Written By:Amber Hollingsworth,LPC
It doesn’t take a scientist to see that addiction tends to “run in families” and most anyone in the field would agree that it does seem that a person can “inherit” the tendency toward addiction.
However, there is No-Such-A-Thing as an “Addiction Gene”. Recent studies show that it’s way more complicated than that!
There are many factors that come in to play when it comes to addiction.
The basic formula is: Inherent Vulnerability plus Stress plus Drug/Alcohol Use equals BIG Trouble!
In this article, I am going to focus on the “Inherent Vulnerability” part of the equation.
All this is pretty complicated so let me see if I can explain it in some sort of understandable way.
Think back to 8th grade science class when you learned about genetics. I know you remember doing those Punnett Squares!
It seems simple enough. Genetic code is passed down from the parents to the child. Each parent passes down a set of genes. The “dominant” genes are the ones that will be “expressed”.
Well…. now there is a WHOLE NEW CHAPTER in the story of nature vs. nurturing and it’s called epigenetics. (Def: the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.). Sounds fancy right?!?!
Let’s just pick up the story right where we left off in the 8th grade.
Once the DNA from the father is combined with the DNA from the mother, you have an embryo. This embryo has all the genetic code it will ever have, but the prenatal environment and post-natal environment will determine which genes get activated and which genes do not.
Maybe this illustration will help: If you were to take a perfectly healthy baby and put a blind fold over it’s eyes for the first several months of it’s life, that child be blind for it’s entire life. The baby was borne with the proper genetic code for sight, but since those neuropathways were not used, the genetic coding for sight never activates.
Here’s another example: Rat babies that are licked by their mother (this is the way rats nurture their babies, it would be similar to a human mother holding or rocking her baby) will develop the ability to self-sooth. The self-soothing genes are essentially turned on by the mothers interaction with them. Rats that did not have this nurturing from there mother, turn out to be more erratic, anxious and hyperactive. Ultimately these rats end up being much more vulnerable to addiction. This is because they have less internal ability to self-regulate compared to the rats that were nurtured as babies.
Translation, the early environment of fetuses and newborns is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!
Newborns can not self-regulate, they depend on their care giver for emotional regulation. This happens when the parents hold, nurture, and consistently respond to the child’s needs. If the mother/caregiver is stressed, depressed, or anxious it will have a big impact on the child’s brain development. All of these things determine which genes get activated in the child’s brain and which genes are left dormant.
Much of our understanding about how genetic traits are inherited come from what we call “twin studies”. Scientist would study identical twins that were adopted and raised by separate families. It was concluded that when the same traits where exhibited by both twins (being raised in separate environments) that those traits must be genetically passed down, because the traits seemed to be present regardless of environment.
However, there’s a factor not being considered in this scenario. These studies are not taking in consideration the “prenatal environment” (the environmental conditions present at the time the fetus is developing in utero)
Adopted children have a MUCH higher chance of having mental health and/or addiction problems throughout their life time. It’s almost for certain that any mother that has to give up her baby for adoption is under tremendous stress. They could be a teenager who got pregnant accidentally, they could be extremely poor and couldn’t afford to keep their baby, they could have been raped, they could have been forced to give up the child by their family, they could be giving up the child because the father of the child abandoned them and they could not raise the child alone, etc… There are lots of reasons why women give up their babies for adoption, but as you can see, all of the reasons would indicate very high levels of stress on the mother.
The environment determines which genes are “activated” and which genes are not activated. When certain genes (like the ones involved in self-regulation) are not activated in newborns they grow up into mothers/fathers that have limited ability to self-regulate as adults, which means they will likely experience a lot of stress in life. Because their stress level is so high, they likely will not be able to adequately sooth their own children. As you can see this is a vicious cycle. In the past it would have seemed that this pattern of traits was being triggered mostly by genetic code, but now we know that the environment has a much larger influence on brain development. These traits that were a reaction to the environment can be passed down through generations.
It’s pretty mainstream to give pregnant women pre-natal vitamins because we know that the fetus needs these vitamins for proper development. But we also need to take into consideration the mothers psycho/social needs, because the mothers mood, stress level, and access to social supports is just as important as getting the right nutrition.
Before I go further….. I want to clarify I AM NOT BLAMING PARENTS FOR EVERYTHING! I believe that parents do the very best they can, and most of what I am talking about has more to do with brain processes and development versus. whether or not a child was “loved” or cared for!
In fact, I’m sure that my own ADHD brain impacts the development of my son’s brain! Even though he is very loved and has all the physical things he needs, my brain stress affects his brain development. And… my ADHD brain was likely impacted from my mothers brain and so it goes.
