Genes and Addiction: How to Use the Link Between Them to Your Advantage
If you’re worried whether or not you have genes linked to addiction, it’s not the end of the world if you do. You are most definitely not doomed.
Did you ever have a friend tell you about a rough day they had?
“… I went home, and the first thing I did was pour myself a drink,” is how they start wrapping up the conversation.
Then they top it off with one of the most unrelatable and weirdest sentences you’ve ever heard:
“I didn’t even finish it,” they sigh, “Just enough to take the edge off, and then I went to bed early.”
You nod and chuckle like you know exactly what they mean, but you’re babbling in your head:
“Didn’t eve—… What? Just left it there? Yeah, I can’t relate to that at all.”
It’s not fair!
You’ve been hooked, pretty much since day one, and yet some people can have one drink, one cigarette, one hit, and never touch the stuff again, no problem?
It must be nice.
But what is it about those people?
Are they simply superior beings?
Are you just weak?
Are they just blessed with superior genes?
There’s actually a good chance they do have some really great genes.
Or at least lack some genetic predispositions you were lucky enough to inherit.
So why don’t your genes allow you to try an addictive substance once and walk away unscathed?
Disclaimer: There is NO one gene a person can have that is the sole cause of their addiction.
Your genes aren’t the end-all-be-all of addiction in your life.
They do determine how “at risk” you are for developing a substance use disorder (SUD).
Being aware of any possible predispositions is a HUGE advantage to preventing addiction.
Knowing the reason (aka science) behind our behaviors is one of the most powerful ways to go about changing them.
So, let’s dig into the science!
The Difference Between a Genetic Condition and Genetic Predisposition
An addiction is not a genetic condition. A genetic condition is having a gene for which an outcome is there at birth or inevitably going to develop.
For example, green eyes, sex, and a longer second toe are genetic conditions.
They’re predetermined and outside factors do not trigger or influence them.
Having a genetic predisposition just means you have the gene, but it may not be activated.
You could be at a higher probability of developing something you don’t have at birth, but it’s not an absolute fate.
Being genetically predisposed means the expression of those genes can be triggered by environmental factors.
How do scientists link specific genes to addiction?
The DNA of any two human beings is 99.6% identical.
That .4% covers a lot of ground (12 million base pairs), considering how different one individual can be from another, not just in appearance, but in health and personality as well.
A Brief Review of DNA Structure
A person’s entire genome looks like two, extremely long sets of letters (A, T, C, and G bases). One set from their mother, and one set from their father.
Nucleotides are the bases plus the attached sugar-phosphate backbone.
Researchers now have access to technology that allows them to comb through a person’s entire genome.
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) is one example of this technology that helps scientists analyze that .1% that makes each of us unique.
Within that small percentage, researchers can find even more distinctive, small DNA sequence variations.
These tiny variations are called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”).
SNPs are single-letter differences in a person’s DNA sequence compared to another.
This is great for linking genes to distinctive characteristics.
Genes and gene variations directly affecting a person’s risk for diabetes, breast and ovarian cancers, obesity, mental health disorders, and addiction have been found using technology like GWAS.
To find SNPs and genes that link to addiction, researchers can use GWAS to search many individuals with SUDs and compare their DNA sequences.
If any common SNPs stand out within the group, it’s likely those variations directly affect the individuals’ risk of addiction.
Once common SNPs within the group are found, scientists know which genes to focus on for pinpointing links between those genes and addiction. It also advances treatment options that would target those specific genes.
What are some specific genes associated with addiction?
A variation of this gene, ALDH2*2, directly affects the ability to break down and metabolize alcohol efficiently
A high gene expression level for this gene is associated with cannabis use disorders.
This gene has been proven to be associated with nicotine dependence.
GABRA2 & CHRM2
These two genes have been found to affect alcohol use disorders (AUDs) directly.
It was found in mice, that if they made more proteins from this gene, withdrawal symptoms from addictive substances were not as bad.
Per1 and Per2
One study found that mice with variations of these two genes drank more alcohol than normal, even more so when stressed.
Genes and Gene Expression
You have a LOT of genes. You may have some of the genes mentioned above, but having a particular gene and that gene actually being expressed is very different.
Gene expression is the resulting function of a gene that’s been “turned on.”
For example, you could have blue eyes but also have a recessive gene (one that isn’t physically visible) for brown eyes. Recessive genes are not expressed.
As mentioned earlier, eye color is a genetic condition and addiction can be a genetic predisposition, but the principle is the same:
You can have a gene that’s been linked to addiction, but if you haven’t been exposed to anything to make the gene apparent, then the gene isn’t expressed. It’s just there.
