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Is Alcohol or Drug Addiction Genetic?

Genes in Addiction

Are you more likely to develop a substance use disorder if one of your parents struggled with alcohol or drug use? If a family member has had issues with substance addiction, it’s natural to wonder if it does “run in the family.” Research has found an increasing amount of evidence showing that both genetic and environmental factors drive addiction. While genetic markers for addiction could make a person more susceptible to developing a dependency on drugs, they do not necessarily dictate the future.

To thoroughly understand how our genes affect addiction, it’s important to define the terms:

According to the National Human Genome Research Institutegenes contain information, which is passed down to us by our parents, that determines our physical and biological traits.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a chronic but treatable disease that results from complex interactions involving environmental, neurological, genetic, and experiential factors.

How Do Our Genes Affect Addiction? 

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) on how genes, in combination with lifestyle choices, affect smoking and alcohol use found 400 locations in the human genome and more than 566 variants in these locations that influence the use of cigarettes and alcohol. According to this research, these genes exist in many people with family members struggling with addiction, meaning they can pass down with each generation.

However, these genetic factors don’t always mean you will become addicted to a substance. In reverse, their absence doesn’t imply you can’t develop a substance use disorder. Anyone can become addicted to drugs or alcohol. 

The cycle of a substance use disorder follows a similar action as everyday activities that motivate us. Participating in fun hobbies or completing rewarding work gives our brains dopamine, the “happy” chemical that makes us feel good. Among those with an addiction, some people depend on drugs or alcohol, while others depend on sex, food, or gambling to receive the same level of dopamine that others get from everyday activities. 

The desire to engage in these activities is based on the same system of pleasure and reward that helps us complete tasks and achieve goals. However, an imbalance in this function could lead to some people relying on drugs or alcohol to feel “happy.” Drugs are more immediately gratifying than healthier activities that provide a sense of achievement. This concept contributes to the high rates of substance abuse commonly observed in those with conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a disorder involving dopamine dysregulation.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study identifying a genetic factor linked to addiction. An RNA virus called human endogenous retrovirus-K HML-2 (HK2) is “absorbed” within a gene responsible for regulating dopamine. HK2 is found more often in people with a substance use disorder than in those who do not.

While other scientific studies have also acknowledged the relationship between dysregulated dopamine levels and substance use, the PNAS study revealed a potential cause.

How To Avoid Developing an Addiction

If drug or alcohol addiction runs in your family, one way to help avoid developing it yourself is to learn healthy strategies for coping with stress and emotions. Healthy alternatives, such as meditation or exercise, can help combat the feelings perpetuating repeated substance use in others.

Knowing that you’re at a higher risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol can help you consider healthier options before relying on them. You won’t develop an addiction if you never use drugs and alcohol. While it may sound easy, it’s rarely that simple. Alcohol is ingrained in our culture, and there are occasions when a person may be prescribed an addictive substance for legitimate medical reasons. This isn’t a problem for most people, but it can be overwhelming if you are predisposed to addiction. Once you experience the dopamine that drugs and alcohol provide, stopping using could be difficult. Being open about your family’s history with addiction with your medical providers and even with your friends can help them better support you in choosing healthy alternatives.

Get Help Before Drug or Alcohol Use Becomes an Addiction

If your substance use affects your life, get help as soon as possible, especially if you know you have a higher risk of addiction due to family history or environmental factors.

A counselor or therapist can help you identify the triggers affecting you most and provide tools for managing your emotions ‌when stress is unavoidable. Individual or group therapy sessions can also help you practice mindfulness and help you become more aware of feelings so you can quickly identify them and remedy the situation naturally.

Sometimes we don’t see when a habit becomes harmful, which is why a solid support system is critical when you are at risk of addiction. 

A community of others who understand your risks and motivations can help hold you accountable and provide insight and tips for navigating situations and identifying signs of negative thinking and behavior.

Talk to Your Family About Addiction

Learning about your family’s history with alcohol or drugs can help you understand your risk factors. Ask family members to share their experiences and if anyone in your family struggled with substances or was diagnosed with a substance use disorder. What you learn can help you determine your risk of addiction and help you make better choices regarding your own health and wellness.


If your drug or alcohol use is starting to affect your life, we can help. 

Our recovery advisors are available 24/7 for a free, confidential consultation. Call us at 888-SOBER-40 or start a live chat any time.