The Genetics Of Drug And Alcohol Addiction

What Are Genes & Why Do They Matter To Me?

Genes (say: jeenz) play an important role in determining physical traits — how we look and lots of other stuff about us.

They carry information that makes you who you are and what you look like: curly or straight hair, long or short legs, even how you might smile or laugh. Many of these things are passed from one generation to the next in a family by genes.

Genes carry the information that determines your traits (say: trates), which are features or characteristics that are passed on to you or inherited from your parents. Each cell in the human body contains about 25,000 to 35,000 genes.

For example, if both of your parents have green eyes, you might inherit the trait for green eyes from them. Or if your mum has freckles, you might have freckles too because you inherited the trait for freckles. Genes aren’t just found in humans — all animals and plants have genes, too.

Where are these important? Well, they are so small you can’t see them. Genes are found on tiny spaghetti-like structures called chromosomes (say: KRO-moh-somes). And chromosomes are found inside cells. Your body is made of billions of cells.

When There Are Problems With Genes

Scientists are very busy studying genes for many years and new discoveries are still being made every day.

They want to know which proteins each gene makes and what those proteins do. They also want to know what illnesses are caused by genes that don’t work right.

Genes that have been changed are called mutations. Researchers think that mutations may be partly to blame for lung problems, cancer and many other illnesses. Other illnesses and health problems happen when there are missing genes or extra parts of genes or chromosomes. This is also how your susceptibility toward developing an addiction or addictive behaviours can be inherited and passed on from your family.

The Role Of Family History

Did you know: Addiction is due 50% to genetic predisposition and 50% to poor coping skills or adopting negative management strategies or behaviours.

These statistics have been confirmed by numerous studies over time. One study looked at 861 identical twin pairs and 653 fraternal (non-identical) twin pairs. When one identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin had a high probability of being addicted. But when one non-identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin did not necessarily have an addiction.

Based on the differences between the identical and non-identical twins, the study showed 50-60% of addiction is due to genetic factors. Those numbers have been confirmed by other studies. The other 50% is due to poor coping skills, such as dealing with stress or uncomfortable emotions in negative ways (i.e. using drugs or alcohol) or by adopting other negative/addictive behaviours.

Did you know: The children of addicts are 8x more likely to develop an addiction than those who don’t.

One study looked at 231 people who were diagnosed with drug or alcohol addiction, and compared them to 61 people who did not have an addiction.

Then it looked at the first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, or children) of those people. It discovered that if a parent has a drug or alcohol addiction, the child had an 8 times greater chance of developing an addiction.

Why Are There Genes For Addictions?

We all have the genetic predisposition for addiction because there is an evolutionary advantage to that. When an animal eats a certain food that it likes, there is an advantage to associating pleasure with that food so that the animal will look for that food in the future.

In other words, the potential for addiction is hardwired into our brain. Everyone has eaten too much of their favorite food even though they knew it wasn’t good for them.

Although everyone has the potential for addiction, some people are more predisposed to addiction than others. Some people drink alcoholically from the beginning. Other people start out as a moderate drinker and then become alcoholics later on.

How Does That Happen?

Did you know: Repeatedly abusing drugs or alcohol permanently rewires your brain.

If you start out with a low genetic predisposition for addiction, you can still end up with an addiction. If you repeatedly abuse drugs or alcohol because of poor coping skills, then you’ll permanently rewire your brain. Every time you abuse alcohol, you’ll strengthen the wiring associated with drinking, and you’ll chase that buzz even more. The more you chase the effect of alcohol, the greater your chance of eventually developing an addiction.

Your Genes Are Not Your Destiny

The 50% of addiction that is caused by poor coping skills is where you can make a difference. Lots of people have come from addicted families but managed to overcome their family history and live happy lives. You can use this opportunity to change your life.

Being aware of addiction in your family can help you to watch out for tell tale signs of developing an addiction. After all, awareness and knowledge is power!

You can learn more about the actual science behind addiction and the brain in our previous article here.

What Is Your Family History?

Most families don’t talk about addiction. Addiction was a taboo subject in past times, and some families still see it that way in these present times.

Those without knowledge or awareness of addiction are only aware of myths, lies and misinformation and base their assumptions on what they see or have been told their family or friends when addiction was “not seen or heard!”

Not too long ago you could have a raging alcoholic in your family and nobody would talk about it. Or they would make some quaint remark like, “Oh he drinks a little too much.” There was so little people could do about addiction before that, so there was no point in talking about it or risk loosing their family, friends, job and everything else as research and awareness didn’t exist!

Did you know: Addiction was thought of as a moral failing or a choice in past times. However, with ever increasing knowledge, research and awareness, we now know (and the general public) that it is a medical condition, just as diabetes or asthma is.

But now that you can do something about addiction, a family history is worth talking about.

Once you stop using or drinking and tell your family and friends that you have an addiction or are in recovery, that’s often when they will tell you about the family secrets. That’s when family members will sometimes come out of the closet and tell you their stories of past struggles. However, this information could sometimes help others to recognise and see that they too may have an addiction or are heading in that direction. That’s why communication is vital when it comes to addiction. Talking about it takes the fear and loneliness out of this sneaky, isolating disease!

