It’s often said that addiction is a family disease. There are several reasons for this. One is that children who grow up in families with addiction tend to assume their parents’ substance use habits are normal. Kids who grow up in homes with addiction are also more likely to be exposed to adverse experiences, such as abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, having a parent go to jail, and so on. Children who have four or more of these adverse experiences are far more likely to have substance use and mental health issues.
Addiction also has a large genetic component. Based on genealogy and twin studies, researchers estimate that about half of your risk for developing an addiction is genetic. Scientists have even identified a number of genes that seem to predict specific vulnerabilities. For example, people who have a certain form of a dopamine receptor gene have a much higher risk of alcohol, cocaine, and opioid addiction, while others who have a certain gene that impairs their ability to metabolize alcohol are far less likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
Predisposition to certain mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia also has a genetic component that may increase your risk of addiction. If you have a parent or sibling with a substance use or mental health issue, you have about a 50 percent chance of sharing that genetic vulnerability, and if you have a grandparent, aunt, or uncle, your risk is about a quarter.
The good news is that even if you do have a genetic predisposition to addiction, you won’t necessarily develop a substance use disorder. There’s a saying that genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger. By taking sensible precautions, you can reduce your risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Be curious about your family history
Although the stigma around addiction is not as bad as it used to be, it certainly still exists. Families typically try to keep substance use issues quiet. While this is often well-meaning, it can also hide your risk. Be a little bit nosy about your family history. Ask about that aunt that nobody seems to have heard from in a while or that grandparent who died of a heart attack at a suspiciously young age. You’ll often find that substance use was a factor. You have a right to know about these things since they affect your health and wellbeing.
Limit your exposure to drugs and alcohol
The most pragmatic step you can take to protect yourself from addiction is just to limit your exposure to drugs and alcohol. If, for example, your risk is high as both of your parents have had substance use issues, it’s probably best to stay away from drugs and alcohol entirely. There are few benefits to casual drinking and a huge potential downside, so in that case, it’s better to err on the side of caution. If you had a grandparent or uncle who had substance use issues, you might not have to be quite as careful but it’s certainly something to keep in mind, especially if you start to notice an upward trend in your drug or alcohol use or exhibit signs of addiction. These signs might include an increased tolerance, neglecting friends or work to drink or use drugs, lying about your substance use, needing drugs or alcohol to relax, or trying to quit and being unable to. If you find you can’t quit, seek help right away, even if it’s in the form of talking to your doctor or therapist.
Tell your doctor about your family history
One major contributing factor to the opioid crisis in the US is the widespread overprescription of opioids. Although doctors are far more cautious about their prescribing practices in recent years, it’s still standard to prescribe opioids following surgeries and other procedures. Sometimes, this is just prudent since the pain can often be intense, but there are still doctors and surgeons who prescribe opioid painkillers excessively. If you have a family history of addiction, taking these as prescribed might expose you to unnecessary risk. Therefore, it’s important your doctor knows you may have an increased risk of addiction.
Hospitals and doctors offices routinely ask about family history of heart disease and cancer now, but typically not addiction. You may find you have to advocate for yourself in this matter since doctors also don’t want to be accused of undertreating pain. If you do decide to use opioid painkillers, ask for a short prescription and consider having someone you trust control your access to pills. Also, keep yourself honest about whether you’re actually feeling acute pain or merely discomfort. Opioids are only for pain; if you’re feeling discomfort, you can likely tolerate it with the help of non-addictive over-the-counter medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. These work surprisingly well for moderate pain too.
Talk to your kids about it when they’re old enough
It’s a good idea, in general, to talk to your children about drugs and alcohol starting at a young age. A child of four or five won’t understand addiction but you can use teachable moments to introduce the topic. For example, when you give them cold medicine, make sure they know they aren’t to take any medicine unless it’s given to them by a parent or doctor. You can build on these lessons as they get older. It’s important to always be honest so they see you as a reliable source of information about drugs and alcohol. When they get old enough, they need to be made aware they may be at risk for addiction too. They may even be aware that one of their parents or a sibling has had substance use issues but they may not realize that means they are also at risk. They need to know how to protect themselves from addiction as they get older.
Always remember that genes are not destiny. You can have an elevated risk of developing a substance use disorder and still avoid the trap of addiction. If substance use has already become an issue for you or someone you care about we can help. At Steps Recovery Centers, we provide high-quality care to people who want to quit drugs and alcohol. To learn more about our programs, explore our website or call us today at 385-236-0931.