that may surprise you–overcoming an addiction is also quite common. Put those ideas together, and you realize it’s another way so many people around us are quietly or secretly heroic.

Most people with addictions overcome them.

We’ve all heard stories that people repeatedly relapse when they try to break an addiction. It’s important to realize that’s far from a universal experience. In a landmark study from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Recovery Research Institute, scientists found that three-quarters of people in the United States who report a substance use problem recover. Half of this group managed it in two tries or less (Jones et al., 2020).

In case you’re still unimpressed, nearly one in ten Americans have achieved this feat that you may have thought almost impossible. Overall, there are more success stories than there are people addicted. In the Mass General study, researchers found 22.3 million people who said they’d resolved a substance addiction problem, which is about one-third more Americans than the number currently addicted.

In other words, don’t give up on anyone, including yourself.

But What About the Opioid Epidemic?

It’s far from over: Overdose deaths soared during the pandemic (McFarling, 2021, American Medical Association, 2021). In July, four significant companies reached a $26 billion settlement with a bipartisan group of state attorneys general. (Hoffman, 2021). This money bought protection from civil lawsuits related to promoting opioids inappropriately. The companies needed it: They faced an avalanche of suits.

The day before, Washington State reported that deaths from fentanyl in the state were on pace to break another record in 2021 (Washington State Department of Health, 2021). Earlier in July, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a record high in opioid deaths for 2020 nationwide (CDC, 2021).

The high rates of death do not mean that it’s impossible to break an opioid addiction. People take pills without knowing they contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid smuggled here and mixed with other drugs. Fentanyl production is haphazard and too often produces lethal doses, leading to what’s essentially manslaughter of people suffering from pain or depression. They die before they get the help they need to break their addiction.

You’ll recall that the opioid crisis began with doctors, persuaded by manufacturer hype, prescribing opioids for chronic pain—generally, low back pain. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them and between eight and 12 percent of people using an opioid for chronic pain develop an opioid use disorder (CDC, 2021).

What if, along with other remedies, they had offered their patients a fish oil supplement instead? Early evidence from animal studies shows that omega-3 supplements can help cut inflammation and even potentially slow back disc degeneration, a common cause of low back pain (Napier, 2019).

Very few people with opioid addictions get sufficient help, though we know what works. According to McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School research, half of the opioid abuse patients treated with buprenorphine/naloxone reported that they were abstinent from opioids 18 months after starting the therapy.

After three and a half years, 61 percent said they were clean, and fewer than 10 percent met diagnostic criteria for dependence on the drugs (Potter et al., 2014 and Weiss et al., 2015). Add therapy, and the results get even better.

Legal Drugs Cause Far More Deaths and Bystander Harm

Nicotine and alcohol are highly addictive drugs.

Let’s start with cigarettes, the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, accounting for almost half a million premature deaths a year. More than half of U.S. adult cigarette smokers (and higher percentages for students and people under 44) say they’ve tried to quit in the last year. Fewer than one in ten of the adults succeed in any year.

Quitting is rough. But hang on—about 62 percent of adults in the U.S. who ever smoked quit (CDC, 2021). The answer is to keep trying and get help. Less than a third use approved medication or get counseling. Medications and counseling together more than triple your chance of success. (Truth Initiative, 2021, CDC, 2021).

Antidepressants can help, too. Consider a diet change–again, omega-3 fatty acids abundant in seafood may give you an edge. Researchers have found lower blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA in smokers. Taking fish oil daily cuts craving, some evidence suggests (Galduroz et al., 2020).

Behind tobacco and sedentary living, drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. “There are more deaths every year from alcohol than in the entire opioid epidemic,” Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford who served as a senior policy adviser on drug policy for President Obama, told me (Ehrenfeld, 2021).

But help is available in every church and community center. Alcoholics Anonymous, available free across the country, has been proven to help: about 42 percent of AA participants are completely abstinent a year after they join, as are 35 percent of people who receive a different kind of addiction therapy (Kelly et al., 2020).

Can omega-3s help you deal with a drinking issue? Some research suggests that among substance users in general, omega-3 supplements can cut anger and anxiety, typical emotions behind relapses. Taking omega-3s has also cut perceived stress and cortisol secretion in people with an alcohol abuse history who are abstinent (Galduroz, 2020).

Good Things Follow

It can’t be said often enough: good things follow when you beat an addiction. The Mass General study found that 80 percent of people who had overcome a substance abuse problem went on to at least one major achievement that they couldn’t pull off before, like getting a new job or completing a university degree, and their lives kept improving.

In other words, it’s well worth the trouble to join the big group of people on the other side of this not-at-all-impossible challenge. There’s no single solution, but research does seem to suggest regular salmon dinners could help you get there.

A version of this story appears at Vital Choice.


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NaPier, Z., Kanim, L., Arabi, Y., Salehi, K., Sears, B., Perry, M., Kim, S., Sheyn, D., Bae, H. W., & Glaeser, J. D. (2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation Reduces Intervertebral Disc Degeneration. Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research, 25, 9531–9537. Published December 14, 2019.

Potter, J.S.; Dreifuss, J.A.; Marino E.N. et al. The multisite prescription opioid addiction treatment study: 18-month outcomes. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Epublished August 2, 2014.

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