With over 30% of Americans having had an alcohol disorder, and nearly 25 million Americans currently addicted to alcohol and drugs, addiction is a serious problem in the U.S. But how does addiction start? Is addiction genetic? And why does it happen? These are complex questions, and the answers are equally complicated.
Addiction is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is never one gene or one specific situation that will cause someone to become an addict, but rather a variety of genetic and situational factors, each which may slightly increase or decrease an individual’s specific chance of becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs.
While it would be easy for scientists to identify a single gene that controls addiction in humans, unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. In truth, thousands, if not millions of human genes affect the brain and body in different ways in different people and under different circumstances. For example, one individual may have a gene that makes him or her especially susceptible to cocaine addiction, but less likely to become addicted to alcohol, while another person may be unlikely to develop a cocaine addiction and instead have a variety of genes that put them at a high risk for alcohol abuse.
In a variety of studies, many conducted with animals, scientists have determined the function of a variety of specific genes that may relate to addiction. For example, mice mutated with a defective Per2 gene drink three times more alcohol than regular mice, while mice with higher levels of neuropeptide Y tend to abstain from alcohol completely. Genetic studies in humans have also come to similar conclusions with a variety of genes; for example, non-smokers are much more likely to have a protective allele of the CYP2A6 gene, which often causes individuals to experience severe discomfort when smoking.
The key to understanding the relationship between genetics and addiction is to understand the difference between susceptibility and inevitability. Having a certain set of genes makes someone more susceptible and more likely to develop addictions to certain substances when combined with certain circumstances. These can include environmental factors such as peer pressure, stress, depression, poverty, and other situations. However, what those genes do not do is make a person’s addiction inevitable.
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Unless an individual is actually drugged against their will, everyone has the ability to choose whether or not they consume drugs or alcohol. However, if you have addicts in your family, you are more likely to develop addiction yourself, or at least more likely become more vulnerable to it.
In studies of alcoholics conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, researchers determined that an individual with an alcoholic parent is approximately four times as likely to become an alcoholic themselves when compared with individuals whose parents did not have a significant alcohol issue.
Despite this worrying statistic, it’s still important to realize that more than half of the children of alcoholics never develop alcohol problems. This means that while close family members’ addictions may increase the likelihood of an individual’s addiction, they certainly do not determine final outcomes in that person’s life.
Other family risk factors for developing alcoholism and drug abuse include:
- Having an alcoholic or addicted parent with depression or other psychological disorders
- A history of familial aggression or violence
- Having both parents addicted to alcohol or drugs
- Having one or two parents with severe alcohol or drug abuse problems
An individual’s family history of addiction is only one of many genetic factors that can lead to an increased susceptibility to substance use disorders. Their ethnicity may also play a significant role. According to research conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are five times more likely to die of alcohol-related causes when compared to Americans of other ethnicities. Researchers currently believe that this is due to a variation in the genes that are responsible for metabolising alcohol, but are not completely sure how it relates to greater rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths.
When it comes to genes and addiction, however, not all genes are bad. Up to one quarter of African Americans in the U.S. have been found to carry the ADH1B gene, a gene which increases an individual’s alcohol metabolism rate. This gene has been associated with less risk for alcoholism, protection against fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and other birth defects, as well as less desire for alcohol in general.
Whether many of your family members suffer from addiction, or you’re the only one, it’s important to understand that addiction is a choice, not a destiny. With the right care, support, and treatment, you can make the right health choices, regardless of your genetic predispositions. In fact, understanding that you may have a genetic predisposition to drug or alcohol dependence can help you make better choices and heal faster from the disease of addiction.
At Get Treatment, we understand the difficulty of facing a genetic history of drug abuse and alcoholism. Sometimes, it can seem like your brain and body were designed to become addicted to a certain substance, but that isn’t true. Our top rated addiction treatment centers provide family therapy programs so that both patients and their family members can understand the causes of addiction, and learn how to heal broken relationships.
No matter what choices you’ve made in the past, you owe it to yourself to prioritize your health and happiness by living a life free of alcohol and drugs. At Get Treatment, we can help you find accredited substance abuse treatment centers located across the country. Not only will our certified addiction specialists help you locate the best treatment center for your needs, but they’ll also help you create a game plan to get there. They will verify your insurance, arrange transportation, and speak to family members and loved ones who have questions about treatment.