Understanding Addiction and the Root Causes of Substance Use Disorder

by | Nov 8, 2023

In the shadows of addiction lies a unique hidden code, a genetic blueprint, that can have a drastic influence on the course of one’s battle with substance abuse. Beyond the conventional and societal narratives that addiction stems solely from personal choices and difficult life experiences, there is a much deeper layer of understanding that is a critical piece of the puzzle. The truth is, addiction can be intrinsically linked to genetics.

Now, there are certainly other factors that impact an individual’s likelihood of experiencing substance use disorder in their lifetime, like trauma or simply exposure. However, the hereditary realm of addiction has revealed that it plays a much larger role in substance use disorder than mainstream narratives would have you believe. Extensive research has emerged around the enigmatic role of specific genes and alleles, and how some individuals are more vulnerable to developing substance dependencies than others based on their specific genetics.

Cultivating a deeper understanding of the role of genetics in addiction can be supportive for individuals who are struggling with substance use disorder, and their families, and for developing more personalized strategies for addiction recovery. As a substance abuse recovery center, Zia Recovery Center is committed to destigmatizing addiction, and sharing this important information on the genetic component of addiction with our community is a key way of doing this.

Genetics and Substance Use Disorder: Is Addiction Genetic?

Before we dive into the intrinsic connection between genetics and addiction, it is important to have a developed understanding of what exactly substance use disorder (SUD) is. SUD is best understood as a complex medical condition characterized by a person’s compulsive use of substances such as drugs or alcohol, despite the harmful consequences it inflicts on their life and well-being.

While environmental, social, and psychological factors have long been recognized as prominent contributors to SUD, the genetic component of addiction unveils a fascinating layer of understanding. Hereditary addiction, also known as familial or genetic predisposition, relates to the notion that addiction can run in families due to shared genetic factors. Family history plays a pivotal role in this aspect, as individuals with close relatives who have struggled with addiction can be at a higher risk of developing SUD themselves.

For some, understanding the gravity of the information outlined above is hard to accept. But science speaks volumes. Let’s take a closer look.

Twin and adoption studies have provided compelling evidence for the genetic component of addiction. In a study done by Gambling Research Exchange Ontario, researchers found that there “is a moderate to strong genetic influence on addiction to drugs and alcohol, such that 30-70% of the variability in risk of developing addiction can be explained by genetic contributions.” Additionally, they determined that these genetics could increase the risk for individuals to experience sustained difficulty with substance use and abuse. That being said, the matter of addiction is dependent on multiple genes, and some genes may have a higher risk factor than others.

In another study focused on family and adoption studies of illicit drug use, researchers found that “risk of drug abuse was twice as high among those with first-degree (parent or sibling) biological relatives with drug abuse compared to adoptees without an affected first degree relative” (Kendler et al., 2012). These two studies are powerful examples of the relationship between genetics and addiction.

The Role of Genes: A Predisposition to Addiction

At the biological level, the dopamine receptors and reward pathways in the brain play a crucial role in addiction. Dopamine, often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, is associated with pleasure and reward. When an individual consumes substances that lead to an increase in dopamine levels, such as drugs or alcohol, it can create a euphoric sensation, reinforcing the desire for continuous use. Notably, genetic variations in dopamine receptors can affect how sensitive an individual’s reward system is, making some people more prone to addictive behaviors.

Serotonin, another neurotransmitter, influences mood regulation, appetite and digestion, and emotional well-being. In the context of addiction, imbalances in serotonin levels can cause mental health issues and withdrawal. This connection highlights that addiction can be both a cause and consequence of mental health issues, demonstrating the intricate relationship between genetics and mood regulation in the development and perpetuation of substance abuse.

While genes provide a foundational understanding of addiction susceptibility, it is absolutely essential to recognize the broader context of brain chemistry and its interaction with environmental stressors in comprehending the root causes of addiction.

Root Causes of Addiction: Genes and Beyond

The root causes of addiction are a complex amalgamation of genetic and environmental factors. While genetic predisposition can significantly increase vulnerability to addiction, other factors like childhood trauma, mental health issues, and peer pressure play a substantial role.

Genetic underpinnings, including alleles and receptors, can make certain individuals more vulnerable to addictive behaviors. However, it is the interaction between these genetic elements and life experiences, societal influences, and psychological well-being that truly shapes the development and progression of addiction.

Understanding the multifaceted nature of addiction is crucial for tailoring effective prevention and treatment strategies that address both the genetic and environmental components.

The Role of Alleles in Addiction

If this is the first time you’re hearing the word ‘allele,’ you are in the right place! Alleles are alternative forms of a gene, and they can play a significant role in addiction. Specific alleles have been associated with an increased susceptibility to substance abuse, and may influence an individual’s response to certain substances.

For example, certain alleles related to dopamine receptors can affect how strongly the brain’s reward system responds to different drugs or alcohol. Alleles associated with addiction can either enhance or reduce an individual’s risk, highlighting the importance of genetic variations in determining one’s vulnerability to addiction.

Think about this: two people in a room are about to try the same substance for the first time together. The specific alleles present in these individuals could very well determine whether or not they feel compelled to try that same substance again.

Substance Abuse Rehabilitation: Zia Recovery Center

In the ever-evolving landscape of addiction research and treatment, understanding the role of genetics has emerged as a recognized key player. Cultivating the knowledge of how certain genes and alleles can alleviate or mitigate addiction risk is transformative, and can pave the way for more personalized treatment approaches.

At Zia Recovery Center, we are committed to offering recovery spaces and treatment to our clients with the understanding that genetic predisposition plays an intrinsic role in an individuals’ experience with SUD. If you or your loved one is seeking deeper support, please contact our team of recovery specialists to learn more.

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