Do Genetics Influence the Occurrence of a Substance Use Disorder?


Substance use disorder (SUD) and various co-occurring mental illnesses are often caused by genetic and biological factors, environmental circumstances, and traumatic life events. In most cases, genes and environmental factors interact, increasing the chances that someone might develop SUD. Research has been conducted examining the prevalence of SUD among family members, along with potential genetic and environmental factors and their contribution to different forms of substance use.

Perhaps understanding more about what can lead to struggles with SUD can help in the recovery process. At Lakehouse Recovery Center, we have trained professionals equipped with treating alcohol and drug addiction, and we encourage you to reach out for help today.

SUD Prevalence in Families

Research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) regarding the role of genetics in SUD claims that children of parents with “high-risk alcohol dependence” are at a greater risk of developing struggles with alcoholism. In addition, there is evidence of SUD clusters within families that may substantiate the notion that genetics have a heavy influence on the development of SUD. Research has also been conducted using twin variances such as genetics, shared environmental, and unique environmental effects. The research showed that all three of these variances were significantly influential.

Genetic Association Studies is used to recognize genetic markers that potentially influence the development of a disorder. In the case of SUD, it looks to recognize any genetic markers that may cause the development or progression of addiction. Identifying these markers can help treat addictions and prevent them as well.

Genetics and Environmental Factors

Scientists, psychologists, and even philosophers have been partaking in the “nature vs. nurture” debate for decades. In reality, however, a person’s mental health is dependent on both nature and nurture. For example, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that the relationship between genes and the environment is dynamic. This article from the NIDA offers a great example of how communities with a greater number of healthy after-school activities available also have a decrease in the number of drug addiction outcomes. Similarly, data exists that shows how healthy behaviors like exercise, for example, can discourage addictive behaviors as well.

An environment with increased stress or drug exposure can affect the likelihood of a person developing addictive tendencies. Although these tendencies can develop solely due to the environment a person is in or in a similar situation, genes alone can affect how an individual responds to those stresses and drug-exposed environments. Thus, genetics is why some are more susceptible to developing struggles with substance use than others.

Genetics and Addictive Disorders

In their published article on the genetics behind addictive disorders, the Psychiatric Clinics of North America defines substance use disorders as “multistep conditions that, by definition, require exposure to an addictive agent.” They reference many things that can be addictive agents, such as drugs, foods, sex, gambling, and even video games. All of these can “lead to an ‘addicted state’ through neurobiological pathways,” according to the article.

A great example mentioned in the article is that individuals are heavily exposed to addictive agents all the time, whether it’s food, alcohol, sex, drugs, or anything that can lead to that addictive state. People who go to hospitals seeking medical care will often be treated with opioids, narcotics, and prescription drugs. While, unfortunately, these prescriptions can often lead to future struggles with substance use, the vast majority of these individuals seeking medical treatment do not develop substance use disorder. So, we have to consider the genetic factors affecting the likelihood of dependency.

Some of the intrinsic factors (relating to the person, including genetics) to consider include:

  • Genotype
  • Sex
  • Current age and age at first use
  • Preexisting addictive disorders
  • Co-Occurring mental illness

The extrinsic factors (related to the environment and external influences) to consider are:

  • Drug access
  • Peer and social influence
  • Whether someone has a support system
  • Childhood trauma or struggles, including quality of parental care
  • Socioeconomic status

Additionally, some addictive agents will cause more dependency than others. The psychoactive properties of a medication, administration processes, and how the drug could potentially affect patients all play a part in the potential dependency outcomes that could develop.

The Myth of the Substance Use “Gene”

The research isn’t outright saying that there is an “alcoholism gene” or that if a parent struggles with substance use, the child is guaranteed to struggle as well. Instead, the research suggests that genetic factors, environment, peer influence, and surrounding support all play a role in the chances of someone developing SUD or seeking addictive agents. What’s important is the role of mindfulness of actions and intentions. Understanding how genetics and environmental factors can play a role in SUD helps teach triggers, maintain recovery, and destigmatize addictive behaviors.  

Whether or not substance use disorder is genetic has been a question many have had over the years. People sometimes question whether or not they may develop addictive behaviors based on their family history, their environment, or even the peers they surround themselves with. The truth is, all these factors can play a part in whether or not someone develops SUD or reliance on any addictive agent such as food, sex, drugs, or alcohol. Individuals who have a family history of substance abuse, experienced childhood trauma, or had a direct encounter with alcoholism, drug use, or other addictive behaviors from their parents should be cautious with their intentions regarding exposure to addictive agents. However, just because a parent may have struggled does not mean you will automatically do the same. Mindfulness and intention are vital in everything we do. So, be mindful, set your intention, and stay strong! If you or somebody you love is already struggling with SUD, please reach out to Lakehouse Recovery at (877) 762-3707.