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Can You Overcome Addiction If It’s Genetic?


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teens in an addiction recovery support group

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), about half of a person’s chances of developing a drug addiction can be linked to their genetic makeup. But a genetic link to addiction does not doom someone to becoming an addict, nor does it mean they can’t recover should they develop an addiction. Like other chronic illnesses with a genetic component such as heart disease, addiction does run in families, but that doesn’t make it inevitable or unmanageable.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that approximately 1 in 8 children under the age of 17 live with a parent with substance use disorder (SUD). About 1 in 10 children live with at least one parent with alcohol use disorder, and about 1 in 35 children live in households with at least one parent with an illicit drug use disorder.

These numbers showcase how important it is for people to be aware of the genetic risk associated with addiction to make more informed choices about their decisions to drink or take drugs.

Causes of Addiction

A variety of environmental factors, in addition to genetics, play a significant role in whether a person develops an addiction. Contributing risk factors include:

  • Mental health disorder
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of family involvement
  • Use in early life
  • Taking a highly addictive drug

People who live with any form of mental health disorder, such as depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or post-traumatic stress disorder, are at an increased risk of addiction to alcohol or drugs. Many people may use substances to manage issues and feelings linked to their mental illness. Someone dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues simultaneously is experiencing a condition known as co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis.

An individual who begins using drugs or drinking at a younger age is often more likely to become addicted. Additionally, young people without a positive home environment or little parental supervision have an increased chance of developing an addiction.

Gene Studies and Addiction Research

Scientists have made many advances in recent years in understanding the role that genetics plays in a host of diseases, including addiction. They have used technologies including genome sequencing, or GWAS, and exome sequencing to find out more.

Researchers utilize GWAS and other types of genome sequencing to find and study connections between specific genes and disorders. This can help them determine if a particular genetic makeup makes it more likely that a person may develop addiction.

Exome sequencing enables scientists to identify single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), a type of DNA sequence. Subtle variations in these appear more often in people with a particular disease than in those who don’t have that disease. The differences in SNPs are just a single letter of the genetic code that changes from one person to another.

Genetic Testing for Addiction

Genetic tests exist that promise to tell someone their risk of developing an addiction. However, the science behind these tests is not as precise yet as it could be.

For example, research conducted at Indiana University recently revealed that the researchers could determine, with increased accuracy, a person’s genetic susceptibility to alcohol abuse by studying a panel of 11 genes.

While this sounds like extremely promising news, the researchers have acknowledged that the gene evaluation worked better as a statistical tool for assessing risks of alcohol abuse across a population rather than on an individual level. This means that anyone hoping to use the research as a way of determining their own predisposition for alcoholism would be disappointed.

Even with more accurate genetic testing, addiction would not be eliminated. This is because addiction is complex. Studies indicate that both environmental influences and genetics have the potential to change over time, meaning a person’s risk of addiction also changes over their lifetime.

Other studies have indicated that people don’t always respond as scientists and health care experts would hope to news that they may be genetically predisposed to addiction. Researchers from the University of Sydney reported that when told they had a gene for alcoholism, many test subjects assumed they had less control over their drinking and were fated to become alcoholics.

In fact, genetic markers can also highlight potential treatments for addiction. The more researchers can determine the role that genetics play in addiction, the more potential there is for developing new treatments and therapies to combat addiction.

Building on a belief that spiritual development and healthy recovery can bring inner peace to clients overcoming addiction and substance abuse, Into Action Recovery Centers takes a people-centered approach to addiction treatment. Our detox center is conveniently located in Houston, Texas, and our addiction treatment programs are led by experienced counselors and medical professionals who specialize in personalized treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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