Addiction often involves the use of more than one substance, such as prescription pain medications and alcohol. Taken separately and in excess the effects can be debilitating to one suffering from the disease of addiction, but taken together the results can prove even more deadly due to the biochemical process known as “synergism”.
So what exactly is synergism? Most of us are familiar with the term “antagonism”, where two things work against one another to slow a process. You may have heard somebody being described as “antagonistic”, which is generally understood to mean that they are difficult to deal with or always going against the grain. To understand synergism just think of it as the antonym of antagonism, or the ability to work in conjunction with something else in order to decrease the difficulty of a achieving a given result.
In the body, synergism is a chemical process where two or more substances work in partnership to produce a greater net result than the sum total of the components. Viewed in simpler terms, a synergistic reaction would occur when 1 unit of a substance + 1 unit of another substance would equal 3 (or more) units of reaction in the body, as opposed to the expected result of 2.
A common example of this would be the mixture of codeine and acetaminophen for the relief of moderate pain. Taken separately either of these substances will provide relief for a lesser amount of pain, but when taken together the synergistic reaction between the two drugs allows for a greater amount of pain relief than the combined total if taken separately. In other words, the two drugs work to complement one another to achieve the goal of increased pain relief.