For those of us who struggle with substance abuse, we may wonder: “Why me? Why do I tend toward addiction while others do not?”

One’s individual risk of developing an addiction depends on a combination of factors. In the past, it was common for people to question and blame either nature or nurture. Now, however, we understand that both nature and nurture interact with each other to influence substance use. Scientists are studying how our environment impacts our genetics and how those influences are passed down. This is also called epigenetics.

What Is Epigenetics?

Our genes are made of DNA, small molecules that carry a code. We inherit many traits from our parents, which are often carried in our genes. Epigenetics is defined as modifications that are heritable and possibly reversible that do not change the DNA code. After all, while every cell in the body contains the same DNA, our body can develop different types of cells. Epigenetic changes can influence how our genes express themselves.

These changes are good in many ways. It is healthy to develop different cells, such as liver cells vs skin tissue. However, the environment can impact our epigenetics in negative ways as well. For example, being exposed to certain environments such as unhealthy family dynamics or experiences such as trauma may cause epigenetic changes and increase our risk of substance abuse.

When Substance Use Becomes Addiction

Occurring in multiple steps, addiction alters the internal environment of our bodies. Addiction occurs in the following steps:

  1. Initial use
  2. Intermittent to regular use
  3. Physical addiction and relapse

As we become addicted to a certain substance, we developed a chemical dependence. When we are not using that substance after we have become dependent, we feel symptoms of withdrawal. Withdrawal is a sign of the changes that are occurring internally. When drugs or alcohol alter our body and brain’s functioning, the lack of a substance can feel intolerable.

Impact of Addiction on Epigenetics

The changes that occur internally from substance abuse include epigenetic changes. While some of these changes are immediate, others accumulate over time.

These epigenetic changes can increase our risk of addiction. Working with a treatment that understands the biological changes that occur with addiction is crucial for recovery. At 449 Recovery, we help our clients understand the biological changes that occur during substance use. We also help them build new coping mechanisms that can sustain lifelong physical and emotional change.

Epigenetics and Specific Substances

Substance use impacts our epigenetics. Research has found that these changes affect our likelihood of relapse and drug cravings. These epigenetic changes can influence our risk of using substances and of continuing use.

Below we will discuss individual substances and how epigenetics impacts our risks of use and addiction.

Risk of Substance Abuse: Cocaine

Parental use of cocaine is well known to increase one’s risk of cocaine use. Specifically, maternal use of cocaine is closely linked to behaviors and physiological changes that increase our risk for substance use. It is important to remember that while we may be at a higher risk due to the choices that our parents made, we do have a choice. We can choose to manage our risk by setting and maintaining healthy boundaries and finding other ways to maintain sobriety.

Unfortunately, one-time use and consistent use also cause changes in our epigenetics. For example, one-time use of cocaine can alter the proteins that are created by changing how genes are expressed. The changes that occur are reversible, meaning the risk of cocaine dependence decreases as we abstain. In mice, the risk of cocaine abuse has also been shown to be impacted by the use of other substances. For example, nicotine use can increase our risk of using and abusing cocaine by altering our epigenetics.

Risk of Substance Abuse: Opioids

Opioids are pain-relieving drugs that are well-known to be highly addictive. While more research is needed, preliminary research suggests that epigenetics that increase opioid addiction can be passed down. This means that if our parents were addicted to opioids, we may be at risk for dependency.

Understanding that this may be the case can help us to make different choices. Finding alternative methods to decrease pain and treatment programs that can help you learn alternative coping mechanisms can help.

Risk of Substance Abuse: Alcohol

Alcohol dependence is a common form of addiction and often runs in families. While some of this is due to unhealthy coping behaviors learned by children observing their caregivers, it is also affected by epigenetics. In particular, chronic alcohol use affects our epigenetics. Changes in the proteins created in our bodies enhance certain genes in their expression and inhibit others.

These changes impact our risk of substance abuse. For many of us, we may be able to look back at our families and see the generation of alcohol abuse. These epigenetics are often passed down to future generations. Changing our choices in turn can impact our children and theirs. Thus, the choices we make today can help future generations through epigenetics and learned behaviors.

Addiction is a disease of the brain, and many physiological changes occur with substance use. Epigenetics is one way in which the body and brain are affected. While we cannot change the choices our parents or grandparent made, we can understand how their choices impact us. We can also make our own choices, understanding that we may always have a physiological pull toward substances. Getting help from a treatment center that can help you to understand the biology behind addiction and learn tools to maintain sobriety can help. At 449 Recovery, we help our clients find freedom from addiction. Call today at (949) 435-7449 to learn more about how we can help you.