Genetics is a rapidly-growing field bringing with it the possibility for precision medicine. The more we understand our genes, the better able we are to predict a variety of health risks. We may be more susceptible to certain conditions when our family members have them because of shared DNA. Heart attacks and diabetes are examples of conditions certain people may be genetically predisposed to.

Genes and Addiction

Another prevalent condition with strong genetic ties is addiction. It is currently estimated that about half of a person’s risk for developing addiction comes from their genes. This number equates to nearly half, making it a substantial factor to consider. Through genome sequencing, scientists have been able to identify over 400 locations in the human genetic profile that correspond with drinking and smoking. 

Substance abuse is related to the level of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward center and reinforces certain behaviors. When the body and brain become reliant on substances, the reward center is overloaded and hijacked. It becomes wired to expect and need a substance in the body. This leads to a certain substance being needed in greater and greater quantities and frequencies to experience any pleasure. 

Dopamine levels correspond with that process by reducing inhibition. With less impulse control, a person is more likely to seek out pleasurable activities and activate the reward center even when there are consequences. It is this neurotransmitter that appears to hold the genetic risk, as dopamine levels can be inherited.

Genes Are Not the Whole Story

Our genes are never the only factor. The “nature versus nurture” debate has gripped scientists for much of history. Some lean strongly one way, and others prefer the alternative. It is a debate that examines different sets of factors in a person’s life, particularly their childhood, and uses them to predict future outcomes. 

Nature vs. Nurture

Nature refers to the genetic makeup of a person and how it will impact their life. Taken to the extreme, it can be seen as a version of predestination. It supports the notion that the genes you are born with will determine much of your future. In the case of addiction, this would mean that addiction will almost always be passed down from one generation to the next.

Nurture refers to the way that a person is raised. It has to do with parenting style as well as environmental factors like what a child is exposed to during their formative years. The extreme version of this theory would negate any effect that genes have on a person and instead posit that people are a product solely of their environment. When applied to addiction, this would mean that family substance use would have no bearing on a child. Rather, addiction would more likely stem from substance use being modeled as social behavior and being readily available in a person’s environment.

Nature & Nurture

While this debate was once very polarized, research has landed in the middle of these two extremes. The current theory is that “nature versus nurture” should instead be “nature and nurture.” Both elements have a role to play in who we will become and the challenges we will face. For example, although someone may have a genetic risk for diabetes or high blood pressure, they are not destined to have these conditions. Implementing healthy lifestyle habits like routine exercise and a balanced diet are important protective factors.

The same reasoning applies to substance abuse. If your family has been impacted by addiction, it is not necessarily true that you will also develop the condition. The environment is an important factor that can mitigate or exacerbate risk. Having early access to substances increases the risk of developing an addiction, as does being exposed to peers who use drugs or alcohol. A history of traumatic stress and other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety also heighten the risk. On the other hand, when young people are able to participate in after-school activities, they are less likely to turn to substances. Exercise is another behavior that can reduce risk.

Knowing Your Risk and Taking Control

If you have a family history of substance abuse, knowing your risk is important. Since half of your susceptibility to struggling with substance use is tied to your genes, being prepared is essential. With that said, the addiction of your family members does not determine what your life will look like. While there are some barriers in your way, the right approach to your health can make a difference. Choosing friends and activities free from drugs and alcohol will surround you with people and experiences that will not pressure you. Taking care of your overall health, including your mental health, is another crucial step to warding off addiction. 

It is true that a family history of substance abuse increases your risk of developing it as well. It is also true that addiction is not inevitable and there are steps you can take to counteract your genes. Your family can heal from substance use disorder and disrupt the cycle for future generations Working with a licensed clinician is an important part of this process. Family-Centered Services is a team of professionals with years of personal and clinical experience you can trust with your family’s well-being. We offer individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, case management, and sober monitoring as part of our comprehensive approach to care. Reach out at (509) 991-5822 to learn more.