When does the gene for addiction come into play?

Addiction is baffling. Why is it that some people can drink or use drugs socially, yet other people use and they become addicted? First, what does it mean to have a gene for addiction? Do you have family stories about a relative who could not “hold his or her liquor” or who spent way too much time using drugs to the detriment of their family or job? Chances are that there are some genes lurking within that made them more vulnerable to addiction. These genes may be passed on to the next generation.

When do these genes come into play? There are several factors that influence how the brain and body respond to the introduction of a toxin. Let us return to our user who becomes addicted and our user who does not. Both of our users have some family history of addiction. The differences between the two may lie in other factors.

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Environment can change brain chemistry. Chronic stress can reduce the brain’s ability to metabolize alcohol and other drugs. What starts out as social use turns to compulsive use due to the brain’s reduced resistance to handle the drug’s toxic effects. Our addict’s environment may have included such things as abuse, anger, social pressures, or childhood trauma. Our social user did not have these environmental stresses. It is less likely that our social user turns to compulsive use.

Health issues can influence how well our body responds to the effects of alcohol and other drugs. We tend to underestimate the importance of practicing a healthy lifestyle. Health conditions can interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and other drugs. Our addict’s health concerns may include brain trauma, diabetes, kidney disease, or other chronic health conditions that compromise the body’s capability to handle the drug. Our social user may not be contending with these challenges. It is less likely that his or her use will turn to compulsive use.

Emotional health can influence addictive behavior. Many mental health conditions are related to brain chemistry imbalances, such as depression. When our addict uses alcohol or other drugs, this is one more chemical with which the brain must contend. Our addict’s brain responds negatively resulting in compulsive use. Our social user, who does not have these brain chemistry imbalances, is less likely to turn to compulsive use.

Social and ethnic backgrounds can make one more susceptible to addiction. For example, Native Americans are more likely to develop addictive behavior. Adolescents and college students are vulnerable, along with cultures that approve of regular use. Military culture encourages use and are more vulnerable. Our addict may fall into one of these subsets while our social user does not.

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Finally, heredity alone can be a powerful factor in compulsive alcohol or other drug use. Our social drinker may have fewer factors, but it is not a guarantee. Just as there are genetic factors for other health issues such as heart disease or diabetes, genes can make any individual prone to addiction. By making lifestyle changes, we can avoid heart attacks and diabetes. Similarly, we can make lifestyle and behavior changes to avoid the activation of an addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

If you are concerned about the effect alcohol or other drugs may have on you or someone you love, please learn more about how drugs work. Your community can provide you with the resources and direction you need to enjoy a life free of the negative effects of addiction.

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