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Born with a Risk? Exploring the Genetic Links to Addiction

At the end of the day, dipping your toe into the water of something that could potentially be addicting is a choice. Every step afterward is another choice and a chance to step away from that thing. But addiction isn’t that black and white. Whether you’re dealing with it yourself or know someone who is, you can understand that becoming addicted to something often feels like being drawn to it by a magnet.

If that sounds familiar, research has shown there might be a reason for it. 

According to the American Psychological Association, genetic factors are linked to at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction.

What does that mean for you? Do you have a predisposition to addiction because of your genes? 

There Isn’t an “Addiction” Gene

men with groupBefore you start worrying about your genetics, understand that there will never be a single gene used to determine whether someone will struggle with addiction. Rather, there are certain genes that might make someone more vulnerable to addiction. There are genetic variations in how people respond to certain things. 

For example, your friend might be able to take a certain type of drug or drink a lot of alcohol without feeling the “intended” euphoric effect. You might experience symptoms of withdrawal if you take that drug or alcohol away. Or, you might have a particular preference for a substance because of how it makes you feel. 

Those differences are what researchers have been looking at in determining the genetic factors that can contribute to addiction. 

Which Genes Make You Susceptible to Addiction?

Most research regarding genetic links to addiction has been explored in animals and later confirmed in humans. There are a variety of discoveries that have been made to further explore the genetic connection to addiction. For example, people with a certain alcohol dehydrogenase 2 gene can’t break down alcohol the way others can. This can lead to feelings of nausea or headaches when drinking. That might steer someone away from becoming addicted to alcohol. 

On the other hand, research has shown that certain dopamine receptors are more common in people with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. 

Learning more about your genetic makeup can help paint a clearer picture of why you or someone in your family might be more prone to addictive behaviors. 

With that in mind, don’t assume that just because your parents or grandparents struggled with addiction, you will, too. Each person has their own unique combination of genes, and even if you have high-risk variations, it doesn’t mean you’ll abuse any kind of substance.

Environmental Factors

The genetic links to addiction are only part of the equation. Environmental factors play a big role in alcohol or substance abuse, too. It’s when the two factors combine that drug and alcohol use can become a bigger problem. 

One of the biggest environmental factors that can trigger addiction is stress. People sometimes confuse this external factor with genetics if the source of stress stems from your family. But the two are very different things. However, if you have a gene that makes you more susceptible to addiction and you’re also trying to deal with family stress or drama, you might be more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. 

Your genes play a role in how easy it might be for you to lean into drugs or alcohol. But they don’t make choices for you. However, if you feel like you tend to struggle with substance abuse or you’re concerned about some of your thoughts and behaviors, it’s never too early (or too late) to seek out professional help.