Things that make me go Hmmm!
This past weekend, I was talking to a neighbor of mine, who currently has three son’s (approximate ages are 6, 4, and 2) The two older children are their biological children and the younger one is a foster child. My neighbor was telling me about the conditions that the 2 year old child was living in before he came to live with them. It was heartbreaking to hear. It seems that he had been neglected, was malnourished, and appeared to be almost despondent for the first few months they had him. He was extremely small for his age and although he was over a year old, he wasn’t even able to crawl.
My neighbor told me that when they would hold him, he would stay stiff, rigid and was minimally responsive to their efforts to nurture him, and that his hair felt more like straw than hair. After a few months, of living with his new foster family, he eventually started to respond to their love and comforting.
They said it was like he suddenly started to come to life. This little boy has been over to my house several times and he seems very happy and healthy now. He has beautiful shiny hair that looks like silk, he is extremely smart, and very responsive to his foster brothers, foster parents, and even my son (his friend).
This is truly a miracle. Many children who suffer from neglect never recover from the early environment deprivation. Neglect may not seem as bad as some other forms of abuse, but it has VERY SERIOUS (OFTEN IRREVERSIBLE) EMOTIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS.
My Own Personal History:
My own mother was adopted when she was several months old. From what I am told, her biological mother was an alcoholic and would often leave my mother in the car (in the car seat) for hours while she was inside of bars drinking. My grandmother told me that when she got my mom, as a baby, that the back of her head was very flat because she had spent so much time in the car seat.
My mom was a good mom. I only have fond memories of her. She was lots of fun, she was pretty, and very creative. Everyone always seemed to like my mom. (She was a for sure type 7 for those of you who follow the enneagram)
I didn’t know it until I was an adult but my mother struggled with addictions off an on throughout her life. Looking back, I think she must have also had troubles with infidelity. She was married 4 times and had lots of boyfriends. I knew my mom liked to go out to bars and have fun, but pretty much everyone in my family did that… so I didn’t really know any different.
I spent lots of time in bars as a kid, my mom was even a bartender for some time. Sounds terrible, but I remember it being fun. She would bring us coke-a-cola with maraschino cherries, and we loved it. We would play pool and listen to fun music.
By the time I was in high school, she was addicted to meth. She started dating a new guy and was gone a lot. Honestly, I didn’t even notice that much because I was a teenager and I had always been very independent.
It must have been way worse than I thought because my dad moved from North Carolina to Tennessee to come take care of us (my parents where divorced). I remember he made me and my sister move in with him. I was upset at the time because I was a teenager and I didn’t want to move or change around my life in any way! Plus, I didn’t see what the problem was. I had always been pretty responsible and, I thought, I was taking good care of myself. I went to school and worked part time at a restaurant. I got my own rides back and forth to school and work. I had my own money from working so I paid for my own expenses.
About a week after we moved in with my father, he said he got a call from DSS saying that if he didn’t come and get us, they would have to remove us from The home. Luckily, he had already gotten us to come live with him.
*** The craziest part of this whole story is that I honestly had no idea that there was a problem. I was happy, never got into trouble, made decent grades, I liked my job, and had friends. In fact, I just thought I was lucky because “I had the cool parents”.
My mother continued to use drugs (meth) and eventually died in her early 50’s. Her death was a direct result of the drug use.
Looking back now, I can see that pretty much everyone in my family had a major addiction problem. My older half-sister is an addict, both my paternal grandparents are addicts/alcoholics, my aunt and uncle both had substance abuse problems, I have had lots of addicted step parents, and the list goes on.
Because I grew up in it, drugs and alcohol never really appealed to me. So, I decided that I wasn’t going to drink or do drugs. But even though I never developed a chemical addiction, everything about me is like an addict. I have ADHD and do everything to an extreme! (If you don’t believe me, just ask my coworkers)
These conditions are not necessarily the parents fault. Consider this…. If a women is pregnant and one of her loved ones die suddenly. This will impact the development of the babies brain because it is impacting the mothers brain and body chemistry. This isn’t a neglect or lack of love, it’s just the impact of stress on Biology.
It’s no wonder I love working with Addicted clients. I’ve pretty much never been around any other type of person. My emotional rhythm falls right in line with theirs! And because there was so much addiction in my family (and I still thought of them as a great family) I have the unique ability to know that someone can be an addict but still see all of their good qualities.
The highly stressed pregnant woman has high levels of “stress chemicals” (cortisol for example). High levels of cortisol have a major impact on the rapidly developing brain of the fetus.