Is Addiction Genetic?Anna Ciulla
Although two-adult households where both partners have addictions are in the minority, just one parent’s being chemically dependent multiplies eightfold each child’s risk of developing a similar problem. Everyone has heard of families with “an alcoholic in every generation”—probably more exist than are actually heard of, since many problem users (and their families) become highly adept at keeping up appearances. Many households attempt to conceal the problem even from the children—which rarely works since even toddlers have an uncanny ability to sense something is wrong or “different.”
Whether a parent gets openly drunk and violent or merely seems distant, the stress of living in a household driven by addiction plays a role in a child’s own risk for becoming addicted. So do behavioral examples acted out on a daily basis. But is there more to the problem of addiction running in families? Are the children at risk even if the adult became sober long before becoming a parent?
To the question, Is addiction genetic? researchers answer almost unanimously: Yes, to the point of about 50%. (With some substances it’s higher: the inclination to start smoking may be as much as 75% genetic.) Science has even tied specific genes to specific substances of addiction: A1 alleles to alcohol and cocaine, Cnr1 to opiates, Mpdz to a lower chance of dangerous dependence on sedatives.
Still, genes aren’t destiny, and 50% or even 75% natural inclination is a long way from 100%. This article takes a closer look at the genetic influence on addiction, and how to minimize risk if the odds seem stacked against you or your children.
IT TAKES MORE THAN ONE GENE TO MAKE A HABIT
Despite frequently heard talk about “the alcoholism gene” (or breast cancer gene or obesity gene), multiple genetic factors are nearly always involved in an individual’s risk of developing an addiction. (The same applies to most mental and many physical illnesses, which is why many people with chronic diseases have to try several treatments before finding one that proves effective.) Addiction risk is usually affected both by the responsiveness of the brain’s pleasure receptors to a specific drug and by the body’s tolerance to side effects: both affect the likelihood of someone’s returning for more after the initial experience with a substance.
So do low-stress tolerance and tendencies toward discouragement, personality traits which are about 50% natural predisposition. You may be at extra risk if either of your parents or another close relative, has had addiction issues and shares any of the following personality traits with you:
- Frequent “hopeless” moods
- Never feeling good enough
- A diagnosis of clinical depression
- A tendency toward unreasonable frustration or anger
- An ongoing sense of overload
- Fear of displeasing others
- Sleep problems
- Frequent restlessness or fear of “wasting time”
- A diagnosis of ADHD
GENETICS VS. EPIGENETICS
Closely related to genetics, and another major factor in propensity to addiction is epigenetics, loosely defined as “where genes meet the environment.” In more technical terms, it refers to the influence of experiences and environment on DNA structure, which can intensify or reduce the extent to which brain and body “follow the genes.” This influences why siblings, born of the same parents (sometimes even with the same genetic pattern, as in identical twins or triplets), raised in the same household and often looking much alike physically, so often grow up very different in personalities and interests. (Interestingly, studies on identical twins indicate that those raised separately, without contact between their respective households, grow up more alike in personality than those raised together. It’s as if the natural human tendency is to strive to stand out, even at the cost of defying one’s own genes, rather than be simply one of a set.)
It’s worth noting that genetic tendencies as such aren’t “good” or “bad”—predispositions toward addiction are rooted in natural survival instinct. In “primitive” environments where options are limited and one catastrophe could wipe out a whole tribe, tendencies to seek all one can get off the “good stuff” and avoid the “bad stuff” at all costs serve positive ends more often than not. It’s when life is relatively safe and offers far more options than any one person can take advantage of, that the natural pleasure–pain response betrays us by seeking the path of least resistance in a world that calls for personal growth as well as survival. That’s where both genetics and epigenetics meet learning, willpower and a sense of higher purpose—the secrets to not following your genes down the road to addiction.
IF YOU HAVE “ADDICTION GENES”
You may have seen enough addiction in your family to convince you that genetics and addiction are a factor and you could be at personal risk. Or you (or your partner) may have had an addiction and, even if it was years ago, be concerned about your children’s predispositions in that direction.
If addiction “runs in your family”:
- Seriously consider abstaining from all potentially addictive substances—even legal ones—for life. You can’t get addicted if you never start using.
- If your doctor recommends a painkiller or sedative, know that these are the prescription medicines likeliest to cause addiction problems. Discuss your family’s history and your concerns thoroughly before agreeing to the prescription. If you do accept it, make sure it comes with a predetermined stopping point, and take it strictly according to instructions—and contact your doctor immediately if you feel unusual physical symptoms after a delayed dose.
- Learn all you can about the specific drugs that caused problems in your family, and consider the areas where you may be most vulnerable.
- Talk to a therapist experienced in addiction prevention and treatment.
- Practice regular relaxation and stress management techniques.
- Stay in good physical health overall.
If you’re worried that your children have inherited addiction genes:
- Be honest with them about past or current addictions in the family. Often, especially if the problem is officially “solved,” the tendency is to avoid embarrassment by pretending it never happened. But by minimizing the seriousness of the issue, you may be influencing your children not to take the risk seriously until it’s too late.
- Initiate honest conversations about the facts surrounding addiction risks—and be a good listener, not a sermon-preacher.
- Keep communications channels open on all other fronts as well. Let your children know they can always come to you with any concern, and you won’t be “too busy” nor condemn without a fair hearing.
- Keep up to date on current drug-use dangers: things change from generation to generation. Besides seeking out official reference sources, encourage your children to tell you what they know and what their peers are doing.
- If you do see signs of drug use, confront the situation quickly and kindly-but-firmly. Closing your eyes in fear will only give things a chance to get worse.
- Always remember—genes are not destiny. There’s hope for anyone and everyone!
Now that we’ve answered, “Is addiction genetic?” You should have a better understanding of the genetic influence on addiction and how genes do not always determine the end all be all. It’s important to remember that even though there is a link between genetics and addiction, the path towards or away from addiction is ultimately up to you.
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Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah. “Genes and Addiction.” Accessed January 30, 2018.
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