Most of us are raised with the idea that addiction is a moral failing or a personal one. Addiction is often treated as a choice – and for that reason, people who struggle with substance use disorders are expected to feel guilt and shame about their disorder. At the same time, modern science shows us that addiction and other behavioral disorders are significantly more complex than choosing to or choosing not to continue using a substance. That’s why over 16,000 rehabilitation facilities exist to help people quit using drugs and alcohol. And, it’s why over 46.3 million Americans struggle with drug and alcohol use to the point of needing that treatment.
Today, we know that addiction is caused by a complex range of factors. Some of those include environmental factors like upbringing, exposure, and usage. Others include internal factors such as exposure to trauma at an early age, pre-existing mental health conditions, and even genetics.
In this article, we’ll discuss how genetics can increase your risk of substance use disorder (but not cause it) and how that impacts your long-term health and treatment.
Genetics interact with nearly every part of human behavior and response. And, in many cases, that means influencing how people respond to drugs and alcohol. For example, some 930 genes have been linked to how the brain handles substances like alcohol and opioids. This includes managing metabolization, processing, the reward system, impulse control, and even what sort of effects that the individual gets from an intoxicant.
That’s why some people can drink more than others without seeming intoxicated. It’s also why some people have consistently bad reactions to drugs or alcohol – sometimes even to the point of avoiding them altogether.
In laymen’s terms, genetics can:
So, genetics can play a very large role in how any one individual approaches substances. Someone who has a lot of vulnerabilities will be more likely to re-use a second time, more likely to take in higher quantities, and more likely to develop behaviors such as pleasure seeking that develop into addiction. That’s so much the case that some studies suggest genetics account for 40-60% of risk factors behind addiction.
It’s also important to note that genetic contribution to substance abuse vulnerability does not end at “genetics”. Epigenetic markers are small tags left on DNA that are typically passed down for as many as four generations. These markers help children adapt to their environment, by ensuring they have behavioral and physical changes based on what their parents are going through.
Epigenetics, also known as transgenerational inheritance, result in factors like the children of parents living in a warm climate are better able to deal with extreme heat and the children of parents living in cold climates are better able to deal with extreme cold.
However, they also play a part in addiction and vulnerability to addiction. For example, if a parent abuses drugs or alcohol and then conceives a child, the child will have an epigenetic marker – even if they quit substance abuse years before having children. It’s thought that those markers make children more susceptible to addiction by introducing sensitivity to drugs and alcohol.
That’s been most well-studied in rats, where short generational lifecycles allow us to study the effects over more generations. Rats exposed to heavy cocaine use continue to pass epigenetic markers down to baby rats for the rest of their lives, and those rats are more susceptible to cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and opiates than their parents.
It’s increasingly common to use genetic profiling and testing to check for vulnerabilities to substance abuse and addiction.
This means your clinician may use a mouth swab and a test to check for genetic profiles that may indicate a vulnerability to medication, drug abuse, or to alcohol.
That’s so much the case that more and more hospitals are doing so before prescribing longer-term pain pill programs. In addition, understanding that a drug sensitivity exists can allow doctors to make better choices about what drugs to give you and when.
Genetics can increase your vulnerability to drug abuse and addiction. But, what does that actually mean? Most of us have heard the phrase “once an addict, always an addict” and the fact that even your genes contribute to substance abuse can feel like the nail in the coffin. However, that isn’t the case. Genetics and epigenetics create vulnerabilities to substance abuse. You can think of this like a “predisposition”. You’re more likely to become addicted or to abuse substances once exposed to them. However, just because you’re susceptible doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable that you become addicted or that you stay addicted.
Genetics do not mean that you will be an addict. Instead, it means you’ll have a harder time managing and using drugs and alcohol in a safe way. For many people, this means the best approach is abstinence or very good moderation. The largest contributing factor to substance use disorders is still repeat exposure which means that you can stay clean and sober by reducing or avoiding exposure.
If you’re struggling with drugs or alcohol, help is there. Substance use disorders aren’t genetically inherited, the risks are. This means you can go to treatment, get help from the same channels as everyone else, and then work on managing your exposure and your ability to live a clean and sober life. You can be clean and sober, and you can learn the coping mechanisms and skills to live a healthy life without drugs and alcohol. A genetic predisposition to addiction can make that more difficult. However, it is completely possible to live a life of full recovery, even if you’re genetically predisposed to be sensitive to alcohol abuse.
If you’re looking for help with drugs or alcohol, reach out, talk to your doctor, or talk to a counselor about getting treatment. There is help.
Asana Recovery is located in Orange County, California. and offers detox, residential, and outpatient addiction treatment services in our modern and comfortable addiction treatment facilities. Please contact us today to speak with one of our experienced addiction treatment team if you have any questions about our programs.