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Nature Vs. Nurture: Which Makes Us Addicted? Both, Actually

Is drug and alcohol addiction inherited? Or is it caused by environmental factors?

Most people are aware that addiction seems to run in the family, but you have probably also heard that upbringing or stressful circumstances could lead to drug or alcohol dependence. The truth is that both nature (genes) and nurture (environmental factors) cause addiction vulnerability. What’s more, the two realms can combine to increase the risk of addiction further. Addiction is a complex disease, and its causes are unique in each case.

The good news is that nobody is born an addict. Neither will everyone who experiences negative environmental influences become an addict. More good news: effective drug and alcohol addiction treatment is available if you are addicted, whether the cause was nature, nurture, or a blend of both. You can overcome drug or alcohol dependence, especially when treatment is individualised and focuses on your unique genetic and environmental factors.

Let’s explore nature and nurture in addiction and look at how you can overcome dependence with personalised treatment in a drug and alcohol rehab centre.

Evolutionary biology in addiction

In a way, all humans are genetically predisposed to addiction thanks to our evolution. Humans have learned to prioritise substances or activities that induce pleasure because we are wired to crave pleasure.

It used to make sense the things we find pleasurable today are the things that ensured our species survival back when we were banging rocks together. It is the reason why sweet treats are so addictive. We know too much sugar is bad for us, but our brains make us crave it and forget about the consequences. Why? Because glucose is necessary for fuelling billions of nerve cells in the brain. Sugar was not readily available hundreds of years ago, so our brains rewarded us for making an effort to consume it. We still get that pleasure reward today, even though we can get Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups delivered to our doorstep.

Our brains produce similar feelings of pleasure and gratification when we take drugs. In fact, the anticipation of pleasure and the satisfaction that follows is so powerful that it can completely eclipse the conscious knowledge that drugs are dangerous.

But if we are all wired to crave pleasure, why do some people become addicted to drugs or alcohol while some do not? Let’s dig deeper, first by looking at a famous Hollywood family and their struggles with addiction across multiple generations.

Addiction as a family legacy

Drew Barrymore rose to fame after playing the adorable little sister in Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Drew is a legendary actress, but she was born into a family dynasty notorious for drug and alcohol addiction.

She called herself a party girl from age eight, smoked cigarettes from age nine, and developed an alcohol addiction by the time she was eleven years old. She was frequently spotted in nightclubs with her mother, Ildiko Jaid Barrymore, before her thirteenth birthday. She developed a fondness for drugs at Studio 54 and the China Club in New York. After turning thirteen, she spent eighteen months in hospital receiving drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

Her father, actor and poet John Barrymore, has a long history of drug arrests and alcohol addiction. Her grandfather, actor John Barrymore, drank himself to death at age sixty. Her Aunt, Diana Barrymore, candidly discussed her drug and alcohol addiction in her best-seller Too Much, Too Soon.

The legacy of addiction passed from generation to generation in the Barrymore family is clear to see. Research backs up the casual observer by showing that children of addicted parents are eight times more likely to abuse substances at some point in their lives than other children. Scientists have concluded that a family history of drug disorder is one of the most potent risk factors for the development of drug and/or alcohol addiction. Male children of male alcohol addicts are four to nine times more likely to abuse alcohol than the general population.

Of course, genetics rarely tell the whole story. Members of the same family share the same environment, making it difficult to determine whether genes or nurture is to blame. Drew Barrymore was definitely exposed to adverse environmental factors no twelve year old should be taking drugs with their mum in New York nightclubs. One way scientists isolate the genetic component is by conducting twin and adoption studies.

Twin studies compare identical and non-identical twins to examine the genetic component of addiction vulnerability. Identical twins have 100% matching genes, allowing researchers to find definite links between genetics and addiction. One study found that when one individual in a pair of identical twins was addicted to a substance, there was a high likelihood that the other was also addicted. A correlation exists for non-identical twins, but it is looser.

Adoption studies show that adoptees are at higher risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction if their biological parents had an addiction or severe psychiatric illness. In fact, some studies show that adopted babies conceived by addict parents and then raised in sober adoptive homes have the same risk of developing addiction as they would have had if they had stayed with their biological parents.

