Epigenetics and Addiction

Estimated reading time: 32 minute(s)

Substance use disorder, also known as substance addiction, describes a complex disorder of the brain and behavior. Owing to the complications this disorder can lead to, a wide part of the scientific community has dedicated itself to investigating better solutions and programs for its management. So far, experts believe genetics account for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s risk of experiencing addiction. However, with ongoing research, we now know that this condition is not simple, with multiple risk factors contributing to its development, including genetic and environmental components.

These genetic and environmental risk factors determining a person’s susceptibility to addiction are known as epigenetics. These two completely different factors interact with each other through complicated channels to determine if a person will develop a dependence on a certain chemical. As the connection between epigenetics and addiction equips researchers with a better handle on the potential causes of addiction, the community is slowly moving toward more targeted recovery plans.

Genetics and Addiction: What Genes Contribute to Substance Use Disorder

The fact that addiction is a heritable condition confirms that genes have some role to play in its development. Parents may pass these genes to the next generations, making them more vulnerable to developing addictions. While this knowledge of gene sequencing has helped experts make interesting revelations about most diseases, addiction is quite different as there is more than one gene responsible for it.

The following are some genes responsible for adding to the risk of addiction in a person:

  • Mpdz: This gene is responsible for coding extra protein that may reduce the severity of the withdrawal symptoms associated with certain drugs. If the withdrawal is less severe, a person is less likely to keep using a substance for relief and is at a lesser risk of becoming addicted.
  • Per1 and Per2: Animal studies have shown that variations in these genes may force mice to drink more alcohol during stressful times. Similar effects are likely to occur in people in relation to stress.
  • Moody: Experts have found that fruit flies lack a certain gene called moody, which makes them more sensitive to cocaine. This increased sensitivity, in turn, enhances a person’s risk for addiction.
  • DRD2: Certain forms of this gene occur more commonly in people with underlying addictions to alcohol, opioid, or cocaine. According to researchers, this association has something to do with the reward system in the brain.
  • OPRM1: This gene is responsible for coding for a certain opioid receptor and is more commonly present in people with opioid addiction.

The examples mentioned above are only a few of the thousands of genetic variations contributing to a person’s risk of addiction. Experts are still investigating to reveal additional connections between epigenetics and drug addiction, hoping to alter and improve the existing treatments.

Epigenetics Addiction: The Role of Environment

In addition to the role of genes, many environmental factors also determine a person’s vulnerability to developing substance use disorder. Some of these factors include the following:


The type of family a person grows up in has a huge impact on how likely they are to become an addict. Additionally, it also determines their ability to recover from addiction. For example, a person who grew up in a home without adult supervision or with many conflicts is more disposed toward addiction. Similarly, those who grew up in a home surrounded by alcohol and drugs may also grow up to use them.


A student’s commitment to their education, overall performance in school, and accessibility to quality friendships all impact their risk of acquiring addiction. These factors are equally important in the case of teenagers, adolescents, and even young adults. For older adults, the work environment plays a critical role in determining their risk of addiction.


An individual whose close friends routinely engage in alcoholism or drug use is far more likely to adopt similar behaviors. Experts consider this peer pressure as one of the most important risk factors for addiction. This peer pressure may not only come from close friends, but an extended peer group at school or in the community can also exert similar influences. Alternatively, a person who experiences bullying or is rejected by their peer groups may seek solace in drugs or alcohol to cope.


Media may play a huge role in shaping a young person’s behavior, especially in those who watch TV or movies involving substance use. Unfortunately, the media often glorifies the use of alcohol or drugs, even through jokes and satire, without highlighting its negative consequences.

Community and Neighborhoods

Certain neighborhoods are disadvantaged in terms of lacking access to the basic level of safety and food. People residing in these areas are usually more vulnerable to a lower quality of health, and such disparities may put them at increased risk of misusing substances.


Studies have proven a link between sexual abuse and substance addiction in adults, especially if these traumatic incidences occurred during their childhood. Trauma can impact a person differently, leading to various psychological complications and long-lasting consequences. Such people may resort to using drugs and alcohol to combat these consequences or temporarily escape them.

Mental Illness

Addiction is often a byproduct of an underlying mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. Individuals suffering from mental illness may attempt to use substances to self-medicate and make themselves feel better. Sometimes, they may not be aware of their underlying mental illness and only seek relief and calmness that a few drinks may bring them. However, this substance use can quickly spiral out of control, making them use more and more drugs or alcohol to achieve the same high, setting the foundation for addiction.

