THE ADDICTION GENE
The Relationship Between Genetics and Addiction, and How to Recognize if Your Loved One is Struggling
Like most major illnesses, addiction is a disease that can be traced through families and their history. Think of addiction like heart disease — it occurs in part because of your genetics and partly because of your lifestyle. If one of your parents, grandparents or siblings suffered from a heart attack, you have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Eating too much hydrogenated fat, getting too little exercise and smoking are lifestyle choices that will jeopardize your health even more. Like with addiction, you can develop the disease even without the genetic predisposition when you make certain lifestyle choices. But it’s the combination — nature and nurture — that empowers the disease to take hold.
The difference between addiction and other diseases is stigma. If your doctor told you that you have diabetes, you might feel guilty about your diet, but you probably won’t feel like a villain or criminal — which is the portrait society often paints of people with an addiction. However, the fact that you can find people living in mansions and people living on the street who have addiction shows that it is a disease. Once you begin to understand that you are working with an illness — one with genetic and lifestyle components — you are better able to ask the most important question of your life: How can I overcome this?
The answer to this question isn’t short, nor is it simple. It is also an answer that might change over time, depending on your personal recovery journey. That’s why it is important to understand the genetic component of your disease. Your success hinges on being able to understand some of these factors that, unlike lifestyle choices, you simply cannot change. This guide to genetics and addiction will help shed light on the ways your genes could be impacting your recovery, and offer hope and insight on how to find your way to sobriety.
The History of Mental Health
Certain mental health disorders can often be traced to genetics, and people with mental health issues are almost two times more likely to abuse illicit substances. It’s no surprise, then, that there is a genetic link between mental health and addiction. In fact, nearly 9 million people report struggling with both a substance abuse disorder and another mental health condition. This is often referred to as co-occurring disorders or a dual diagnosis.
One or more of the following circumstances may be applicable to someone struggling with co-occurring disorders:
They began treating their symptoms, like anxiety or depression, with drugs or alcohol instead of seeing a doctor about their mental health concerns.
They take medication to treat their mental health condition but use drugs or alcohol to manage the side effects. For example, some people might turn to cocaine when taking antidepressants that make them feel drowsy or lethargic — especially people who work high-powered jobs with tight deadlines and high stress.
They feel wary or untrusting of doctors, counselors or other healthcare providers who may diagnose them with a condition more serious than they think they have. Someone who has had a traumatic experience with a provider may be more apt to self-medicate than open up to a therapist or take prescription medications.
From ADHD to bipolar disorder, people with a past or current mental health concern or a family history of mental health issues are often more susceptible to developing a dependency on drugs or alcohol. If you have a close relative with a mental health disorder, you have a higher risk of developing that illness, although, just like with addiction, that doesn’t mean your fate is carved in stone.
While medical breakthroughs on genetics and mental health still have a long way to go, recent research shows us that there are many connections between mental health, addiction and the way our brains our wired.
Rewiring the Brain
Addiction is both a chemical and a behavioral brain pattern. When you use a substance, neurotransmitters in the brain rush dopamine to the prefrontal cortex, essentially letting the brain know that this is a good activity, because it’s making you happy. Your chemicals begin to dictate your behavior as your brain decides it wants to have this pleasurable experience again. This perfectly normal, natural reaction is what doctors often call the reward pathway. However, when your dopamine is being shot around due to a substance like cocaine, heroin or opioids, the brain becomes conditioned to think that substance use feels like a reward.
Only, it isn’t. Dopamine is also responsible for learning, memory, movement, coordination and attention. As your brain becomes addicted to the pleasure that comes from drugs or alcohol, the damaging side effects of the addiction tear through your mind and body.
“Once you understand the role your brain chemistry is playing, you can create a treatment plan that takes that into consideration.”
Fortunately, you can rewire the brain, and it starts with understanding how your genes are expressed by the cells in your brain. For example, when it comes to addiction, your genetics may play a role in how painful withdrawal feels or whether or not you experience being hungover after a night of drinking. People without certain receptors on their genes may experience little or no pain relief from morphine or other opioids. Some studies with mice show that genetics can even play a role in the likelihood that you’ll develop a dependence on specific substances. Once you understand the role your brain chemistry is playing, you can create a treatment plan that takes that into consideration.
Recognizing the Struggle
If you or a loved one have been battling addiction for a while now, knowing how genetics play a role can help you understand why this struggle is so hard. Did you know that up to 60 percent of people in treatment for alcoholism will relapse? It’s also not uncommon for people in recovery from substance abuse to relapse multiple times. Knowing your genetics plays a role can help alleviate the guilt, shame and sense of failure that accompanies these lapses in sobriety.
When a friend or a family member is trying to overcome addiction, take a moment to examine their family history:
Are there other substance abuse disorders in the family?
Is there a history of mental illness?
Can you recall someone saying that they never feel hungover or that they have an addictive personality?
Has your loved one experienced some kind of trauma in their life?
Believe it or not, knowing that genetics plays a role isn’t a crutch for continuing behavior — actually, it’s far from it. It actually provides a sense of relief to the person battling addiction. It’s not an excuse; it’s motivation. When we feel stressed or pressured — as people with addiction often do when they start recovery — turning back to our substance of choice to cope is highly tempting. But if you are aware of how nature and nurture are combined in your journey, you have a higher chance of success.
When doctors look for an “addiction gene,” they really mean genetic predispositions that may make you more or less susceptible to addiction. Remember, your genetic makeup won’t doom you as an inevitable addict. It won’t mean that you can never stay sober or that you will always struggle with recovery. It is just another piece of the puzzle to help you create a picture of a happier, healthier you.