Does an addiction begin due to a signal from the genes? Or does an addiction begin due to something a person encounters in their environment? These are questions that researchers and doctors have been trying to answer for years. They could be questions that have a deep impact on how people are treated for their addictions. After all, if genes cause addictions, perhaps medications could keep them from forming. If a certain type of life causes an addiction, perhaps coaching about healthy choices could keep people safe.
It is likely that researchers will continue to debate about this issue in the months and years to come. But these are the best arguments researchers have right now, concerning the nature/nurture debate.
There are both physical changes and psychological changes involved in an addiction. Both are powerful, and both can be quite damaging.
Addictions Caused by Nature
The American Psychological Association reports that about half of a person’s susceptibility to addiction can be linked to genes. These little bits of code that are passed down from parents to children determine all sorts of factors, including skin color, eye color, and hair color. These are not things that can be changed through therapy. They can be altered with cosmetics, but the genes will continue to push their agenda as long as the person is alive. The genes that are responsible for addiction are much like that. A person could learn to ignore them, but they will still be there, pushing an agenda.
The difficulty with addiction genes is that there are so many different genes at work in an addiction. There is not one specific gene that could be amended or removed to lower addiction risk. There are many different types of genes all working together that can influence whether someone:
- Starts using
- Likes using
- Continues to use
- Feels few consequences due to use
Most of those steps are required in the path to an addiction. Genes may play a role in smoothing that path.
For example, an article by NBC News reports the plight of people who are so-called “supertasters.” These people have taste bud densities that are 10-100 times greater than the average population. They can just taste a little bit more, and that could play a role in the addiction process.
Someone who is a supertaster might not enjoy a substance like beer, simply because it tastes bitter. That person might be protected from alcoholism, as alcohol tastes bad. On the flip side, a supertaster might really enjoy the complexity of a drink like scotch, and that could spark a need to drink quite a bit.
Similarly, there are genes that influence the consequences of the use and abuse of substances. The University of Utah suggests, for example, that there is a gene that can cause less severe withdrawal symptoms from drugs like barbiturates. This is a gene that could, in theory, allow people to take in more barbiturates and avoid the nasty physical symptoms that could make them quit use. They never feel bad, so they may never quit.
A person with a set of genes that makes substance abuse pleasant, combined with genes that blunt the nasty side of substance abuse, could be a person that develops a very real and very persistent substance abuse problem in time. It could be said, quite fairly, that the genes are to blame. Research in this field suggests, very clearly, that there is a nature part to the addiction process.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that there is a genetic component to addiction. Some families seem to have addictions running through them. The parents grow up with parents who drink, and they raise children who also drink. Those families seem to strengthen the theory that addictions can be genetic.
Addictions Caused by Nurture
People are more than a mass of coding and genes. As life progresses, people go through a series of experiences that can change the way they think about their bodies, their minds, and the world around them. As people grow and change, they can develop habits and preferences that could either help to spark a damaging process or keep that damaging process from starting in the first place. This is the nurture side of the addiction process, and there are compelling arguments to be made about the power that nurture has over an addiction issue.
For example, some people experience a form of trauma while they are growing up. They live in chaotic households in which they feel as though they are in danger most or all of the time. They are worried, concerned, and fearful, and they bring those feelings with them into adulthood. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network says that one child in four in the United States experiences something like this as they grow, and these children have higher rates of substance use and abuse. They use these substances as a form of self-medication, and in time, they could develop physical and psychological dependence issues on those substances.
This is a nurture issue. These children do not develop addictions due to their genes. They are developing addictions due to an experience they have endured and survived. Their genes do not play a role here.
Similarly, some people develop drug abuse due to early use of drugs. When the brain is developing, it is more susceptible to the damage drug use and abuse can cause. When people start drug use at an early age, they can experience so much damage to the cells of the brain that they find it hard to recover. The earlier teens start, the more dangerous things can be. The growing brain can also be more susceptible to peer pressure, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Growing brain cells make it hard for teens to measure current pleasure against future pain. When peers pressure teens to make a decision, they cave in.
Teens who do not have drug-pushing peers do not face this problem, so this is very much a nurture issue. It is a form of drug use that comes about due to a teen’s life experiences and life challenges.
Peers are not the only humans that can influence a person’s decision to try drugs at an early age. Parents can do the same thing, and parents who drink in front of their children could be nurturing an addiction in those children even if they never intended to do so. The organization Drinkaware says that there is a strong link between early-onset drinking and a child’s exposure to drinking in the home. It could be that teens see their parents drinking often and become convinced that the activity is harmless and fun, or it could be that teens with drinking parents have easy access to alcohol. Regardless of the reason, parents who drink could cause a nurture-based addiction trigger.
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Making Sense of the Research
Most people who have addictions develop those issues due to an interplay between nature and nurture. They may not intend to develop an addiction, but their genes might spark addiction’s pleasure. Their environment might make an addiction easier to sustain than it might be were there a different nurturing environment around that person. The two factors can intertwine.
Those same intertwining factors could be key to recovery. People who get help for addiction may get medications (for the nature problem) and therapy (for the nurture issue). They can attack their need to use and abuse drugs on both fronts, and when they do, they could find that they achieve a recovery that once seemed impossible. The two really could make all the difference for someone in need. The key is to get started with recovery as soon as possible. Those who do can recover.