Is Addiction Genetic?

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Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction

Is Addiction Genetic?

A common question when it comes to addiction is why do some individuals struggle with it while others do not? The American Psychological Association defines addiction as “a chronic disorder with biological, psychological, social and environmental factors influencing its development and maintenance.”

It is believed that genetics play a strong role in the disposition of addiction. However, it is not the only factor, as environmental factors play their own part.

How Does Addiction Work?

It is important to look at the basic neurobiological circuit framework when trying to understand why this recurring cycle occurs in addiction and drug abuse. The basal ganglia is responsible for the binge/intoxication stage, while the extended amygdala and habenula are responsible for the withdrawal and negative affect stage.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), insula, and allocortex control the anticipation or craving stage. It’s important to note that this framework has continued to evolve, but this cycle is more or less the same recurring cycle that persists in individuals that struggle with addiction.

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How Is Addiction Genetic?

Half the risk or susceptibility of an individual to have a drug addiction comes from their genetic makeup. As a result, scientists have focused on studying the biological relationship between genes and addiction to better help those who struggle with drug addiction.

For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is currently supporting research that studies what gene variations, in particular, make an individual more susceptible to being addicted to drugs.

Scientists have been mapping the human genome and isolating gene sequences, and in particular to drug addiction, they have been able to isolate sequences that show a larger risk for drug addiction. Gene sequences hold information or “instructions” for creating specific proteins.

These proteins, when expressed, can determine the vulnerability of an individual to addiction to drugs. The further that scientists study the influence of these gene sequences and proteins and how they are expressed, the better interventions and therapies can be developed for those predisposed to drug addiction.

It is important to note that for those who have moderate to high heritability of addictive disorders, the addiction originally depends on whether the addictive substance is available and if the individual decides to use it. Additionally, the availability of the addictive substance can be influenced by culture, religion, socioeconomic status of the individual, and regional politics and laws.

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What Percentage of Addiction is Genetic?

Scientists have further studied the heritability of addiction and have found that genetics account for 40-60% of an individual’s susceptibility to addiction.

Role of Environment in Addiction

It seems fair to say that “nature” AND “nurture” both influence an individual’s propensity to become addicted to alcohol and drugs.

Stress-induced by stressful environments, upbringings, and trauma can affect an individual’s choices and behavior. For example, an individual with a stressful job or difficult childhood could resort to alcohol or drugs to escape their anxiety and environmental stress.

This situation alone should be a fair statement to make that “addiction is both created and maintained by factors external to the individual.” Additionally, if an individual does not have healthy coping mechanisms or outlets to turn to, their desire to turn to a substance is much greater.

Some individuals are exposed to tragedy or were raised around individuals who struggled with addiction themselves, and these individuals have a higher likelihood of forming a relationship with substance abuse later in life.

Additional environmental factors that could contribute to one dealing with substance abuse are:

  • Losing a loved one
  • Financial insecurity / Losing job
  • High stress-related triggers
  • Growing up around drug users
  • Family dynamics
  • Having a mental illness
  • Social friend groups
  • Social media
  • Entertainment/media as a whole
  • Culture/Religion
  • Learned environment (ex: happy hour drinks or after-work drinks)

This is a non exhaustive list because, truly, many environmental factors are unique to the individual and what they consider a high-stress trigger for themselves.

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Changing Ones Environment To Help With Recovery


Becoming aware of one’s environmental triggers and recognizing that a change needs to be made is the first step to get help with addiction.

  1. Psychotherapy – Understanding one’s past and how it affects them in the present will allow them to understand why they behave, react, and think a certain way. As a result, they will be able to reframe their behaviors and transform a habit with an informed understanding of themselves. You can find your triggers in your day-to-day life, which may be the important key to changing the relationship one has with their addictive behavior.
  2. Relationships – One can choose to change the nature of their relationships, changing what they do with their friends and family members when they spend time with one another—being intentional with why this change is necessary for oneself. An example would be changing the time one hangs out with others when they know they will engage in certain activities that they personally do not want to partake in.
  3. Social Media – Unfollow or hide content that makes one feel “less than” or plays on their insecurities. Reassessing what information one is consuming and following content that can make them feel good, inspired, and motivated is a way to change the framework they are operating from.
  4. Media – Paying attention to what media one is consuming and if it triggers them (bringing negative emotions for them), it’s important to recognize how it’s making them feel. Then, one can choose to avoid the content entirely until they feel ready to expose themselves to small amounts of content when they are ready and feel as though they can overcome their triggers.
  5. Community – the community and cultural norms that one is surrounded by can be a big environmental factor for an individual struggling with addiction. Having an open and honest conversation with oneself and with those they trust in their community about what is making them uncomfortable is a good first step to combating addiction.

Concerning environmental factors for drug and alcohol addiction, it is important to recognize one’s individual triggers and make changes from there.

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So Is Addiction Genetic Or Environmental?

As with most things in life, this isn’t that simple to answer. The short of it is that It can be both.

While many individuals believe that those that struggle with drug and alcohol addiction should be able to just stop using, we know now that it is not that simple. In fact, it is much more complicated and nuanced than the average person knows.

Addiction is a chronic condition that changes the individual’s brain chemistry, so much so that it’s no longer in their control for them to simply stop. So instead, have compassion for individuals dealing with addiction and, if possible, try to guide them to seek professional help.

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Addiction Treatment

Whether genetic or not, addiction doesn’t just go away by itself. Drug and Alcohol treatment is necessary for long term recovery. Reach out today to get started on a path of recovery and healing.

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