Nature Vs Nurture: Is Addiction Learnt Or Inherited?


Is drug and alcohol addiction inherited from our parents or family lineage? Or is it caused by external factors such as our environment, childhood, criminal convictions/prison, financial, jobs/career or who we socialise with along with other associated factors?

Most people are aware that addiction seems to run in the family but you have probably also heard that our upbringing or stressful circumstances could lead to drug or alcohol abuse and ultimately, addiction. The truth is that both nature (our biological genes) and nurture (environmental/external factors) cause addiction vulnerability. What’s more, the two realms can combine to increase the risk of addiction even further. Addiction is a complex disease and it’s causes are unique in each individual case.

The good news is that nobody is born an addict. Neither will everyone who experiences negative environmental influences become an addict. More good news, effective drug and alcohol treatment services are available if you are abusing substances and want help to rain in your using or are physically and mentally addicted. Whether the cause is nature, nurture, or a mixture of both, You can overcome drug and/or alcohol addiction, especially when the treatment is individualised and focuses on your unique genetic and associated environmental factors.

Let’s explore nature and nurture in addiction and look at how you can overcome dependence with personalised treatment in a residential rehabilitation facility or within your community via a drug and alcohol service, whichever best suits your needs.


Evolutionary Biology In Addiction

In a way, all humans are genetically predisposed to addiction thanks to our evolution. Humans have learned to prioritise substances or activities that induce pleasure because we are wired to crave pleasure for enjoyment and to self-soothe when times become tough.

It used to make sense that the things we find pleasurable today are also the things that ensured our species survived back when we were banging rocks together as cavemen/cavewomen. It is the reason why sweet treats are so moreish and addictive. We know too much sugar is bad for us but our brains make us crave it, seek it out and forget/ignore the consequences before and during the time you eat them. Why? Because glucose (blood sugar) is necessary for fuelling billions of nerve cells in the brain. Sugar was not readily available hundreds of years ago so our brains rewarded us for making an effort to seek it, acquire it and consume it. We still get that pleasure reward mechanism today.

Our brains produce similar feelings of pleasure and gratification when we take drugs or alcohol. In fact, the anticipation of pleasure and the satisfaction that follows is so powerful that it can completely eclipse the conscious knowledge that drugs and alcohol are dangerous. For example, every addict or alcoholic will have experienced what it feels like to mentally build up the experience of using or drinking in our head before we have even physically touched it only to find out that we cannot have our substance/drink of choice so we mentally and physically start to feel unwell without it yet as soon as you can get your substance or drink of choice, you suddenly feel better. This shows just how powerful our mind and the way we think can be and just how powerful being physically and mentally addicted and dependant on our substance or drink of choice!

But if we are all wired to crave pleasure, why do some people become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol while some do not? Let’s dig deeper, first by looking at a famous Hollywood family and their struggles with addiction across multiple generations.


Addiction As A Family Legacy

Drew Barrymore rose to fame after playing the adorable little sister in Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Drew is a legendary actress but she was born into a family dynasty notorious for drug and alcohol addiction.

She called herself a party girl from age eight, smoked cigarettes from age nine and developed an alcohol addiction by the time she was eleven years old. She was frequently spotted in nightclubs with her mother, Ildiko Jaid Barrymore before her thirteenth birthday. She developed a fondness for drugs at Studio 54 and the China Club in New York. After turning thirteen, she spent eighteen months in hospital receiving drug and alcohol addiction treatment.

Her father, actor and poet John Barrymore has a long history of drug and alcohol addiction and a substantial amount of criminal convictions for possession of drugs and a vast history of driving while under the influence of alcohol. Her grandfather, actor John Barrymore, drank himself to death at age sixty. Her Aunt, Diana Barrymore candidly discussed her drug and alcohol addiction in her best-seller Too Much, Too Soon.

The legacy of addiction passed from generation to generation in the Barrymore family is clear to see. Research backs up the casual observer by showing that children of addicted parents are eight times more likely to abuse substances at some point in their lives than other children whose parents are not affected by addiction. Scientists have concluded that a family history of drug and/or alcohol disorder is one of the most potent risk factors for the development of drug and/or alcohol addiction. Male children of male alcohol addicts are four to nine times more likely to abuse alcohol than the general population.

Of course genetics rarely tell the whole story. Members of the same family share the same environment, making it difficult to determine whether our genes (nature) or nurture are to blame. Drew Barrymore for example was definitely exposed to repeated adverse environmental (nurture) factors as no twelve year old should be taking drugs with their mum in New York nightclubs, at home or anywhere else. One way scientists isolate the genetic component is by conducting twin and adoption studies.

Twin studies compare identical and non-identical twins to examine the genetic component of addiction vulnerability. Identical twins have 100% matching genes, allowing researchers to find definite links between genetics and addiction. One study found that when one individual in a pair of identical twins were addicted to a substance, there was a high likelihood that the other was also addicted. A correlation exists for non-identical twins but it is looser and slightly more difficult to isolate and identify.

