When it comes to addiction recovery, there’s one thing that patients don’t spend much time thinking about: family history. Of course, few of us–in or out of addiction recovery–spend time thinking about family history at all. Why should it be any different once we start having this particular struggle?
Well, family history can have a specially pertinent connection with addiction and recovery.
Challenges Passed Down From Generations Before
Your genes can make you more or less likely to develop an addiction. For example, children of people who have struggled with addiction are 8 times more likely to become addicted themselves than someone without addicted parents. In fact, most studies find that 50% of addiction risk is genetics, and 50% is personal behavior. Environmental factors are also huge, but even taken out of a certain home environment that could contribute to addiction risk, a biological predisposition often makes itself manifest at some point.
Alcoholism is the most well-known genetically connected addiction. Although it would be nice to be able to isolate the specific alcoholic gene and know your exact risk factors as soon as you have your first prenatal exam, it’s more complicated than that. Many genes can increase or decrease your susceptibility as they interact. Certain behavioral habits and personality traits can also increase your risk, and be passed down from parent to child. For example, genes might influence your risk-tolerance, your tendency towards sensation seeking, and your self-management habits.
The Science of Genetics and Addiction
The most surprising genetic influence on your addiction risk is the way that it can determine the way that drugs initially interact with your body’s chemistry.
The reason that drugs are so appealing to our body is because they imitate natural neurotransmitters that moderate mood, increase energy, or relax us. Anandamide is sometimes called the “bliss” molecule because of its power to relax us. Another enzyme that our body produces is FAAH, which deactivates Anandamide. However, some people have a genetic variant which makes them produce less FAAH, which means that they have more Anandamide in their system. This makes them less prone to anxiety.
Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. In this particular study, it was found that people with this genetic variance (which made them produce less FAAH) actually found marijuana to be distinctly un-pleasurable. Since the main appeal in the drug is its ability to produce calm and relaxation, and these people already had a surplus, the drug had no draw.
This is only one instance of the way that our genetic blueprint can create an atmosphere that’s either more or less favorable to certain addictions.
Risk Is Not Causation
Just because you have the genes, doesn’t mean that you no longer have control over the situation. In fact, knowing your personal risk can empower you greatly.
You can set a new pattern. You may not have the power to choose the nose that you’ll inherit, but you do have the power to decide what kind of behavior you’ll adopt and grow into, and how you’ll manage your risks.
Remember this too: a look into your family’s past will often reveal some really good surprises: sometimes you’ll find people who overcame their addiction, or achieved great things despite their personal struggles. Stories of strength from our history can remind us of the strength we can find in ourselves.