Families facing an addiction often become freelance detectives, inspecting the clues left behind by the substance abuse and trying to develop a narrative that encapsulates the problem. Often, families spend a significant amount of time wrestling with the concept of origin. Specifically, families often want to know if the problems they’re facing have their roots in genetics or behavior.
It can seem like a silly question, but it can be of vital importance to families facing an addiction issue. After all, problems that can be based on genetics might appear over and over again, hitting the next generation with the same force seen in current family members. Problems based on environment and nurturing, however, might be easier to tackle, as they involve only habit and behavior. These are the problems that might be easily stopped in just one person, without worrying about the impact on the generations yet to come.
Unfortunately, when it comes to addiction, the concept of nature and nurture is hard to untangle. There’s compelling evidence on both sides, and sometimes, a person might have a risk from both genetic factors and environmental concerns.
People who develop an alcoholism issue must choose to drink repeatedly. Having one little sip that doesn’t seem pleasant isn’t likely to spur on an alcoholism issue, as a person who doesn’t enjoy the beverage may not ever return for another drink. Loving the way the alcohol moves in the body, on the other hand, could make an alcoholism problem more likely, as someone who likes the drug is more likely to drink it again.
In the opinion of some researchers, the likeability of alcohol is an issue that’s determined by genetic data. For example, research highlighted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that people of Asian decent have a specific type of gene that makes the experience of alcohol unpleasant. For people with this gene, drinking alcohol means feeling flush and faint, and perhaps slightly nauseated. People like this may not develop alcoholism, because they don’t drink a significant amount.
On the other hand, research published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that some people have a gene variant that allows signals of pleasure to move quickly from one portion of the brain to the other, when alcohol is in play. People like this are more vulnerable to the behavioral changes alcohol can bring, so one little sip causes a big shift in the way they feel and the manner in which they act. Intense changes spurred by a substance are typically associated with an increased risk of addiction, as the brain tends to take note of the cause and effect, and ask for more drugs in return. Someone with this kind of gene might move from social drinking to solo binge drinking in no time at all, mainly because of the genes involved.
There’s also some evidence that genes play a role in impulsivity levels in some people. This is an important finding, as people who are impulsive are typically likely to:
- Act before thinking through the consequences
- Feel invincible, and therefore be more likely to make bad choices
- Escalate their behaviors
- Seem unable to stop a behavior once it starts
This is the kind of behavior that could allow a person to move from simple drinking to full abuse in no time at all, and a study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan Health System suggests that genetic factors tend to explain different impulsivity levels between people. As a result, just having this gene variant could allow people to make catastrophic choices regarding alcohol.
Genes can also play upon one another. For example, a person with the genes for a predisposition for enjoying alcohol could be more likely to drink again, once the first drink has been digested. If this same person had the gene for impulsivity, that person might also choose to keep drinking, even when stopping would be a better option. For people like this, runaway genes seem to be almost exclusively responsible for the poor choices they make. Even so, the behavioral aspect of addiction can’t be completely ruled out. In fact, it could play an important role in both the introduction to alcohol and the choice to keep drinking.
While children may very well inherit genes from their parents that put them at risk for an alcohol addiction issue, they might also pick up habits regarding alcohol from their parents, and these habits could allow an addiction to spring to life. For example, children might watch their parents drink a cocktail each night, and they might even be taught to fetch their parents a drink when asked to do so. These children might grow into adults who also drink nightly, and they might develop consumption patterns that are similar to those seen by their parents. The genes might be passed down, but even adopted children might be at risk of developing mimicking behaviors, and that might lead to an addiction issue.
The behavioral issues that can lead to an addiction don’t end when adulthood begins.
In fact, the people an individual spends time with as an adult can have a profound impact on both drinking habits and the propensity to develop an addiction. For example, research presented in 2012 as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association suggests that women who are currently married drink more than women who have been divorced. Married women might be compelled to drink with their husbands, and they might keep liquor on hand on a regular basis. These two factors could lead them to drink more, and this could make an addiction develop. If single women don’t drink alone or they don’t keep alcohol on hand, they might not ever develop an alcoholism issue. Their behaviors are protective, not their genes.
Women who drink might also do subtle damage to the cells of the brain, and this kind of harm could cause the women to lose control over the amount they drink. For example, according to the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, exposing brain cells to a significant amount of alcohol over a long period of time can mean damaging the cells to such a degree that it becomes more difficult for the person to control behavior. The brain’s changes make the person more impulsive, not the person’s inherent cells. It’s damage, not genes, that’s responsible.
Studies like this seem to suggest that people who drink, and who make the choice to continue to drink, are doing extensive damage that genetic errors might never touch. It’s the nurture part of the equation, and while it’s certainly powerful, the reality of addiction might be yet more complicated.
A Middle Way
Rather than blaming either nature or nurture, experts suggest that addictions tend to spring up through a complicated interplay of both genes and environment. Having just one type of risk factor can be dangerous, but those who have factors that could fall into both camps might have such an intense risk of damage that only therapy can help to turn the tide.
A person with a genetic propensity to like alcohol might enjoy that very first sip, but if the person lives with a drinker, that inaugural drink might be all the more likely to take place. The two types of factors build upon one another and reinforce one another, making a full-fledged addiction all the more possible.
While there’s no real way to control the genes a person is born with, there are some things people at risk for alcoholism can do in order to ensure that they don’t develop a drinking problem in time. Good steps include:
- Setting aside at least two nights per week as sober nights
- Drinking only one drink on a drinking occasion
- Sticking with water or coffee as mealtime drinks
- Steering clear of those who drink to excess on a regular basis
If someone you love already struggles with alcoholism, however, these steps may not be helpful. In fact, it might be much too late for them. But, just because the person suffers from alcoholism now doesn’t mean that the condition must be ignored. In fact, therapy could help the person to stop drinking for good, and we can help to make that happen. Just call us to talk through treatment options.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.