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Genetic Predisposition: Is Addiction a Disease?

Though habitual drug and alcohol abuse has long been perceived as exclusively an issue of moral failing, modern science continues to unravel the truth about the chronic nature of addiction. The way we understand genetic predisposition has a lot to do with this changing perspective. 

The term “chronic” indicates that the condition persists for a long time or is constantly recurring. Addiction is defined as a chronic disease by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). While there is no cure, it is, thankfully, treatable. 

Genetic Predisposition and The Nature of Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) all describe addiction similarly. These organizations consider it a long-term and relapsing condition characterized by the individual compulsively seeking and using drugs despite adverse consequences.

Addiction is the result of a distortion of a natural process in the brain’s reward system. Most addictive substances cause the brain to release high levels of dopamine or serotonin. These are the same chemicals that the body produces as natural pleasure or reward.

Dr. Jillian Hardee from the University of Michigan explains:  “The healthy brain releases dopamine in response to natural rewards, such as food or exercise, as a way of saying, ‘that was good.’ But drugs hijack dopamine pathways, teaching the brain that drugs are good, too.”

Image of a man falling into an obstacle: Addiction is considered a long-term and relapsing condition charachterized by the individual compulsively seeking and using drugs despite adverse consequences.

Opioids and prescription drugs–especially if overused–can release an enormous, euphoric rush of dopamine in the brain. This release is significantly higher than the natural rewards release amounts–two to 10 times higher, in fact, depending on the drug. 

The brain is constantly trying to maintain a balanced state. So, when substances like these throw things “out of whack,” the brain tries to re-normalize in one of two ways:

  1. minimizing its reaction to those rewarding chemicals, or
  2. releasing stress hormones

Thus, if the brain is forced to continue processing unnaturally high levels of dopamine,  it produces less–or reduces the number of brain structures that receive–dopamine.

This explains why individuals who chronically abuse drugs or alcohol begin to appear lethargic, unmotivated and depressed. Over time, dopamine has less and less impact on the reward network, which, sadly, diminishes an individual’s ability to experience pleasure even from things they once enjoyed. 

Addiction Risk Factors

Three significant conditions that raise the likelihood of drug addiction: genetic predisposition, environment, and development.

There are three significant conditions in a person’s life that sharply raise the likelihood of drug addiction:   

Genetic Predisposition

If addiction runs in the family, NIDA says you have up to a 60% greater risk of also becoming addicted.

Environment

Similar to the way that growing up with a diet high in sugar plus fried and processed foods increases your risk for heart disease and diabetes, living in a home with observable drug use increases the risk of addiction.

Development

Using drugs during the brain’s formative years (up to age 25) greatly increases your chances of addiction. Additionally, this can cause serious, lasting development damage.

The greater the number or greater the influence power of any of these factors in a person’s life, the more likely they are to struggle with avoiding or managing an addiction.

Addiction Symptoms

Some of the strongest indicators of drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:

  • An inabilaty to control the use of a particular legal, medical, or illegal substance
  • Expending, time, effort and money into securing more of the substance
  • Needing more of the drug over time to feel the same effects
  • Engaging in risky behavior
  • Inability to stop using the drug even when it causes harm to the body
  • Failing in attempts to quit using the drug
  • Experiencing uncomfortable or painful withdrawal symptoms without the substance

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, or you can recognize them in a loved one, contacting a medical professional may be the first step in a road to lifelong recovery. 

Disorder vs Disease: Breaking Down the Differences

Man walking alone on a road: A disease is a pathophysiological response to internal or external factors. A disorder is a disruption to regular bodily structure and function.

You might’ve heard of someone struggling with an alcohol addiction as having a “substance use disorder” (SUD). You might’ve also heard alcohol addiction referred to as a disease–so which is it? 

A disease is a pathophysiological response to internal or external factors. A disorder is a disruption to regular bodily structure and function. The distinguishing characteristic between the two is the fact that a disorder often results from disease. 

An example of this dynamic might be how an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) is a disorder resulting from heart disease. The symptoms of the disorder are the by-product of a disease, but arrhythmia is not a disease in-and-of itself. 

Other characteristics of disease include the following:

  • It is diagnosed and treated based on abnormalities in systemic/organ functions
  • These systemic interruptions can cause both physical and emotional signs and symptoms
  • They are accompanied by pain, dysfunction, distress, social problems or death
  • They have a potential for genetic predisposition

Drug addiction is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior. The significant changes it makes to the brain leads to an inability to control the use of a drug or medication, whether legal or illegal. A chronic disease is a long-lasting condition that can be managed, but not cured.

Why Consider Addiction a Disease? Isn’t Drug Use a Choice? 

Misunderstanding about the relationship between addiction and choice leads to a great deal of confusion and heartbreak. Similar to the way diabetes is a chronic disease of the pancreas, and heart disease is one of the heart, addiction is a chronic disease of the brain.

Getting Help Today

Addiction shares two important-to-understand characteristics with chronic disease:

  1. There is no cure; but
  2. It is entirely possible to live a meaningful, joy-filled life in remission from disordered habits.

Learning to find pleasure again in community, healthy activities, exercise, and gainful employment can help you manage–or better yet, thrive–in spite of the disease of addiction. 

The empathetic professionals at Reflections Recovery are ready and willing to help you start this process. Reach out to us today to find out how.