Genetics in addiction

Cells under microscope

You are probably wondering how much genes influence your risk of addiction. According to research, it accounts for 50 to 60 percent of the risk. The keyword here is addiction risk, though addiction itself is never inherited. Only the risk of developing an addiction is inherited. There is no such thing as a born addict.

We inherit genes from our parents. Genes determine our hair and eye colour, our height, and can even influence the way we smile or laugh. You have around 22,333 genes in your body just over twice as many as a fruit fly. More are likely to be found as genome mapping advancements are made. Genetics research shows our vulnerability to addiction is affected by our genes.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as one addiction gene that could be altered or removed to decrease the risk of addiction. Instead, multiple genes influence vulnerability, including how likely someone is to:

  • start using
  • enjoy using
  • continue using
  • feel the consequences of using

Scientists identify addiction genes by finding biological differences that make someone more or less susceptible to addiction. Humans are unreliable for assessing the impact of genetic factors in addiction because we are exposed to so many uncontrollable environmental factors. Scientists use mice instead. Several addiction genes have been catalogued already, including:

  • Mice without the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b find cocaine and alcohol more alluring than mice with the gene.
  • Mice with a defective Per2 gene drink three times more alcohol than mice with a fully functional Per2 gene.
  • Mice with an increased expression of the Mpdz gene experience less severe withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates, which suggests that humans with a decreased expression of this gene find it more difficult to detox from those drugs.

Impulsiveness in addiction

You know your friend who gets into bar fights? Or that cousin who gets his kicks by making risky financial decisions? Some people’s genes make them more likely to exhibit higher measures of impulsiveness, especially in stressful situations. Impulsive individuals are more likely to act before thinking about consequences, feel invincible, escalate negative behaviours, and struggle to halt a behaviour once it starts.

People with a genetic predisposition to impulsiveness who also have a genetic predisposition to addiction vulnerability are more likely to develop drug or alcohol addiction than the general population.

Here is how that might work: an individual without the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b might find alcohol irresistible. If they are impulsive, too, they might keep drinking after other individuals would choose to stop. You can see how this blend of genes and impulsive behaviour could lead to addiction.

Cross-addiction an addictive personality

Studies have found evidence that people can inherit a tendency to become addicted to several different substances. People addicted to one substance may be more likely to be addicted to others too because of genetic factors. For example, genome mapping has found that the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene DRD2 is more common in people addicted to alcohol and cocaine. The tendency towards addiction to multiple substances is known as cross-addiction.

Cross-addiction can make recovery from addiction particularly tricky. A person recovering from one addiction can become addicted to another substance. The temptation to transfer dependence from one harmful substance to another substance, sex, gambling, exercise, food, or spending money is powerful in cross-addiction situations. It is especially important to seek treatment in a drug and alcohol rehab centre in these cases so you can learn how to replace unhealthy behaviour with non-addictive, non-harmful activities.

Can genes be changed?

Genetics cannot be changed. You might dye your brown hair blonde, but your genes will always push brown hair out of your head. Addiction genes work in the same way. They will always be present, pushing their own agenda, increasing your risk of abusing drugs or alcohol.

But do not despair. You are not doomed to be an addict if you have a family history of addiction. You can learn how to live healthily with addiction genes during treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab centre. You will find recovery much easier by learning coping strategies from professional counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists during therapy.

Nurture in addiction

Two kids walking up the stairs

Genes are not the whole story in addiction. Factors like lifestyle, upbringing, mental health, demographics, and environment all play a part to influence the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction. Research suggests that nurture contributes 40 to 50 percent of the risk of addiction.

Maybe you thought that if your family has no history of alcohol addiction you can drink with impunity, right? Wrong. Alcohol abuse can lead to dependence whether your genes make you more predisposed to addiction or not.

Upbringing in addiction

A child raised by caring authoritative parents is less likely to develop addiction than a child raised by permissive, neglectful, or authoritarian parents.

Authoritative parents praise their children’s accomplishments, guide them towards success, and provide encouragement to improve. The child learns how to problem-solve effectively, regulate their emotions, express themselves maturely, and develop strategies against damaging thoughts that usually appear before substance abuse occurs. Children of authoritative parents are better equipped to make good decisions about drugs or alcohol. Raising a child in this style may offset any genetic predisposition a child has for risk of addiction.

