Nature vs. Nurture: Is Substance Abuse Hereditary?

Nearly 20 million people over the age of 12 suffer from a substance abuse disorder. Men and women from all walks of life struggle publicly and privately with addictions to alcohol, opiates, prescription drugs and other illicit substances. Substance abuse can impact all areas of a person's world, from their social and family life to their relationships at work or school. As individuals continue to face the challenges of drug and alcohol abuse, their friends and family members often wonder what caused the addiction to develop.

The Spectrum of Substance Use

Like many medical conditions, the signs and symptoms of substance abuse aren't always readily apparent. Many people may not realize there is a difference between addiction, substance abuse and substance dependency. Though you may hear people using these words interchangeably, there is a difference between those who are addicted and dependent, as well as a difference between excessive use and abuse.

Many people use alcohol or drugs in their daily lives to socialize and enjoy their effects. Using a drug or drinking alcohol does not necessarily lead to abuse or addiction. For instance, someone may occasionally drink at a social gathering or use marijuana with a group of friends. Even those who drink or do drugs to excess may not be alcoholics, addicts or abusers.

Abuse occurs when the use of drugs or alcohol begins to interfere with the individual's ability to live their normal life. Those who abuse alcohol or drugs may be unable to fulfill personal or professional obligations, they may engage in situations that are hazardous to their health or they may experience legal problems like DWIs or DUIs. Despite the ways this abusive behavior is impacting their social or interpersonal lives, they continue to drink heavily or use drugs to excess.

When a person has a substance dependency, that means their body has developed a physical dependence on the substance. A dependency is not a disease — however, it is still a serious health concern. An addiction is an abnormal health condition classified as a disease that can occur without physical dependence. It causes an uncontrollable craving for the substance. Those addicted compulsively use the drug to excess and engage in destructive behaviors, despite the extreme harm they are causing themselves and others.

Nature vs. Nurture

Researchers continue to study the spectrum of substance abuse with the aim of answering a critical question: Is substance abuse hereditary, or environmentally caused? The nature-versus-nurture debate has encouraged ongoing research to determine whether alcohol abuse is hereditary, or if a person's lifestyle, social environment and unique experiences contribute to their risk of substance abuse. Studies on genetic alcoholism and genetic substance abuse, as well as studies regarding the social influence of alcoholism and drug abuse, have produced thought-provoking results.

Nature: Substance Abuse in the Family

Is drug addiction hereditary? What is the link between heredity and drug addiction? A person's biology can influence their risk of developing a substance abuse issue.

Though scientists have determined genetics contribute to half of an individual's likelihood of developing alcoholism, they have yet to identify the specific genes responsible. They believe multiple genes play a role — some influence the likelihood of alcoholism, while others decrease the risk of dependency. Some of these genes are more prevalent in certain ethnicities — for instance, in those of Native American and Asian descent. These genes may also impact the effectiveness of alcoholism treatment.

Researchers studying mice have identified a particular gene that they believe links with alcohol dependence. This gene affects the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which relaxes the nervous system and limits anxiety. Research has already established that gamma-aminobutyric acid is a factor that influences whether or not someone will become dependent via recreational drinking. They believe this gene, the Nf1, and its variations play a role in an individual's risk for genetic alcohol addiction. 

Substance Abuse During Pregnancy

Does substance abuse during pregnancy increase the child's chances of developing an addiction later in life? Though a woman may not have a family history of substance abuse, some expectant mothers do abuse substances like alcohol, prescription drugs or illicit drugs.

Current estimates state roughly 5 percent of women abuse drugs like cocaine, opioids, heroin or marijuana during their pregnancy. Any misuse of these substances, even by a woman not facing a substance abuse disorder, can cause an infant to experience severe health issues. This includes one group of health conditions called neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS.

NAS is a condition in which the baby withdraws from the substances their mother exposed them to in the womb. When a pregnant woman takes drugs, even legal prescription drugs, or drinks alcohol, these chemicals can pass through the placenta and create severe problems for the baby. Complications from NAS could include low birth weight and jaundice. Symptoms of NAS could last up to six months after birth and require the baby to receive medical care in the NICU.

But what becomes of these children as they grow into adults? It's difficult to clearly define the exact ways specific substances affect the child. Most women who use street drugs or abuse prescription drugs or alcohol may use a combination of these substances and partake in other risky behaviors that impact their child's health. Though current medical research is limited concerning whether or not fetal exposure to substances creates future substance abusers, there are a few essential facts to know:

  • Exposing a fetus to alcohol or drugs is likely to cause long-term changes in their brain structure and functioning.
  • Children exposed to cannabis may be more susceptible to drug experimentation and substance abuse later in life.
  • Infants exposed to MDMA could develop a higher sensitivity to the drug later in life.
  • Methadone usage by a pregnant mother can affect the child's brain functioning, leading to increased addiction vulnerability.
  • Fetal alcohol exposure can disrupt development at any stage and cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which may increase the baby's risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life.

Although there is no concrete evidence yet that in utero exposure to substances causes a child to become an addict as an adult, alcohol and drugs do impact that child's cognitive development and could influence their likelihood to experiment with substances and become abusers later in life.

Nurture: Substance Abuse in Society

How does exposure to drugs and alcohol in society influence a person's likelihood of developing an addiction? Even those without a family pattern of alcohol abuse or genetic predisposition are at risk for developing alcoholism or a substance abuse disorder. There are many reasons why an individual may turn to drugs or alcohol. Some engage in substance use to feel its euphoric effects. Others misuse substances to deal with stress or psychological problems like depression and anxiety. There are even people who choose to experiment with alcohol and drugs, even highly addictive ones like crack cocaine or heroin, purely out of curiosity.

