In the United States, nearly 7% of the population struggles with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. With over 23.5 million people suffering from substance abuse and chemical addiction, most people are well aware that substance abuse is a serious problem. However, at the same time, many people who are addicted experience stigma and shame, preventing them from seeking out treatment based on their medical and family history of substance abuse.
Substance abuse treatment is a relatively new field in medicine. We are learning more every day about addiction and about how it affects the human body. But, more than ever, we are aware that genetics and a family history can contribute to alcoholism or substance addiction as much as they can to other diseases and disorders, like depression or heart disease.
Understanding risks, understanding factors that play into addiction, and seeking out treatment capable of understanding the nuances of addiction is important to ensuring a full recovery.
How Do Genetics Influence Diseases?
The fact that genetics influence you and your body is a commonly known fact. Most of us know that if someone is male and their father is balding, they are likely to bald as well. Similarly, we understand the strong link between genetics and Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, testicular cancer, depression, ADHD, Bipolar disorder, arthritis, and many other diagnosable medical disorders. This understanding is so strong that you can actually ask a cancer specialist to calculate your risk of breast cancer based on your genes.
These ‘inherited’ disorders happen when one or both parents carry copies of a mutated gene. For example, if your father carries mutated genes for male pattern baldness, you are likely to receive those genes. If you are female, the chance of experiencing balding as you age is very low, but if you are a male, your chances are as high as 50% if your mother’s father does not have the gene. If both men on your mother’s and father’s side experience balding, your chances are almost 100%.
Genetically, dominant genes have a 50% chance of carrying through to the child if one parent carries the gene. Recessive genes have a 25% chance of carrying through.
Genetics and Addiction
Numerous genes are potentially implicit in increasing the risk of addiction. For example, one of the most commonly studied is the D2 subtype of dopamine receptor. This gene affects how dopamine is processed in the brain, and has been linked to an increase in vulnerability to addiction. However, there is no ‘addiction gene’. An increased vulnerability to addiction is linked to multiple factors, including epigenetics, some gene traits (primarily recessive) in the GABA and Dopamine receptors, and over 930 genes that affect how substances are processed in the brain.
However, it remains true that if your parents are addicted, you are much more likely to become addicted yourself. Why?
There are actually two answers; the “Three-Factor Model” and Epigenetics.
The Three-Factor Model
The Three-Factor Model highlights how an increased risk of addiction is strongly linked to three factors in children. Genetics contribute to about 40-60% of this increased risk depending on the person. Studies have linked over 930 genes to how the body handles and processes substances, and any one of them could contribute to addiction.
Other factors strongly linked to an increased risk of addiction include the environment. For example, the ACE study Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study directly links adverse childhood experiences such as poverty, poor family relationships, trauma, and abuse. The study, which included over 17,000 participants, showed that the more adverse experiences before the age of 14, the more likely the child was to grow up to be an addict. This study was conducted during the 1990s, but has been followed up by dozens of additional studies linking ACE to addiction, mental illness, and even physical health problems. Exposure in early childhood changes brain development, changes how dopamine is absorbed and used, and makes the child more vulnerable to addiction.
Third, repeated exposure contributes to addiction. Even highly vulnerable persons do not become addicted after using once. They become addicted after using multiple times, repeatedly exposing their body to the substance, until they become chemically dependent. This is called experience-dependent neural plasticity, and it is a learned behavior.
Epigenetics are heritable traits which are not genes. These traits are linked in chromosomes and DNA elements, and can change dramatically from generation to generation. Most people only inherit epigenetic traits for a few generations back, such as from your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. These traits can be inherited, and are influenced by your parents’ and grandparents’ lifestyles and health.
They tie into addiction in several ways. For example, someone who drinks heavily or uses a drug such as cocaine will have an epigenetic marker, typically for months or even years after stopping substance use. If they have a child before that marker goes away, it is passed on to the child. Epigenetic markers play an important role in biology because they prepare children for an environment. Children born in times of war are hardier and more resistant to stress. Children born in famines are more resistant to being hungry. And, evidence increasingly shows that children born to parents who are using have an increased sensitivity to drugs, because the epigenetic markers are trying to adapt them to the environment it thinks they are being born to.
Are Children of Addicts Guaranteed to Become Addicts?
No. While genetics, epigenetics, and environment can be strong contributors to addiction, they aren’t guarantees. Genetics can make someone more susceptible to addiction. It can change how they process dopamine into something that quickly becomes addictive. However, it doesn’t have to mean addiction. People who are highly susceptible to addiction can manage themselves, and their substance use, to prevent addiction.
If someone is more susceptible to substances, they are more at risk for addiction, but it isn’t a guarantee, and therefore there is hope for them. If your parents or grandparents were addicts, you don’t have to be that way. Getting treatment, learning skills to manage cravings and stress, and learning how to handle drug sensitivity will work as well for you as for anyone without a genetic sensitivity to drugs that influence the dopamine or GABA receptors.
If you or a loved one is addicted, it is important that you get help. If you have a family history of addiction or substance abuse, it’s also important to take those records to the addicts’ doctor or counselor. Just like taking a family history of heart disease to a doctor can help you get better treatment, taking a family history of alcohol or drug abuse, and any environment or lifestyle problems that resulted, to a therapist or doctor can aid you in getting the right treatment.
A good addiction treatment center will offer cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management and training, and a variety of evidence-based treatment as well as group and social support, to give a recovering addict the best chance at success. Many will also offer family therapy for addiction, after-care for addiction clients, and other care options to provide continued support.
While genetics can create a predisposition to addiction, it is individual coping, stress management, and decision making that influences becoming addicted or not. Moving past an addiction with a genetic sensitivity to drugs or alcohol can be more difficult, but it isn’t impossible, and it certainly isn’t the only option.
If you or someone you love is struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, or you just have questions, please contact Lighthouse Treatment Center today. We are happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors. Help is available today.