Studies involving adopted children show that adoptees are at higher risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction if their biological parents had an addiction or severe psychiatric condition. In fact some studies show that adopted babies conceived by addict parents and then are raised in sober and clean adoptive homes have the same risk of developing addiction as if they have had stayed with their biological parents from birth.



Genetics In Addiction

You are probably wondering how much genes influence your risk of addiction? According to the latest research it accounts for between 50 to 60% of the risk. The keyword here is addiction risk though addiction itself is never inherited. Only the risk of developing an addiction is inherited. There is no such thing as being born an addict.

We inherit genes from our parents and genes determine our hair and eye colour, our height and can even influence the way we smile or laugh! You have around 22,333 genes in your body just over twice as many as a fruit fly. More are likely to be found as genome mapping advancements are made in the future. Genetics research shows our vulnerability to addiction is affected by our genes.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as one addiction gene that could be altered or removed to decrease the risk of developing an addiction. Instead, multiple genes influence vulnerability including how likely someone is to:

  • start using/drinking
  • enjoy using/drinking
  • continue using/drinking
  • feel the consequences of using/drinking

Scientists identify addiction genes by finding biological differences that make someone more or less susceptible to addiction. Humans are unreliable for assessing the impact of genetic factors in addiction because we are exposed to so many uncontrollable environmental factors each and every day throughout our lives. Scientists use mice instead as test subjects. Several addiction genes have been catalogued already including:

  • Mice without the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b find cocaine and alcohol more alluring than mice with the gene.
  • Mice with a defective Per2 gene drink three times more alcohol than mice with a fully functional Per2 gene.
  • Mice with an increased expression of the Mpdz gene experience less severe withdrawal symptoms from barbiturates, which suggests that humans with a decreased expression of this gene find it more difficult to detox from those drugs.

Impulsiveness In Addiction

You know your friend who gets into bar fights or that cousin who gets her kicks by making risky financial decisions? Some people’s genes make them more likely to exhibit higher levels of impulsiveness and risk taking behaviours, especially in stressful or upsetting situations. Impulsive individuals are more likely to act before thinking about the consequences, feel invincible, escalate negative behaviours and struggle to stop a behaviour once it has begun.

People with a genetic predisposition to impulsiveness who also have a genetic predisposition to addiction vulnerability are more likely to develop drug and/or alcohol addiction than others in the general population both nationally and internationally.

Here is how that might work. An individual without the serotonin receptor gene Htr1b might find alcohol irresistible. If they are impulsive too, they might keep drinking after other individuals would normally choose to stop. You can see how this blend of genes and impulsive behaviour could lead to addiction.


Cross-Addiction And Addictive Personalities

Recent studies have revealed evidence that people can inherit a tendency to becoming addicted to several different substances all at the same time. People addicted to one substance may be more likely to be addicted to others too because of genetic factors. For example genome mapping has found that the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene DRD2 is more common in people addicted to alcohol and cocaine. The tendency towards addiction to multiple substances is known as poly-pharm addiction.

Cross-addiction can make recovery from addiction particularly tricky. A person recovering from one addiction can become addicted to another substances, including more than one at a time. The temptation to transfer dependence from one harmful substance to another substance, sex, gambling, exercise, food, spending money or anything else are powerful in cross-addiction situations. It is especially important to seek treatment in either a residential rehabilitation centre or in a community setting through your nearest drug and alcohol service. In these cases so you can learn how to replace unhealthy behaviours with non-addictive, non-harmful, positive, productive and prosperous activities and ventures.


Can Genes Be Changed Or Modified?

Genetics cannot be changed. You might dye your brown hair blonde but your genes will always push brown hair out of your head. Addiction genes work in the same way. They will always be present, pushing their own agenda, increasing your risk of abusing drugs or alcohol and predispose you to addiction and addictive behaviours.

But do not despair. You are not doomed to be an addict if you have a family history of addiction. You can learn how to live healthily with addiction genes during treatment at a residential rehab centre or community drug and alcohol service. You will find recovery much easier by learning coping strategies from professional counsellors, nurses/doctors, psychologists, keyworkers, therapists and psychiatrists during and throughout therapy and lifelong after treatment has finished.


Nurture In Addiction

Two kids walking up the stairs

Genes are not the whole story in addiction. Factors like lifestyle, upbringing, mental health, demographics, education, jobs/career, physical health conditions and environment among others all play a part to influence the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction. Research suggests that nurture contributes 40 to 50% percent of the risk of addiction.

Maybe you thought that if your family has no history of drug and/or alcohol addiction, you can drink/use with impunity right? Wrong, alcohol abuse can lead to physical and mental dependence (addiction) whether your genes make you more predisposed to addiction or not.


Upbringing In Addiction

A child raised by caring authoritative, supportive parents are less likely to develop an addiction than a child raised by permissive, neglectful, abusive or authoritarian parents.

