For many years, psychologists have participated in the debate of nature versus nurture: whether someone’s genes (nature) or someone’s environment and how they were raised (nurture) is more influential in a person’s development. To summarize, both of these factors play a significant role in someone’s life, and the conversation about drug and alcohol addiction is no exception.

However, just because a parent or family member may suffer from addiction does not mean that everyone in the family will struggle as well. While genetics are very influential in whether someone will develop an addiction, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. Addiction is a very complicated disorder, and the exact circumstances of someone’s addiction will vary from person to person.

What are genetics?

It is important to understand what genes are to understand their influence on substance use disorders. Genetics is a powerful group of codes that are passed on by parent(s) to their offspring. These codes contain information for the development of characteristics and pass from one generation to the next. In the form of DNA, genes determine all of a human’s traits from physical appearance (such as eye color and hair color) to behavioral (such as personality and intelligence).

Among these behavioral traits, there is a predisposition for addiction. While people genetically predisposed to addiction generally have a higher chance of developing a substance abuse disorder, it is not certain they will develop an addiction. Social and environmental factors are also important as there are people who have inherited genes that make them vulnerable to addiction, yet, they do not develop a substance or alcohol use disorder.

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Is there an addiction gene?

The short answer is no; there is no single gene responsible for addiction. Hundreds of genes could increase the chance of addiction, but they play only a small role in the larger picture. Other genetic traits such as mental illnesses can also influence addiction, as people with mental illnesses often turn to substances to cope, but not always. As with addiction, having a family member with mental illness does not mean one will always develop a disorder.

How do genetics impact addiction?

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for Alcohol Use Disorder.” Even though genes alone do not determine whether someone will develop Alcohol Use Disorder, 50% is a significant part of the causes of addiction.

Scientists studied two groups of identical and non-identical twins in 1999 and discovered genetic factors accounting for about half of the risk of alcohol dependence. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found multiple genetic variants related to alcohol use and substance use disorders. While this is by no means definitive as to which genes cause which disorder, science is getting closer to answering this question.

Genetic causes of addiction are determined before birth. However, it is essential to remember that having this genetic predisposition does not determine your destiny.

How Environment Impacts Addiction

Environmental factors account for the other half of the risk of addiction. Even individuals with a high genetic risk of substance abuse often start to experiment with substances due to environmental factors. Factors can be peer pressure, lack of parental supervision, unhealthy friend groups, poverty, trauma, and availability of substances.

Managing Genetics of Addiction

While you cannot change or control your genetic makeup, you can be aware of several things that may reduce the likelihood of a substance or alcohol use disorder:

  • Knowing your family history of substance abuse
  • Learning how to manage stress
  • Building and maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends
  • Understanding the signs and symptoms of addiction

Just because someone may have a genetic predisposition for addiction does not mean that they will be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. If your use of substances or a loved one’s use is becoming problematic, it is time to seek treatment.

Don’t let your family history dictate your future. We are here for you, and we are here to help.