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Can Genetics Cause Addiction?

If you have a family member with addiction, especially a person close to you like a parent, you may be fearful of developing an addiction. The truth is, addiction is a complex, multifaceted disorder, the exact circumstances of which vary from person to person. To better grasp this, it is imperative that we seek to understand the spectrum of risk factors that are associated with it, helping protect ourselves from the many harms that addiction carries.

Do Genetics Factor into Addiction?

You would think this would be a simple answer, however, the answer does not fall into a simple "yes" or "no". Rather, it requires an explanation to develop a better understanding of the role that genetics has within addiction. Because yes, in part, addiction may be caused from genetics, the operative word being "may."

The tendency towards addiction is complex and dependent on many factors even within a person’s genetics. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains, noting "Unlike for some other diseases, there is no single gene that determines whether you will develop a problem with alcohol; instead, many genes influence your risk for developing alcoholism, each of which only has a small impact."

Just because a person has a genetic predisposition does not mean that they will develop addiction, or even patterns of abuse. It simply means their risk factor is higher and that they should be extra careful in developing both a greater awareness and protective factors within their life. This is important to keep close to heart if you feel you may have a genetic risk factor.

Along with genetics, there are other risk factors, psychological, cultural or environmental. Within these broadened categories are other more specific factors, including family issues, relationships, community, financial standing, insufficient economic opportunity and instances of trauma, among others.

A genetic predisposition for addiction increases your likelihood of becoming an addict by a factor of 2-4X. Several adverse childhood experiences increases your likelihood of alcoholism by 50X. It increases your likelihood of IV drug use by 460X!

How Do Genetics Affect Alcohol Addiction?

There has been much research into the role of genetics within alcohol addiction, leading to finds that show multiple genetic impacts on this risk.

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When we consume alcohol, our bodies need a way to process it, a function overseen by various genes. These genes produce two enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), that break alcohol down so that the toxins can leave your body.

Certain variations of the genes responsible for these components may result in a person not being able to effectively process alcohol, which can lead to a build up of a toxic byproduct of alcohol called acetaldehyde. When these levels become too high, a person will begin to feel unwell. Scientists have found that people with these genetic variations, including an estimated 36 percent of East Asians, are less apt to have an alcohol addiction, due to the fact they have a tendency to drink less as a means to avoid these uncomfortable effects.

Another genetic influence which is less understood than the others revolves around certain genes that are involved in regulating a person’s immune system. You may wonder how the immune system could dictate addiction. What happens is that when the immune system is active, perhaps overly so, the signals for your immune response within your brain get in the way of the ones responsible for decision-making, thus partially circumventing a person’s ability to wisely regulate their behavior.

A study created in conjunction between the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane found that there is a correlation between a person’s genetics and the probability that they will experience an alcohol-related blackout, a condition that is more common in those who are alcohol-dependent. The study’s authors note this relationship may be due to the fact that certain individuals have "less efficient variants of genes involved in metabolizing alcohol," as well as effects to genes that are involved in the formation of memories.

Interestingly enough, a person’s genetic makeup may also influence how they respond to treatment. In terms of alcohol addiction, research has determined there is a certain gene variation responsible for determining how the drug naltrexone works towards reducing drinking in patients that are alcohol dependent.

Why Environmental Factors and Mental Illness Pose Bigger Risks

Does mental illness directly cause addiction? No. Does it make someone more likely to become addicted? Yes. Around 29 percent of all people living with a mental health disorder are also engaging in substance abuse, HelpGuide reports.

Many people who suffer from mental illness are taking treatment medications. These drugs often carry addictive potential, such as benzodiazepines, a class of drugs the Drug Enforcement Administration notes as being prescribed over 127 million times in 2011.

Trauma can play a huge role in one’s addiction as well. There are many types of traumatic experiences, including mental, psychological, and physical. Many people may experience trauma at some time in their lives, and not develop an addiction, but research clearly indicates a connection between addiction and trauma. Many individuals seek out not only drugs and/or alcohol, but other addictions such as eating disorders and compulsive sexual behavior to escape the pain of trauma.

Studies have shown that as many as 96% of treatment-seeking substance abusers reported experiencing some kind of major traumatic event. Up to 34% of individuals in substance abuse treatment have a dual-diagnosis of addiction and PTSD. Trauma can occur in anyone, at any age, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic factors.

Others might engage in the abuse of alcohol or drugs as an escape from mental health symptoms. Sometimes individuals don’t even know that is what they’re doing. People who spend years of their lives feeling depressed, anxious, or otherwise unstable might not know that they can feel any different. That is life as they know it, so it isn’t abnormal to them. It’s just hard, and they look for an escape via alcohol and drugs.

Peers also play a significant role in both adolescent and adult behaviors. What a person’s friends are doing has an impact on what a person does. Environments where drug or alcohol use occurs frequently are likely to encourage such behaviors.

The Huffington Post reports at least 60 percent of teenagers classify their high schools as being drug infected. Peer pressure is often a topic that is more highly regarded among teen and adolescent demographics than any other, but plenty of adults also succumb to it merely because they were offered a drink or encouraged to try a substance by other adults. Environment strongly influences substance abuse habits as a whole. With prolonged drug and alcohol abuse, addiction is more likely to occur.

Drugs and the Brain: Why it’s so Hard to Stop

Addiction is largely due to physical factors, mostly those within the brain. Neurons are responsible for communication between every system and action that occurs within the human body. This form of communication is carried out by neurotransmitters. When a chemical substance is introduced, neurotransmitters are negatively affected. Over time, tolerance develops, and these neurotransmitters stop working correctly on their own.

Drugs and alcohol also affect individual parts of the brain, such as dopamine receptors, which can be permanently damaged by the abuse of some substances. For example, long-term abuse of alcohol can ruin the natural dopamine reward system in the brain by causing receptors to break down. They can then only function when under the influence of alcohol. Thereby, the cycle of abuse and addiction is perpetuated.

Where Your Loved One Can Seek Addiction Treatment

If your loved one has been struggling with addiction, Pinnacle Peak can help. Here, at Pinnacle Peak Recovery, we provide a small, family-like environment for those seeking recovery from addiction. During their time in our program, clients will learn how to stay sober and rebuild a life that’s worth living.

Some various addiction treatment programs we offer here include the following:

  • Inpatient drug rehab
  • Partial hospitalization program
  • Intensive outpatient program
  • Strong alumni community

Call Pinnacle Peak Recovery today at 866-954-0524 to help your loved one receive the treatment they deserve.

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