When we talk about addiction, we often want to understand why some people develop substance use disorders and others don’t. A genetic predisposition or family history may be part of the answer, but it’s not the only contributing factor to alcohol use disorders or drug addiction.
While research supports a genetic predisposition to addiction, we always want people to understand that addiction isn’t your destiny. Understanding the scientific links between genetics and addiction is important, but so is the fact that you can change your trajectory.
What Does It Mean to Have a Genetic Predisposition?
A genetic predisposition increases the likelihood of developing a disease based on your genetics. When you have a genetic predisposition, you may have particular genetic variations inherited from a parent.
Genetics contribute to whether or not you develop a disease, but they don’t cause it directly. Some people with predispositions to certain genes will never get a condition, and others will. These differences can happen within the same family.
Some genetic variations have minor effects on how likely you are to develop diseases; others have significant effects.
There’s a lot of research currently that looks at genetic changes and how these affect disease risk. If a person has many small changes in genes, they may be at risk for relatively common diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and mental illnesses.
Along with genetic factors, lifestyle and environmental factors contribute to whether or not someone develops a condition. You can’t change your genetic makeup, but you can change your lifestyle and environmental factors.
Genes are units of DNA. Genes provide information that directs the cellular activity of the body. Researchers are currently working on genome-wide association studies to learn more about genetic variants and the genetic component of many diseases. Future studies will likely focus on protective factors and risk factors for complex diseases and how targeted therapies can prevent or treat them.
The Role of Epigenetics
There’s another term we tend to talk about in genetics, which is epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of sometimes inherited changes in gene activity and expression regulation.
These changes don’t depend on gene sequence.
Environmental choices or exposure can change the structure of your DNA at the cellular level.
For example, if you use drugs or alcohol, it can “mark” your DNA and increase the production of certain proteins that are common in addiction. In animal studies, researchers find higher levels of altered proteins are associated with drug-seeking behaviors.
Other environmental factors aside from substance exposure can lead to epigenetic changes. For example, chronic exposure to stress can trigger the development of addiction and mental health disorders.
If you have negative environmental factors in your life, like stress, you can combat some of the adverse effects through behaviors and choices. For example, getting physical activity can help create epigenetic changes that prevent developing an addiction.
The Role of Genetics in Addiction
Around half of your susceptibility to addiction to drugs or alcohol may come from genetic factors.
There isn’t one particular gene that’s an addiction gene, though, at least not as we know currently. Instead, when we talk about a genetic predisposition to addiction, it’s more about genes broadly passed from parent to child over generations.
People who have addiction disorders have children who also struggle with addiction at rates 25% higher on average than kids of non-addicted parents.
Other genetic factors can play a role in addiction, aside from having a parent who uses substances.
- For example, people with mental health disorders tend to have higher substance abuse and addiction rates than people without. Mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, can also run in families.
- When you’re diagnosed with a mental disorder, you are at least two times as likely to have a substance use disorder.
- Our brain chemistry affects addiction. People who have naturally low dopamine levels are more likely to abuse substances because they cause a surge in levels, causing the activation of their pleasure response. If you keep taking the drug, your brain produces less dopamine on its own.
- There’s now a chemical response stemming from dopamine deficiency. Naturally, low levels of dopamine could be something you inherit. Researchers found that a certain type of dopamine receptor may predict someday whether someone will become addicted to substances like heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Based on brain imaging studies, people with fewer D2 receptors are more likely to develop addictions than people who have more of them. How many of these receptors you have is partially determined by genetics.
- The same can be true with serotonin deficiency. If you have low serotonin levels, you may be at risk for anxiety disorders. Then, this could make you more likely to self-medicate your symptoms or rely on alcohol or an illicit drug as a way of coping.
There’s another way genetics can affect the potential to develop an addiction, although it’s a less direct connection.
If you have parents who are themselves struggling with substance abuse, this will create a perhaps stressful environment. As a child, you might have faced instability, exposure to substance use and drugs of abuse, and other environmental factors that then increase the risk you’ll develop an addiction.
Through the years, various research, including studies of identical twins, have shown the complex relationships between an addictive disorder and both genetics and environment.
Overcoming A Genetic Predisposition to Addiction
There are so many important reasons to talk about the genetics of addictions and the links with family history.
First, it helps alleviate the stigma. When people struggle with addiction, they tend to view it as a moral failure or weakness. The reality is that addiction is a chronic disease that’s complex and influenced by factors that are often out of your control. The same is true of chronic diseases like diabetes.
Yes, there are lifestyle factors you can consider to reduce your risk, but biological elements of addiction are real and shown by science. The same is true of something like cardiovascular disease.
Helping more people understand this can encourage anyone struggling with addiction to seek treatment because it reduces some of the shame they might feel.
Another reason it’s important to talk about genetics and addiction is that the hope is someday the research being done now will lead to more targeted treatment options or preventative approaches to help people avoid addiction altogether.
At the same time, we never want to talk about a genetic predisposition in a way that makes it seems like you’re destined to be an addict if your parent is or that you can’t recover.
If you do develop a substance use disorder, just as is true for other chronic diseases, treatment is available and is often very effective.
While your genetics may play a role in your history of substance use, you can recover and manage your symptoms. When you get your symptoms under control, you can be productive and thrive in your life. If you’d like to learn more about treatment opportunities in the San Francisco Bay area, we encourage you to contact Silicon Valley Recovery by calling 408-547-4089.