When Addiction is Hereditary: The Role of Genes in Addiction

Over 20 million Americans struggle with addiction. Statistically, that means one out of every fifteen people is an addict. Despite the rampant addiction issue in the United States and the world, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it.

We still don’t know what causes addiction. There are several factors that seem to contribute to the development of an addiction, but we can’t say for sure what causes it.

One contributing factor seems to be genetics. Is alcoholism hereditary? Is drug abuse hereditary? Yes and no. While people with addicted parents are more likely to be addicts, it’s not a guarantee, nor is it up to fate.

We’ll talk more about how genetics affect addiction in this article.

Can You Be Born Alcoholic?

Before we discuss how genetics can affect addiction, let’s discuss some ways they can’t interact. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t be born addicted to anything. You can, however, be born dependent on it.

While addiction and dependence are often used interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing. Addiction refers to any situation where a person is constantly seeking an ever-greater high from their substance of choice. Dependence, meanwhile, is a physical issue, where the body is used to the substance and goes into withdrawal without it.

You can’t be born craving a substance, but you can be born knowing nothing but that substance.

Addiction and Family History

While you can’t be born with an addiction, those with addicted parents or who have alcoholism in their families are more likely to become addicted later on. This has been shown in studies of adopted twin children of alcoholics.

This proves that genetics and alcohol are somehow related. What isn’t clear is how exactly they’re related. Scientists have identified a handful of genes that seem to be related to alcoholism. 

The downside is that there are tens of thousands of genes in the human body, and that’s just our best estimate. It will likely be a very long time before we can pinpoint the genes that contribute to any health condition.

What Is A Predisposition?

Genetic predisposition is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot but is rarely examined in detail. We know that it makes certain people more likely to be an alcoholic, but how does that work? Why are people with alcoholic parents so drawn to alcohol?

The answer is genetic adaptation. The more we drink, the more tolerant to alcohol we become. You’ve probably heard of functional alcoholism, where a person tolerates alcohol so well that it’s hard to notice that they’re drinking.

This is where genetics comes into play because while we can’t inherit an addiction, we can inherit a higher tolerance for alcohol. When children of alcoholics drink alcohol for the first time, they’re less likely to experience nausea, dizziness, and certain other negative side effects of alcohol, so the drinker is more likely to have a positive experience.

Nature and Nurture

The what extent is alcoholism hereditary and to what extent is it about life experience?  That’s also hard to determine because there are a lot of factors in play at any given time.

For instance, some personality traits seem especially common in those with an addiction. These traits together make up an addictive personality because they all play off each other to fuel addiction.

We should also note that genetics isn’t an end-all-be-all. While children of alcoholics are more likely than the average child to become alcoholics, most of them don’t.

Alcoholism and Mental Health

The question of alcoholism and genetics is further complicated by the fact that alcoholism risk factors are often compounding. In addition to family histories of alcoholism, hereditary factors such as mental illness make people more prone to addiction.

In fact, about one-third of those with mental illness also have an addiction. Many of those with a mental illness turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to treat their symptoms.

Alcoholism and Family Interaction

Children who live with alcoholic parents or guardians are abused and neglected at much higher rates than most other children. Abuse and neglect, in turn, often lead to mental health conditions such as PTSD.

The opposite can also be an issue. If a person’s relationship with their alcoholic parent isn’t altogether bad, they might not grow up seeing alcoholism as a bad thing. 

Generational Gaps

For alcoholism, hereditary doesn’t always mean that your parents had an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol tolerance can stay in the family for a few generations. 

It is very possible for a child to be born with an alcohol dependence if their grandparent had it, but neither of their parents did. This can be compounded by environmental factors because a person with higher tolerance who isn’t exposed to alcoholism in the home will likely have less of an aversion to drinking than someone who has seen the negative effects of drinking close up.

Alcoholism: Hereditary vs. Environmental Factors

With alcoholism, hereditary factors play roughly a 50% role in developing an addiction. Other risks factors are environmental, but nature and nurture, in many cases, are so intertwined that it’s hard to tell where ends and the other begins.

We’ve talked a bit about genetics and alcoholism in the paragraphs above, but there’s always more to learn. You can begin your search by visiting our site.If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, we encourage you to contact us. We have a professional facility and plenty of programs dedicated to treating addiction.