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Nature vs. Nurture: What Is the True Cause of Addiction?

Is addiction a case of nature vs. nurture? The ongoing debate as to whether substance abuse disorders are caused by genetics or influenced by environmental factors that a person encounters in their lifetime is discussed at length in this blog. It’s a critical question that can pave the way for better understanding of the possible triggers of addiction in order to come up with more targeted and effective strategies for its treatment and prevention.

Why are some people more vulnerable to alcohol or drug addiction than others?  At Freedom From Addiction, we believe that addiction is a complex brain disease that results from not only one but a culmination of several different factors that contribute to an individual’s susceptibility to substance abuse.

Let’s delve deeper into this topic.

Is Addiction Genetic?


Based on a 2008 report by The American Psychological Association, at least 50% of a person’s susceptibility to addiction can be attributed to genetics. Genes are inherited by offspring from both parents and contribute to countless physical traits (i.e. hair colour, eye colour, or height) and certain risk or protective factors from diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or addiction.

A PubMed study looked into first-degree relatives of individuals with severe dependence on cocaine, cannabis, opioids, and alcohol. It found that children of addicts are eight times more likely to struggle with substance abuse when they grow up. 

Studies also suggest a compelling correlation between genetics and alcoholism in the family, particularly for its early onset in men. Sons of alcoholic fathers are at a four-fold risk compared to male children who had non-alcoholic fathers.

When it comes to tobacco or smoking addictions, a person’s tendency to start smoking is mostly 75% genetics. Likewise, one’s genetic predisposition also plays a pivotal role in the risk of getting addicted (60% ) and the ability to quit smoking (54%). According to Caryn Lerman, Ph.D., a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, it can be linked to one’s genetically determined speed to metabolize nicotine in the body. 

Although the majority of estimates suggest genetic factors contribute between 40% and 60% of vulnerability to drug addiction, it remains unclear which exact genes are responsible.

Family counselling session at a treatment facility

Can Environmental Factors Lead to Addiction?


Addiction goes beyond a person’s genetic makeup. Sometimes, it’s also a cause of unresolved trauma from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from childhood and poor coping methods worsened by a co-occurring mental illness

An article by Harvard Health reveals that there’s mounting scientific evidence supporting theories that environmental factors or epigenetic stress can dramatically trigger the development of drug addiction and other psychiatric disorders. Epigenetic changes refer to new information added to presently existing genetic material, affecting the expression of genes.

Stressful situations, which can be a death or loss of a loved one, can signal the release of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids. These stress hormones influence alterations in different systems in the body, triggering epigenetic changes and affecting the expression of particular genes, including the brain’s reward system. This interaction significantly affects a person’s risk of developing addiction and their likelihood of having a stress-induced relapse during addiction recovery.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reveals that one in four children in the United States suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to painful childhood experiences. These children have a higher risk of struggling with substance use and abuse later in life. Typically, they turn to alcohol and illicit drugs as a form of self-medication and develop a dependency on these substances later on.

Reducing Risks of Addiction

Thankfully, addiction is not a life sentence. Whether nature vs. nurture, some strategies can alleviate your risks of vulnerability to alcohol or drug abuse like participating in physical activities. Doing so creates epigenetic changes that can lower addiction risks and produce benefits when done in combination with other interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and medication. 

A small Danish study looked into 38 male and female participants who misused opioids, cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, and other addictive substances. They were asked to attend a group exercise activity three times a week for six months. Only 20 people completed the intervention. After a year, researchers found that 10 participants successfully decreased their substance use while five reported abstinence from drugs.

Exercising can be used to reduce negative feelings brought about by stress and stress-induced epigenetic changes. It is also considered an excellent strategy in taking one’s mind away from their usual urges and cravings and a healthy way of coping with depression while remaining sober.

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Personalized Addiction Treatments

The valuable information from these nature vs. nurture studies lends knowledge to medical experts and addiction specialists on developing a holistic and personalized approach to treating substance abuse and preventing relapse while in recovery.

Freedom From Addiction is an addiction recovery home near Toronto that does just that. We have an extensive range of innovative treatment therapies designed to address the root cause of addiction. These include:

Each of our clients goes through a careful and comprehensive assessment process, which we use to create a customized treatment plan based on their unique medical history, cultural background, the specific substance they’re addicted to, personal experiences, etc.

For more information about our drug addiction treatments, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly. Contact us today.


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