Addiction has a genetic component, which means it can run in the family. But it’s also true that one sibling becomes a drug addict or alcoholic, while another avoids addiction.
There are various reasons some people become addicted and others don’t, and they involve both genetic and environmental factors. If you want to give yourself the best chances of recovery, it’s important to know what these reasons are. Understanding the relationship between genetics and addiction can help you respond to your addiction—or someone else’s—with the appropriate coping skills.
The Relationship Between Genetics and Addiction
You may have heard people say of an addict, “It’s in his genes,” but there really isn’t a single ‘addiction gene.’ There are many different genes that can make you susceptible to addiction. One addict may have a particular gene, and another may not.
It’s also possible to carry a gene that puts you at risk of addiction without ever becoming an addict. Environmental factors can make all the difference in whether you develop an addiction.
While there isn’t one single gene responsible for addictive behavior, the phrase, “It’s in her genes” does hold some truth. Research shows a strong relationship between genetics and addiction.
One study of the science of addiction, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, looked at 861 pairs of identical twins and 653 pairs of fraternal twins. The scientists discovered that when one identical twin was an alcoholic, there was a high probability the other twin would be addicted. On the other hand, when a fraternal twin was addicted, their twin wasn’t as likely as an identical twin to be addicted.
In this genetics research comparing the differences between identical and fraternal twins, researchers found that 50% to 60% of addiction can be explained by genetic factors.
When it comes to the other 40% to 50%, poor coping skills play a big role in the likelihood of becoming addicted. You may deal with stress and emotional pain by getting high or drunk. This kind of self-medication is an unhealthy strategy; there are better ways to cope with pain, and help is always available.
Which Genes Matter When It Comes to Addiction?
Our understanding of genetics and addiction has been discovered through animal models, mainly experiments with mice. Today a DNA test may be able to reveal specific genes that make you more susceptible to addiction.
These are some of the genes that form the link between genetics and addiction:
- The cannabinoid receptor gene Cnr1 – Mice without this gene don’t respond as well to morphine.
- The serotonin receptor gene Htr1b – Mice that don’t have this gene are more likely to use cocaine and alcohol.
- The Per2 gene – A defective version of this gene makes mice three times as likely to drink alcohol as mice without the mutation.
- The ALDH*2 gene variation – If you have two copies of this gene, you are very unlikely to develop an alcohol addiction.
- The Creb gene – Mice that lack this gene are less likely to become dependent on morphine.
Why Do Genes for Addiction Exist?
You may be wondering why genes for addiction even exist. There’s an evolutionary advantage to having them!
Many drugs that people use and abuse act on the same reward pathways in the brain that food and sex do. Food and sex ensure we survive and pass our genes down to the next generation. Your brain signals them by releasing dopamine, which is like a chemical reward. (Dopamine is often dubbed the ‘feel-good chemical,’ although it serves other functions than pleasure.) Many drugs release this same surge of dopamine.
Our brains didn’t evolve to become addicted. Addiction is a by-product of evolution. When our ancestors lived in times of scarcity, like famine, it made sense to gorge on food high in carbohydrates and procreate whenever we could. Our brains rewarded us for doing so.
But in the modern world, we don’t have to worry as much about scarcity and survival, but our brains are still similar to our ancient ancestors’ brains. And we are surrounded by foods that make us feel good (like those high in refined sugar), as well as drugs that give us more pleasure than food ever could.
The Role Your Environment Plays in Addiction
While addiction is influenced by genetics, genes don’t dictate your destiny. People with a family history of addiction and who may have grown up in a household where addiction was present are by no means guaranteed to become addicts. The personal decisions you make can help you beat your addiction and stay sober.
A family history of addiction makes you vulnerable to addiction, partly due to genetics and partly due to being looked after by an addicted parent. The abuse and neglect you face are risk factors for substance abuse. So is witnessing a primary caregiver using drugs, which is a poor model of behavior.
As a child, you have little control over the environment you grow up in or your lifestyle. As an adult who may be prone to addiction, you have more decision-making power, autonomy, and choice. Set boundaries for yourself, like avoiding friends who use drugs and staying out of situations in which you’re likely to be around people using. You have the power to shape your environment in ways that help you combat addiction.
If you fill your life with meaning—people, work, interests, and goals that add value to your life—then you’ll be less likely to fall into a cycle of addiction.
Your genes play a role in how susceptible you are to addiction, but so does your environment. In any situation, you can make a choice. If you’re living with addiction now and are ready to step out of the spiral and into a new life where you call the shots, contact Washburn House at 800-717-3019 to learn about treatment options.