Authoritative parents praise their children’s accomplishments, guide them towards success and provide encouragement to improve and grow. The child learns how to problem solve effectively, regulate their emotions, express themselves maturely and develop strategies against damaging thoughts that usually appear before substance abuse/addiction occurs. Children of authoritative parents are better equipped to make better decisions about drugs and/or alcohol and cope better in recovery. Raising a child in this style may offset any genetic predisposition a child has towards the risk of drug/alcohol abuse/addiction.


Childhood Trauma In Addiction

The word “trauma” is used to describe emotionally painful, negative events that overwhelm a child’s ability to take in, process and cope. It can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect just to list some of the most common. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has published data stating that children who experience childhood trauma have higher rates of substance use and abuse. They use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate which, over time, can develop into physical and psychological dependence. The consequences of childhood trauma can be more severe if the child also has addiction genes.


Early Exposure Around Addiction

Child and teenage brains are more susceptible to drug and alcohol damage and addiction. The earlier a child drinks alcohol or uses drugs, the more dangerous it could be.

Peer pressure and perceived expectations from others also exacerbates the problem. First, humans are social creatures and designed to live together, work, socialise and function as one in groups. We all want to feel as part of a group particularly when we are young children and teenagers. We might take drugs or alcohol simply to fit in and have fun. Secondly, our young developing brains struggle to consider the long-term consequences when instant gratification/relief is readily available. It can be difficult to resist when teenagers are peer-pressured by their friends to try new things to “fit in”. Also when we are younger and healthier, we believe that we can’t become addicts, that it only happens to others and won’t happen to us as we lull ourselves into a false sense of security that things like that just won’t happen to us. However, annually the facts of life clearly demonstrate otherwise with annually increasing numbers year on year as more and more people become addicts by seeking an instant result in a world where information is available at the touch of a button, food cooked and readily available to eat whenever we want it and other areas of life that have developed the cause of instant availability, gratification and relief.

A child’s home-life can increase the risk of addiction too. Children exposed to others drinking and/or using in the home or around us elsewhere are more likely to develop an addiction at a younger age. This could be because parents/guardians who give alcohol or drugs to their children or drink/use in front of them inadvertently shows them that alcohol and drug abuse is harmless and enjoyable which can lull many into a false sense of security until the inevitable outcome comes to fruition.


Mental Health In Addiction

Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder among others are all linked to addicts who have had a substance abuse and/or addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Individuals with poor coping skills tend to become easily upset, blame others or themselves, struggle with receiving praise or criticism, isolate themselves, experience enmeshment, feel social anxiety, fear or unable to cope with rejection or unable to cope with loss or change. These behaviours can lead to a vicious cycle of stress, self-medication to soothe and “cope” with daily life and finally addiction. Not only the physical dependence but also the mental dependence from cravings and triggers to being unable to manage these issues without using drugs or alcohol as their coping mechanism. If you have an addiction at the same time then you are battling mental health problems, so it is important to receive treatment either at a residential rehab centre or community based treatment through your local drug and alcohol service that will tackle both factors along with others at the same time, giving you a complete set of tools to better manage these issues without needing substances as they inevitably arise throughout our lifetime.


Relationships In Addiction

Ever heard the phrase, You are the company you keep? Well the people around us influence us heavily and our friends, family, classmates, colleagues, associates and community. If you have ever felt a strong desire to drink more at an office party or take drugs with your mates in a nightclub just because everyone around you is doing it, then you know how powerfully other people’s actions and the perceived peer pressure can influence us.

If everyone you know drinks or uses drugs, it can be challenging to develop healthy, sober/clean relationships with new people and reconcile current and previous relationships which became damaged due to us using/drinking. In a drug and alcohol treatment program, therapists, Key-workers, doctors/nurses, psychologists and others teach us how to set reasonable boundaries and form new, healthy relationships which don’t involve procuring money to see your dealers, off-license or pub/nightclub and indulging in drugs and/or alcohol use.


Nature And Nurture Intertwined

Most addictions develop because of a complex interplay between both nature and nurture. There are almost unlimited combinations of ways genes and environmental factors can make you more or less at risk of drug and alcohol addiction as well as other types of addiction and negative behaviours .

Having said that, at-risk genes and harmful environmental factors do not guarantee you will become an addict either. People with addiction genes might never develop an addiction at all. People who experience trauma might never develop an addiction either. People who have experienced trauma, pain and constant stress and have the addiction genes might never develop an addiction, however others might and will become addicted to substances and as times change and we seek instant change and outcomes, this is only likely to rise year on year.

But if you do develop an addiction, effective drug and/or alcohol treatment is available in a wide range of structures, specialties, entry requirements, pricing structures, lengths of treatment programs and locations across the UK and internationally. In a residential rehab centre or community based treatment from your nearest drug and alcohol service, professional, trained staff and healthcare professionals will determine whether nature, nurture or a blend of both have shaped your addiction journey until now. They will work with you to design a personalised, tailored treatment programme based on your individual needs so that you can finally overcome addiction for good!

You can find your nearest drug and alcohol service, links to find your ideal residential rehabilitation centre as well as other helpful information and recovery tools can be found on our help and support page.

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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