Is Addiction Genetic?

Addiction isn’t solely a genetic condition, but your genes can play a role in how likely you are to develop a substance use disorder. But your genes are not your destiny.

Even though most people are familiar with the concept of addiction, many people struggle to understand why some people seem more prone to addiction than others. This lack of understanding has led to a common question people tend to have about substance abuse: is addiction genetic? It’s a simple question, but the answer is more complex. Gaining a better understanding of addiction, genetics, and the factors contributing to substance abuse can help answer the question.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences.

Let’s break that definition down a bit.

A disorder is an illness that disrupts normal physical or mental functions. As a brain disorder, addiction is an illness that interferes with the way the brain typically functions.

Compulsive means behavior that is related to an irresistible urge, often against an individual’s conscious wishes. In addition to changing how the brain functions, addiction is an illness that drives people to seek out substances that the brain considers pleasurable and rewarding.

The word adverse means harmful, unfortunate, and unpleasant. Addiction compels people to continuously seek seemingly rewarding substances even after they’ve experienced dangerous, painful, and undesirable consequences. The desire to seek out drugs and alcohol despite adverse effects makes addiction a chronic, persistent, and long-lasting disorder.

Signs of Addiction

One of the most recognizable signs of addiction is the excessive, uncontrollable consumption of drugs and alcohol. But many other signs of addiction occur long before that type of loss of control.

Some of the most common behavioral signs of addiction include:

  • Obsessive thoughts and actions
  • Denial
  • Hiding drugs, alcohol, and drug paraphernalia
  • Missing work or school
  • Isolation and being secretive about activities
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Having problems at work or school
  • Change in eating habits
  • Relationship or marital problems
  • Lying to close family members and friends
  • Borrowing or taking money without permission
  • Financial difficulties and always needing money

Physical signs of addiction can include:

  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Dilated pupils and red, bloodshot eyes
  • Unusual body odor due to lack of personal hygiene
  • Excessive sniffing and runny nose not attributed to a cold
  • Looking pale or undernourished
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Looking unkempt

Common emotional signs of addiction include:

  • Anxiety
  • Inattentiveness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability, angry outbursts, or an argumentative nature
  • Defensiveness
  • Changes in personality or attitude
  • Sudden unexplained mood swings
  • Unexplained paranoia
  • Inability to deal with stress
  • Loss of interest in activities or people that used to be a part of their lives
  • Rationalizing (making excuses, justifications, or explanations for their behavior)
  • Blaming their behavior on someone else or an event in their lives
  • Changing the subject to avoid discussing the topic

Factors That Contribute To Addiction

Research shows that several different factors can contribute to addiction. These factors are biological, environmental, or situational. Although different, these factors can make individuals more prone to misuse and abuse addictive substances. Here’s how:

  • Biological. Having an “addictive personality,” can’t be attributed to a singular cause, but some personality traits people can inherit have been associated with addiction. Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that men are more likely to use illicit substances and have a higher dependence rate. At the same time, women may be more susceptible to cravings and relapse. Inherited mental health disorders can also be a risk factor for substance abuse. ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia are mental illnesses that can be hereditary.
  • Environmental. People who have experienced harmful situations in the home they grew up in or lived with family members who misuse drugs or alcohol may be more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol themselves. Similarly, teens and adolescents dealing with peer pressure and spending time in the wrong environment may be more susceptible to substance misuse and addiction. The desire to fit in, inadequate social skills, and poverty can be other environmental risk factors of addiction.
  • Situational. Children and adolescents who experience traumatic events have a greater risk of substance abuse. In addition to creating emotional distress, untreated trauma can decrease individuals’ self-esteem, decreasing their resiliency. Without this ability, individuals have a greater risk of turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with challenging situations and harmful memories, increasing their risk of addiction. Trauma can include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, domestic violence, grief, unexpected loss, war, terrorism, or displacement.

In summary, there isn’t one factor that causes addiction. Instead, addiction results from a domino effect of circumstances that leads to compulsive behavior, which then leads to loss of control. But that doesn’t mean that genetics doesn’t play a role in addiction and substance use disorders.

Genetics and Addiction

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction can be linked to genetic factors. Similarly, the NIH reports that genetics can represent 40% to 60% of an individual’s addiction risk. In other words, if someone has certain genes or hereditary influences, they may be more likely to display addictive behaviors.

Some hereditary and genetic influences on addiction include:

  • A smaller amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped gland that regulates emotions and manages the body’s “fight or flight” response. Individuals with a small amygdala have a greater risk of developing an addiction.
  • Not having a serotonin receptor gene. Serotonin receptors help influence the level of aggression or anxiety individuals have. These receptor genes also help manage appetite, cognitive function, learning, memory, mood, nausea, and sleep. Individuals without serotonin receptors have a greater risk of becoming addicted to alcohol or cocaine.
  • Parents and grandparents with substance use disorders. Individuals whose parents and grandparents struggled with addiction tend to be more likely to display addictive tendencies.

But having a genetic predisposition toward addiction doesn’t automatically mean an individual will develop a substance use disorder. In fact, medical experts believe that the majority of children who have parents with addiction challenges don’t go on to develop substance use disorders.

Take A Step Toward Sobriety Today

Addiction isn’t solely a genetic condition, but your genes can play a role in how likely you are to develop a substance use disorder. But your genes are not your destiny. Our mental health treatment programs can help you manage mental health disorders without turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. Our addiction treatment programs can help you overcome addiction challenges. Don’t let trauma, childhood experiences, emotional distress, or genetics determine the quality of your life.

Contact us today if you’re ready to take a step toward better mental health and sobriety. It’s time you start living the thriving, enjoyable, healthy, and sober life you deserve.

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