Epigenetics and Addiction: Setting a Sober Life Among Existing Risk Factors

While the link between epigenetics and addiction has unraveled useful information, it has also made it difficult for people to cope with the idea that certain factors can put them at a heightened risk of this condition. Such people may also use this information to feel hopeless and helpless regarding their risk; however, experts believe that it is never too late to make changes and encourage healing and health. Just like a person’s environment can make them more vulnerable to addiction, it can also play a crucial role in helping them through recovery.

In most cases, people prefer enrolling in a professional rehabilitation program; however, even the best ones cannot help them lead a healthy life in the real world. What works best for them is to slowly learn how to cope with things contributing to the environmental triggers for addiction, such as stress. They may also have to find a job, learn to cope with past trauma or reassimilate into their family to reduce this addiction risk. Some tips to keep in mind in this aspect include the following:

Create a stress-free environment

The concept of a stress-free environment varies from one person to another. If you are caring for a recovering addict, it is imperative to sit down with them and discuss their needs. On the other hand, if you are a recovering addict, be vocal about your needs and ensure that your loved ones acknowledge them. Do not hesitate to distance yourself from any negative influences, such as family members who abused you in the past or friends who engage in alcohol or drug use. Keep asking for help from those who truly care for you and are willing to support you. It may also benefit certain people to stop living alone and move in with a trusted person who can provide accountability and support to them during the early recovery stages.

Regardless of where a person chooses to live, it must be free from any environmental triggers that may potentiate relapses. While it is impossible to cut back on all stressors completely, maintaining a low-stress environment should be encouraged. If you are inviting someone to live with you to support them during recovery, make the house welcoming and bright while providing them with a positive atmosphere that makes them feel supported and comfortable.

Avoid major triggers

Attending and completing a rehab program does not “cure” a person of addiction. Such people are still prone to setbacks and vulnerable to relapses in the future. The best way to support a person who has finished a rehab program and has re-integrated into normal life is to ensure that their home environment remains free from all potential triggers of relapse. Recovering addicts must learn to trust people again, and for this to happen, they must live in a caring and loving environment without access to drugs or other substances.

For a recovering addicts, experts advise surrounding themselves with people who encourage and celebrate their successes instead of those who drag them back to their old patterns. This may mean leaving old friends and roommates, changing neighborhoods, or quitting existing jobs to find one that offers a healthier environment. It may also mean avoiding every place that may put them at risk of a relapse, such as bars or any social event where they are likely to engage in heavy alcohol or drug use.

Don’t do it all alone

Whether a person is a recovering addict or is supporting one, navigating the journey can be very difficult without support. Regardless of a person’s experiences associated with addiction and its effects on themselves and their family members, the condition requires time and all the help they can get. Some people attempt to seek this help through professional counseling, while others may consider joining an addiction support group. Family members and friends also play a crucial role in lending direct support and allowing recovering addicts to take full advantage of the resources available to them.


which is a more important determinator of addiction, environment or genetics?

The answer to this commonly asked question is both. Experts classify addiction as a complex disorder that occurs due to a combination of the environment and genetics. Neither side can take the entire blame as the problem seems to stem from an interaction of the two. Genetics generally account for up to 50% of a person’s risk of addiction, whereas the environment controls the other half.

Can stress cause changes in a person’s addiction and epigenetics risk?

Recent evidence suggests that environmental factors, including stress, can cause changes in a person’s risk of acquiring substance use disorders by altering their epigenetic structure. These epigenetic changes cases regulations in a person’s gene expression instead of altering the DNA sequence itself. In simpler words, stress can add information to the already available genetic material to change how genes express themselves in the body. For instance, a person who experiences a stressful situation like the death of a loved one may respond by releasing a steroid hormone called glucocorticoid. These hormones trigger changes in many systems throughout the body, including the reward circuitry in the brain. The complex interaction between stress hormones and this circuitry increases a person’s addiction risk or may cause a relapse in the one leading a sober life.

Can the link between epigenetics and addiction help experts plan better treatment programs?

As scientists investigate the link between genetics and addiction, they are slowly coming up with better solutions on how to tackle substance use disorders. Understanding how genes interact with the environment to cause biological differences can markedly improve the quality of the existing programs. This information has provided people with new addiction-related genes, each of which can act like a drug target. By focusing on these targets, researchers can develop better drugs to modify their activity. Other teams are also on the way to coming up with new gene therapies that target the brain and save it from addiction-related effects.

Can drugs alter your DNA?

According to research, exposure to drugs in a person’s cultural or social environment can alter the function and expression of certain genes. Sometimes, these changes and their effects may persist throughout a lifetime.

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