Substance abuse does not need to include a hereditary component to encourage an individual to use or abuse drugs. Many individuals get exposed to drug and alcohol use daily. They may have family members or friends who drink or do drugs. They may see examples of substance use through television shows or movies. Their interaction on social media can even factor into their substance use and abuse.

Substance Abuse in the Home

When an individual is battling a substance abuse disorder, it negatively affects their entire family. Depending on each unique situation and which individual is suffering from the addiction, other family members will behave in ways that could further damage familial ties. Feelings of isolation or instances of physical, mental or emotional abuse could cause the individual to begin abusing drugs or alcohol, despite witnessing the destruction these substances have caused their family. Those with family members suffering from addiction are more likely to become substance abusers themselves.

Aside from genetic alcoholism, the role alcohol plays in an individual's home life may influence their substance use and abuse. Those who live in a home with others who drink irresponsibly or abuse alcohol may be more likely to drink to excess. That is especially true for parents who regularly drink around their children. Studies have discovered an individual's parents have the most impact on the child's perception of alcohol and their subsequent drinking behaviors.

Substance Use in Pop Culture

Companies spend billions of dollars on advertising alcohol and prescription drugs to the public. Although it is not a traditional form of advertising, television shows, movies and other forms of entertainment also include these substances in their content. Medical professionals, researchers and other advocates work to decrease the prevalence of substance abusers in society. However, much of what society consumes visually tends to support the belief that drinking alcohol or using drugs is acceptable, safe and without consequence.

The use of alcohol in media is generally positive. Those who drink in television shows, movies or music videos are often engaged in positive situations, possess desirable attributes and are typically exempt from negative consequences. Estimates show there is at least one scene involving drinking on an American television show every 22 minutes. The more frequently individuals, particularly children and adolescents, get exposed to alcohol in favorable situations, the more likely they are to construct positive beliefs about drinking and drink more excessively as adults.

Social Media and Substance Abuse

Technology is rapidly changing the way people interact with the world. Social media has become such a prevalent part of everyday life that the majority of adolescents, young adults and adults in the United States are actively engaging in social media. From Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and YouTube, the average American has a presence on at least three of the most popular social media platforms. As the social media landscape continues to evolve and impact daily life, it's important to know how this tool may affect substance abusers.

Though research is still in its infancy, some studies have shown a correlation between social media use and substance use. There is evidence that exposure to the imagery of drug or alcohol use is enough to potentially encourage an individual to try these substances. Teens and adolescents who use social media are more likely to engage in substance use, especially those who view images of others using or abusing substances online. Substance use at a young age can influence the likelihood of developing an addiction as an adult.

Exposure to Substance Use Through Peer Interaction

A person's social circles and their friendships can also be factors in an individual's decision to engage in substance use. Peer pressure can have a tremendous impact on drinking habits, especially for adolescents. Teens' friends may encourage them to drink in social gatherings, making them feel ostracized if they don't participate. Merely observing others drinking could lead a teen to believe they need to drink to become more popular or please their friends.

Both the absence and presence of close friendships have the potential to influence substance abuse behavior. A study revealed those without close or intimate friendships who struggle with depression or anxiety might be at an increased risk of engaging in substance abuse. Similarly, those who abuse drugs or alcohol may encourage close or intimate friends to experiment with the substances.

Sexual activity levels among their friends may also influence drug or alcohol experimentation. One study showed teenagers who have a prevalence of friends who engage in sexual activities are more likely to drink alcohol or try marijuana than individuals who do not have many sexually active friends.

Nature and Nurture: The Complexities of Substance Abuse

So is addiction hereditary? Though the debate of nature versus nurture has helped identify the factors that could contribute to addiction in both cases, most research has shown the concept of nature versus nurture should instead get replaced with a nature-and-nurture ideology. Science has provided strong evidence that both a person's genetic makeup and life experiences directly impact their health.

For instance, a positive environment may help prevent someone with a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction avoid destructive drinking habits or engage in healthier coping strategies. The opposite is also true — those without an alcohol abuse genetic predisposition may turn to problematic drinking habits as a response to their unhealthy relationships or environment. The various factors that could contribute to alcoholism and substance abuse are different for everyone.

Overcome Substance Abuse and Reclaim Your Life

A substance abuse disorder is a severe health condition. Many genetic, environmental, social and behavioral factors may contribute to an individual's struggles with substance abuse and addiction. The reality is that any man or woman from every walk of life can develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Even those taking prescription drugs for medical conditions are at risk for misusing and abusing these substances. There is no cure for addiction — however, you can manage and overcome it with help.

At Diamond House Detox, we understand the complexities of substance abuse and believe every individual needs a unique treatment plan to successfully achieve sobriety. Our caring staff takes the time to speak with you about your struggles and determine which treatment methods can place you on the path to recovery. Diamond House Detox provides our clients with a clean, private and comfortable space to receive medically monitored detoxification services and treatments for co-occurring disorders. We offer the support necessary to help you begin an addiction-free life.

Maintaining a happy and sober life is possible. Contact Diamond House Detox today and take the first step to recovery. Call today for same day admittance at (800) 205-6107.



Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on November 12th, 2018.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
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