Addiction and your Genes

Most professionals in medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and medical research agree that addiction is a disease. Some compare it to a physical illness, while others believe that addiction is a neurological disorder. Addiction shares many similarities with chronic illnesses: the onset is often influenced by environmental factors, the disease responds to treatment and lifestyle changes, and it causes biological changes, such as to the neural pathways of the brain. Perhaps most importantly, as with other diseases, chronic conditions, and neurological disorders, addiction has a genetic basis.

The Genetic Factor

We have long known that addiction runs in families. For generations, people have noticed that some families have more cases of addiction than others. So, the fact that genes have actually been found that contribute to a susceptibility to addiction is not really surprising. Some may fight the idea because it is hard for those who do not struggle with addiction to imagine that it comes down to more than simply having better will power. But, the truth is that there are genetic factors that contribute to addiction and it is not as simple as a single addiction gene. Those who are predisposed to addiction could have one or more of any number of genes that somehow make them more susceptible.

The genes that determine how well you metabolize alcohol can be a contributing factor to addiction. Studies have found that people who need to drink more alcohol to get drunk were more likely to become addicted. Some people have genetic-based metabolic factors that make them less rather than more likely to be addicted to certain substances. For example, a gene that is most prevalent in people of Asian origin causes nausea and illness when alcohol is metabolized. Anyone with this gene is less likely to drink and become an alcoholic.

In a study of cocaine-using identical twins, who have the identical genes, researchers found that in 35 percent of the pairs, both siblings were addicted to the drug. The rate was zero for siblings who do not have identical genes but had used cocaine. In some cases, the genetic factors leading to a chance of addiction involve a difficulty with quitting. Some genes lead to more severe withdrawal symptoms, which makes stopping substance use very hard. Other studies have indicated that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s chances of suffering from an addiction.

Family History

Too many people know too little about their family health history. When researchers look at addiction, they are not simply taking a narrow view of genes and brain chemicals. They are interested in family history and how that relates to addiction in consecutive generations. The pattern within multiple generations in a family can give a researcher a good idea as to whether there is a genetic component. Figuring out the disease that is addiction means looking at all aspects of it: family, genetics, and environment.

While you are not likely to know what genes you have and if any of those predispose you to addiction, your family history can be invaluable just by itself. It is important to understand what seems to run in your family, so that you can make appropriate lifestyle changes. If you know that several family members struggled with addiction, you can make a conscious choice to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

To Be Susceptible

In discussions of any type of disease or condition that is linked to genes, you will hear the word susceptible. This means that even if you have a genetic factor that indicates alcoholism, or some other disorder, you have a greater chance of having the disease than someone who does not have this gene or set of genes. Susceptibility does not mean that getting the disease is inevitable. As with many conditions, addiction depends upon many different factors. A genetic predisposition does not doom you to a lifelong struggle with addiction.
Addiction is undoubtedly more about simple will power. Whether it is a chronic illness, a neurological disorder, or some other type of disease, we know that there are genetic components. We also know that our genes do not work in a vacuum. Your choices, your environment, and your family history all contribute to addiction.