We often talk about addiction having a genetic or inherited component. Some people may feel they have a genetic predisposition to addiction, and research shows there is some truth to that. Genetics can be a powerful factor in whether or not you develop an addiction to illicit drugs or alcohol.
At the same time, a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean you’re destined for addiction or that you can’t recover.
It’s important to understand the genetic elements of addictive disorders without feeling like it dictates the trajectory of your life. While a predisposition to addiction may raise your risk, there are so many modifiable risk factors and ways to overcome the genetics of addiction.
What is a Genetic Predisposition?
Genetic predisposition refers to the chance that you might be at an increased risk of developing a certain disease based on your genetic makeup. Your genetic makeup can be determined through your family history or alterations in your genes. When you have a predisposition to a disease, it contributes to whether or not you develop it, but it doesn’t cause it.
The term can be used interchangeably with genetic susceptibility.
Genetic susceptibility or predisposition can mean that you’re more likely to develop the condition under certain conditions. There is usually at least one other contributing factor, and often several others trigger a disease you have an underlying susceptibility to. Many of these are environmental factors.
Many chronic conditions and complex diseases have either a suspected or known genetic basis, including addiction to alcohol and drugs abuse. Along with addiction, other disorders with genetic links include:
- Cardiovascular diseases like coronary artery disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Psychiatric diseases
- Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis
There are genetic variations that parents pass to children. These variations are different from the typical genes most people have. They make you vulnerable to diseases if you encounter other contributing factors during your life.
Contributing factors include other genes, environmental exposure, alcohol or drug abuse, and hormonal changes.
- A predisposition is not the same as an inherited disease.
- With an inherited or genetic condition, if you have a certain gene or set of genes, you either already have a disease or will have it.
- With some inherited diseases, only one parent contributes the genes. In others, both parents have to be mutation carriers.
- Inherited diseases that include patients with mutations are cystic fibrosis, fragile X syndrome, and polycystic kidney disease, among others based on previous studies.
Researchers are constantly working on genetic tests and genetic studies of the human genome that will help them understand how a particular genetic variant or gene-related factors affect health and the development of diseases.
Genetics and Addiction
Around half of someone’s susceptibility to developing alcohol use disorders or drug addiction appears to link to genetic factors.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a brain disease. A substance use disorder leads to functional changes in reward, self-control, and stress in the brain region.
If your parents abuse drugs or alcohol, your risk of developing substance problems is higher, but certainly not a guarantee.
- There isn’t one specific addiction gene. However, researchers have identified multiple genes they think to play a role in addiction.
- Hundreds of genes could raise the risk of developing a drug or alcohol use disorder, many of which are behavioral or impulse control-related.
- There are less direct ways that genetics can affect the likelihood of developing an addiction. For example, mental illnesses and psychiatric disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia tend to have genetic risk factors and are also associated with higher rates of substance use.
- Our hereditary behaviors interact with our environmental factors, which form our decisions.
- The more risk factors you have in your environment, the more likely you will develop an addiction.
Risk factors can include poverty, the availability of drugs and alcohol, or a history of trauma or sexual abuse. For example, if you have a family member with cannabis use disorder, you’re exposed to drugs in your daily life, and they’re more available, which is a risk factor.
On the other hand, even if you have relatives who have a substance use disorder, the presence of protective factors can reduce your addiction risk.
Protective factors include parental support and monitoring, community resources, and a strong sense of self-control.
If you’re in a stressful environment, you can reduce the negative effects with factors like social support or physical activity. These protective behaviors create epigenetic changes that prevent the development of addiction. When used with other interventions, they can have a beneficial role in your life.
Future studies and genome-wide association studies are likely to continue delving into the particular genes that impact addiction risk. Eventually, by targeting these genes, medicine and science could help people avoid addiction, according to the National Institutes of Health.
What are the Signs You Have a Genetic Predisposition to Addiction?
Below are three signs you could have a genetic predisposition to addiction.
1. Your Parents Struggle with Substance Use
If you have one or both parents who use drugs or alcohol, it can signify that you have a predisposition to addiction.
Again, this doesn’t mean that it’s written in stone that you’ll develop an addiction, but it does play a role.
Along with the genetics themselves, there are other reasons that children of people who struggle with addiction are more likely to have a substance use problem.
For example, parents using substances may not provide a loving, supportive environment. People who use drugs or alcohol may be more likely to be unstable or violent, which are risk factors for addiction.
2. You Find It Hard to Limit Your Drinking
Drinking alcohol from time to time doesn’t mean that you have an addiction. Many people can have a glass of wine and then stop drinking. If you’re someone that doesn’t feel like you can stop when you start drinking, it can be a red flag of an underlying problem.
One of the key symptoms of addiction is not being able to stop drinking or cut down even when you want to, or even when it has negative effects.
3. It’s Hard For You to Deal with Stress
When you don’t have strong coping skills or you’re not resilient when dealing with stress, it may be due to the genetics of your mental health. People who struggle with stress, coping mechanisms, or mental health disorders are at a higher risk of addiction.
This effect occurs because people may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.
What Can You Do if You Have a Genetic Predisposition to Addiction?
No matter your family history, there are things you can do to reduce your chances of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. Taking care of your physical and mental health is an important part of this. Making time for self-care, physical exercise, and a nutritious diet can be protective factors.
Working with a professional early on can help you avoid a potential addiction and use positive coping strategies like meditation.
If you’re already dealing with addiction, recovery is still a very real option for you. Nothing says you can’t recover from addiction, no matter your family history.