Is Drug and Alcohol Addiction Genetic?
Researchers have spent years exploring the connection between genetic and environmental factors to determine what causes addiction. The short answer is that they are connected and influence each other almost equally. However, a greater understanding of the role of genetics can lead to education, awareness, preventative measures, and eventually scientific breakthroughs in addiction treatment.
Genetics play a significant role in addiction; however, they do not determine a person’s fate or worth. Anyone can struggle with addiction, which means that regardless of DNA, anyone can also overcome addiction with proper care and treatment.
Genetics vs. Heredity: Is There a Difference?
The terms genetic and heredity are related but not the same, even though many use them interchangeably.
Genes are DNA sequences a person inherits from their biological parents. Each human has about 35,000 genes; 99% of them are identical to other people. The 1% variation is what makes everyone unique. Genetic diseases or abnormalities occur when there is a spontaneous mutation in a person’s unique DNA sequence. Genetic disorders can appear in children from families with no history of the same condition. However, once that gene occurs in a family tree, it can become hereditary.
Heredity comes from existing variations in genes from biological parents. For instance, colorblindness, male pattern baldness, and sickle cell anemia are all traits that can pass from generation to generation. However, there is no guarantee that every child will inherit the same characteristics as their parents. Two siblings can have the same parents and have vastly different appearances and health profiles.
Genetic and heredity can exist without necessarily influencing behaviors or personalities. Sometimes it takes environmental and external factors to trigger gene expression or the activation of that specific gene; such is the case with addiction.
Is Addiction Genetic?
Unlike inherited physical traits, genetics are no guarantee of addiction. Addiction is a complicated disease influenced by various factors, including genetic predispositions toward developing addictions. It is important to remember that likelihood, including inherited genes, is not a predetermined destiny.
A Genetic Predisposition to Alcohol and Drug Addiction
A genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse and drug addiction means that someone is more vulnerable to addiction than others partially because of their unique DNA sequences. Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has determined that family history and genetic makeup determine between 40 to 60% of a person’s addiction risk.
Scientists can identify genes that influence how people react to and process certain drugs of abuse like opioids, stimulants, and alcohol. For a relatable example of this, look at the side effects of medications. One person can take an antihistamine like Benadryl and experience extreme drowsiness; another may get a boost of energy from the same dose. The different reactions are because of genetic factors.
The same genetic influences can increase or decrease the risk of addiction to drugs or alcohol. For instance, some people metabolize drugs or alcohol so quickly that they never feel the full effects; others have allergic reactions to things like wheat or hops, so they are physically unable to ingest certain kinds of alcohol.
On the opposite side of that spectrum, people born with low dopamine production, fewer serotonin receptors, or mental illnesses are at a higher risk of addiction because of how their system interacts with the brain’s reward centers.
Prolonged and chronic substance abuse can alter DNA and brain structure, so there is a margin of error in study participants because it can be difficult to tell if certain gene expressions occurred before or after developing an addiction.
Is There an Addiction Gene?
There is not one specific gene that causes addiction; instead, several genes make addiction more likely. The more genetic factors a person has, the more vulnerable to addiction they become.
Below are some examples of genes scientists have identified in humans and animals that influence genetic predispositions to addiction:
- The moody gene or the G protein-coupled receptor affects the blood-brain barrier and increases sensitivity to cocaine.
- The mGluR2 receptor gene absent in some people and animals leads to experiencing fewer effects from cocaine; however, this can lead to them consuming more significant amounts to get high.
- The DRD2 receptor gene commonly appears in people addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and opioids. Scientists believe it changes how drugs interact with the brain’s reward pathways.
- The mu receptor gene can contain variations that lead to a higher risk of alcohol addiction and opioid use disorders.
- The Mpdz gene is frequently associated with test subjects who experience less or mild withdrawal symptoms than people without it.
While these are a handful of thousands of examples, they highlight many factors that can contribute to addiction. It is dangerous to blame addiction solely on genetic factors because it ignores other risk factors that influence addiction.
What Risk Factors Contribute to Addiction?
Everyone has heard nature versus nurture when discussing how someone ended up as the person they are; however, it does come down to a combination of nature and nurture, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Genetic factors make up 40 to 60% of a person’s addiction risk, and people are unaware of their genetic disposition when they begin to use drugs or alcohol. Some of the genetic and hereditary factors that contribute to addiction include:
Certain mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia make people more likely to develop substance use disorders, sometimes due to self-medicating their symptoms with drugs or alcohol.
Studies have shown that people with underdeveloped amygdalas, the part of the brain that controls emotions, behavior, and motivation, are more likely to be affected by drugs and alcohol. People with fewer dopamine and serotonin receptors, the chemicals that produce feelings of reward and satisfaction, are likely to turn to drugs to stimulate those feelings.
Genetics determine how people process and react to substances, including how intensely they feel the effects. People who experience feelings of euphoria and relief are likely to abuse drugs repeatedly.
Multiple Gene Mutations
People with more than one gene expression that makes them vulnerable to addiction have higher rates of drug dependency.
Environmental factors include societal influences, economic class, home environments, personal experiences, and other non-biological factors. Some of the most common environmental factors that contribute to addiction include:
Young Exposure to Substances
Because the human brain is still developing into the 20s, early exposure to drugs or alcohol can cause structural and chemical changes that increase the risk of addiction.
Growing up around family members who abuse drugs normalizes it and offers easy access to substances. Lack of parental supervision also fosters risk-taking and experimentation.
Experience With Trauma, Stress, and Abuse
Abuse can be mental, emotional, physical, or sexual and alters how the body reacts to stress, causing chemical and biological changes that can lead to addiction. Similarly, neglect, stress, and traumatic events are often precursors for turning to substances for relief.
It is human nature to want to fit in and be accepted; when a peer group engages in substance abuse, many people will join in to avoid becoming outcasts.
Job loss, family separation, severe injuries, natural disasters, and experiencing displacement or war all cause personal upheaval. People often turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with drastic changes in circumstances. Extreme stress is also one of the number one causes of relapse.
There is no way to predict what perfect combination of genetic and environmental factors will lead to addiction. However, choosing to seek treatment and overcome addiction is possible for everyone, regardless of what contributed to developing a substance use disorder.
Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment at White Oak Recovery Center
At White Oak Recovery Center, we specialize in treating the roots of your addiction with a holistic approach, healing the whole person, not just the substance use disorder. Drug and alcohol addiction affects the entire family, but it only takes one person to break the cycle.
White Oak Recovery Center’s beautiful private residential treatment centers in Northridge, California, offer personalized treatment plans with safe, expertly managed medical detox. Our family therapy program helps residents learn new coping and communication skills while strengthening healthy bonds and relationships between family members.
Our licensed and experienced team of specialists at WORC are compassionate and genuinely dedicated to each resident’s recovery and effective relapse prevention plan. Our dual diagnosis program recognizes and treats co-occurring disorders with evidence-based approaches that alleviate the urge to turn to drugs or alcohol for relief and self-medication.
Rediscover your life rooted in recovery. Reach out to our treatment specialists today. They are eager to assist in getting you the help you need.