Families who have addicted members in the home each often fall into one of a number of roles. Find out what your role is as well as other members in your household here.

Other Contributing Factors

Other contributing factors such as any mental health conditions, physical health conditions, problems at home or work, financial issues, criminal convictions and external influences such as the friends and those you socialise with.

Let Your Coping Skills & Strategies Be Your Legacy You Pass Onto Your Children & Family

Don’t let your genes be the only legacy you pass on to your children. Your children are more likely to have an addiction because of your addiction. But their genes don’t have to be their destiny. You can help your children lead happy lives by teaching them healthy coping skills, by being an example with your recovery. Being forewarned is being forearmed!

Is Addiction Really A Disease?

Consider heart disease, it’s partly due to genes and partly due to poor life style choices such as bad diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. The same is true for other common diseases like adult-onset diabetes.

Many forms of cancers are due to a combination of genes and life style. But if your doctor said that you had diabetes or heart disease, you wouldn’t think you were bad person. You would think, “What can I do to overcome this disease?” That is how you and others should approach addiction.

Addiction is just like most other major diseases and like those, recovery from your disease is possible!

Addiction Is Not A Weakness Or Moral Failing

The fact that addiction crosses all socio-economic boundaries and doesn’t make exceptions or discriminate confirms that addiction is a disease.

People who don’t know about addiction will tell you that you just need to be stronger to control your use, that it’s a choice, weren’t raised properly or not trying hard enough, but if that was true then only unsuccessful people or unmotivated people would have an addiction.

Did you know: 10-15% of high-functioning executives have an addiction or meet the typical “criteria” for an addiction or having addictive behaviours.

If you think of addiction as a weakness, you’ll paint yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of, reduce your optimism for success and give yourself an unnecessarily hard time!

You’ll focus on being stronger and trying to control your use, instead of treating addiction like a disease and focusing on stopping your use.


If at least one of your family members are addicted to alcohol or drugs, you have a greater chance of developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol too. Cross addiction occurs because all addictions work in the same part of the brain. If your brain is wired so that you’re predisposed to one addiction, then you’re predisposed to all addictions and addictive behaviours.

Did you know: One addiction can lead to other addictions and one drug can make you relapse on another drug.

For example, this often happens when someone gives up heroin, but to cope, drinks alcohol instead and then becomes addicted to alcohol.

That’s one of the consequences of a brain that’s pre-wired for addiction. Suppose you’re addicted to cocaine. If you want to stop using cocaine then you have to stop using all addictive drugs including alcohol and marijuana.

You may never have had a problem with either of them, but if you continue to use alcohol or marijuana, even casually, they’ll eventually lead you back to your drug of choice or cause you to become addicted to a different substance or when intoxicated or high, you can make reckless or dangerous decisions that you would make if you were sober or clean. That’s why recovery requires total abstinence FROM ALL SUBSTANCES!

How Can A Cross-Addiction Cause A Relapse?

  1. All addictions work in the same part of the brain. Addiction is addiction is addiction. Therefore one drug can lead you back to any other drug.
  2. Even moderate drinking, or smoking marijuana lowers your inhibitions, which makes it harder for you to make the right choices and increases your risk of making bad decisions.
  3. If you stop using or drinking your drug or alcohol of choice but continue to use alcohol or marijuana, you’re saying that you don’t want to learn new coping skills and that you don’t want to change your life.
  4. You’re saying that you want to continue to rely on drugs or alcohol to escape, relax, and reward yourself. But if you don’t learn those new skills, then you won’t have changed and your addiction will catch up with you all over again.

Drug & Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Addiction is no longer something that has to be hidden away or something to be ashamed of. There are treatments that have been scientifically investigated and have a large body of evidence that shows that they can and do work when the individual is ready for change, want change and be willing to work hard for it/maintain it and are hopeful for a new, more positive, prosperous future.

When detoxing, you may experience withdrawal symptoms if your body has become dependent on substances to function “normally”. You can find ways to manage these by following our top 20 ideas, tips, tricks and coping strategies for coping with withdrawal symptoms here.

Many people have reached out for addiction treatment and have changed their lives. There are many addiction treatment options including charities, organisations, groups, community based drug and alcohol services and residential rehabilitation centres among others who can help you.

You have already taken the first step towards ending your active addiction, into treatment and moving on with a happier, less stressful way of life!

You have asked the question, “Do I have an addiction?” You can find out whether you may have an addiction by looking at our article, discussing this very issue and taking our mini test to see whether you may be at risk of addiction or have an addiction here.

Take the next step and change your life and ask for help, learn addiction recovery skills, gain knowledge and awareness and develop relapse prevention skills so that you don’t have to continue to suffer.

You can find contact information for charities, groups and organisations who can help you and those around you with your addiction or addictive behaviours on our help and support page here.

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Published by Drink ’n’ Drugs

Providing useful, relevant, up to date information and support for those suffering from active addiction or those who are in recovery.

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