Childhood trauma in addiction

The word trauma is used to describe emotionally painful negative events that overwhelm a child’s ability to cope. It can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has published data stating that children who experience childhood trauma have higher rates of substance use and abuse. They use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate which, over time, can develop into physical and psychological dependence. The consequences of childhood trauma can be more severe if the child also has addiction genes.

Early exposure in addiction

Child and teenage brains are more susceptible to drug and alcohol damage. The earlier a child drinks or uses, the more dangerous it can be.

Peer pressure exacerbates the problem. First, humans are social. We all want to feel like part of a group particularly when we are teens. We might take drugs simply to fit in and have fun. Second, developing brains struggle to consider long-term consequences when instant gratification is readily available. It can be difficult to resist when teenagers are pressured by their friends.

A child’s home-life can increase the risk of addiction, too. Children exposed to drinking in the home are more likely to drink at a younger age. This could be because parents who give alcohol to their children or drink in front of them inadvertently show that booze is harmless and enjoyable.

Mental health in addiction

Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are all linked to substance abuse. Individuals with poor coping skills tend to become easily upset, blame others, struggle with receiving praise or criticism, isolate themselves, experience enmeshment, or feel social anxiety. These behaviours can lead to a vicious cycle of stress, self-medication to cope with daily life, and finally addiction. If you have an addiction at the same time you are battling a mental health problem, it is important to receive treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab centre that tackles both factors at the same time.

Relationships in addiction

Ever heard the phrase, You are the company you keep People around us influence us heavily our friends, family, classmates, colleagues, and community. If you have ever felt a strong desire to drink more at an office party or take drugs with your mates in a nightclub just because everyone around you is doing it, you know how powerfully other people’s actions can influence us.

If everyone you know drinks or uses drugs it can be challenging to develop healthy, sober relationships with new people. In a drug and alcohol rehab centre, therapists and psychologists teach how to set reasonable boundaries and form new, healthy relationships.

Nature and nurture intertwined

Most addictions develop because of a complex interplay between nature and nurture. There are almost unlimited combinations of ways genes and environmental factors can make you more at risk of drug and alcohol addiction.

Having said that, at-risk genes and harmful environmental factors do not guarantee you will become an addict. People with addiction genes might never develop an addiction. People who experience trauma might never develop an addiction. People who have experienced trauma and have addiction genes might never develop an addiction.

But, if you do develop an addiction, effective drug and alcohol addiction treatment is available. In a drug and alcohol rehab centre, professional staff will determine whether nature, nurture, or a blend of both have shaped your addiction. They will work with you to design a personalised treatment programme based on what they find so you can finally overcome addiction for good.

Treatment to overcome addiction

While you can never alter your genetic makeup, you can learn how to cope with the genes you have inherited. While you can never erase past trauma, you can learn how to process it and develop strategies to overcome emotional distress and anxiety in the future.

The Dawn is Asia’s leading drug and alcohol rehab centre. We offer affordable, state-of-the-art detox and personalised one-month treatment programmes in the heart of tropical Northern Thailand.

We use the most up-to-date therapies and technologies to treat addiction and co-occurring mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and trauma. Our Western-trained counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists combine intensive therapies including CBT, MBCT, and MBSR with group counselling and 12-Step support groups to aid your recovery. We also offer cutting-edge transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy in partnership with one of Chiang Ma’s top hospitals to relieve depression and improve mood.

Family Therapy at The Dawn

If your family has a history of addiction, you could benefit from Family Therapy at The Dawn. Dysfunctional relationships can contribute to and perpetuate addiction. Family Therapy counsellors work with you to consider addiction in light of your family’s interactions. Family members who attend therapy with you can learn how to help you gain awareness of your behaviours, learn more about their role in your life, and find ways to strengthen family bonds. They can also work on their own wellbeing, learn how to avoid enabling behaviours, and figure out how to communicate more efficiently. Family members can play a valuable role in your relapse prevention plan and help stop substance abuse spreading further within your family.

Contact us for a no-obligation chat to start your or your loved one’s path to a healthier life today.

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