For a long time, addiction was considered a character flaw or weakness. People who became addicted, usually to alcohol or possibly opium, were thought to be weak-minded people who made poor choices. Now, largely as a result of the efforts of Alcoholics Anonymous, most people believe that addiction is a kind of disease. Some percentage of the population is just physically unable to control themselves when they start using an addictive substance. If addiction is a disease with a biological basis, are some people just born to be addicts? As with all nature-versus-nurture debates, the debate around addiction is complicated. We know that the biggest risk factor in developing addiction is having a parent with an addiction. Various studies have found that genes account for about half your risk of addiction. That is, if you had a long lost identical twin that struggled with addiction, there is about a 50 percent chance you would too. There is no single gene for addiction, but rather an indefinite number of genes related to how the body metabolizes and responds to various substances. We’ve even been able to identify dozens of genes related to addiction. For example, people addicted to alcohol or cocaine are more likely to have a particular version of a dopamine receptor gene. And mice lacking a certain cannabinoid receptor gene are less responsive to morphine. If you don’t find morphine particularly pleasurable, you’re less likely to become addicted. Some genes make particular substances especially unpleasant. Some people are prone to feel nausea and dizziness when exposed to nicotine. Other people metabolize alcohol inefficiently in their liver, leading to high levels of toxic acetaldehyde when they drink, which makes them feel sick. People with adverse reactions to certain substances are essentially protected from becoming addicted to them, but in many cases, these aversions are specific so they aren’t protected from addiction in general. However, having a genetic predisposition to to addiction, whether it’s a heightened response to alcohol, or a low risk of hangover, doesn’t necessarily mean you will become addicted. Although having a parent with an addiction raises your risk, genes are only part of the story. Having a parent who struggles with addiction is a major environmental risk as well. First, you grow up learning that addictive behavior is normal and you have to somehow learn that it’s not. Second, having one or both parents struggle with addiction increases your risk of having adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. The more of these you experience, the more likely you are to develop addiction. The good news is that there are also protective factors. If there’s someone you can rely on for help in your community, if you have a resilient parent, if you have a rich learning environment, and other assets, it can offset adverse experiences and genetic disposition. Having a strong social network, taking reasonably good care of yourself, and getting treatment for any mental health issue you might have will make it much less likely that any genetic disposition to addiction you might have won’t get out of control.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.