Environment, diet, and other outside factors affect gene expression, and can “flip the switch” to activate those genes.
Epigenetics and Addiction
Epigenetics is the study of the effects your environment has on gene expression.
Some people’s families have a bigger number of addicts than others.
Not only does this mean the latest generation is more likely to have genes linked to addiction, but they’re also more likely to be exposed to dangerous substances if the majority of their family uses them.
Exposure falls under “environmental factors.”
So if the youngest member of that family develops a SUD, was it the “addiction genes” or the environment?
It’s hard to say if one had more influence than the other, but easy to say the combination is a crippling one.
Studies have shown that people who have the genetic predisposition to become addicted are less vulnerable to developing SUDs if they’re raised in environments
- Without exposure
- With access to community support
- With access to fun exercise activities
What if a member of an addiction-ridden family doesn’t have the genes associated with addiction?
One man only drinks once or twice a year. Maybe at New Year’s or his sister-in-law’s birthday celebration at the bar.
Sometimes, he doesn’t finish the drink like our friend from the beginning of this article.
His father, however…
Drinks on his way home from work every day.
Doesn’t go anywhere other than work and home because his wife can’t drive, let alone be his DD.
It’s rare he’s seen without a beer can nearby.
His three uncles?
- One died in his forties from alcohol-related liver disease.
- One has been in recovery from alcohol for 20+ years.
- One is on oxygen from years of smoking.
It’s pretty safe to say addiction runs in this guy’s family, right?
It’s safe to say he’s spent ample time around his father and uncles in his childhood because they are a tight-knit family. Their houses are within 20 yards of each other.
How is this guy not an addict?
Did the genes skip a generation?
Does this guy fight harder against any initial urges because he’s seen the damage they do up close?
Unless he spits in a tube and submits it to a research team looking for genes associated with addiction, the answer is unknown.
However, the fact that his family is riddled with addiction and he’s been exposed to it regularly makes it very likely he does not have the genetic predisposition that would increase his risk of addiction.
Can people who don’t have genes linked to addiction become addicted?
Unfortunately, yes. Exposure, stress, peer pressure, traumatic events, and other outside factors can open the gate for anyone to become addicted.
How do you know if you have genetic markers for addiction?
If addiction runs in your family, there’s a good chance you have genetic predispositions, to put it bluntly.
However, this does NOT mean addiction is a fate that’s set in stone.
What it does mean is that you’re probably susceptible to developing a SUD if your environment exposes you to certain substances.
You can use this to your advantage.
If you know your family struggles with impulse behavior and addiction, be more cautious about the environments you put yourself in.
If addiction is not well-established among your family, but you’d like to know how much “wiggle room” you have to try alcohol, a cigarette, or recreational drugs, look at your family’s compulsive tendencies.
Most genes linked to addiction are not labeled “should never drink alcohol” but are identified and linked to behavioral genes.
If you’re adopted, ask yourself if you struggle with self-control in other areas of your life.
If the answer is yes, you should be more cautious around addictive substances to be safe.
What else can you do to lower your chances of developing a SUD?
- “Prime” your environment.
Being exposed to drugs and alcohol, alone, is enough to open the door to addiction, even for people who aren’t genetically predisposed.
- Take care of your mental health.
Mental health disorders are heavily linked to substance use. So many SUDs begin with a person trying to cope with mental struggles.
- Avoid addictive substances altogether.
A lot of people entering recovery are dumbfounded to find people who spend days, nights, weekends, and the rest of their lives not using. It exists, it’s more common than you think, and it’s a great (surprisingly satisfying) way to live.
There isn’t a single gene scientists would describe as a “marker for inevitable alcoholism” or “will be addicted to cocaine.”
Most genes linked to addiction are behavioral genes that dictate our impulse control.
Researchers use genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to connect certain genes like these to higher risks of addiction.
Finding these variations provides better and more specific treatments for people who suffer from addiction and have these genetic markers.
Having genes is different from experiencing a gene expression. Just because you might be more prone to have an addiction does not mean that is the only path for you.
A person with an addiction and the genes associated with it cannot blame their genes. Environment influenced their addiction as well.
People without a genetic predisposition for addiction can become addicted purely because of environmental factors.
If you’re already struggling with addiction, these advances in science and technology hopefully help provide you some clarity, hope, and direction.
Knowing that the odds were likely stacked against you will make your recovery and your comeback story all the more inspiring.
You can break the generational curse and reduce your children’s risk of developing an addiction with this knowledge.
Contact us if you’re interested in learning more about effective treatment.