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Epigenetics & Genes: A Root Cause of Addiction

By July 24, 2021August 13th, 2021Recovery

Starting at the Root

Everyone mentions ’finding the root cause of the problem” but where do you even start?

We can start a few places, so feel free to jump around to what interests you. Below are the points we’ll be discussing on epigenetics, genes, and their link to addiction.

Genes are made up of our DNA as human beings. They carry the data of our cellular expression and brain-body activity. This genetic data creates our traits. Most diseases, including addiction, are not simple to treat for one major reason being genetics.

Genes are made up of our DNA as human beings. They carry the data of our cellular expression and brain-body activity. This genetic data creates our traits. Most diseases, including addiction, are not simple to treat for one major reason being genetics.

What is Genetics as a Root Cause of Addiction?

They are the characteristics passed down from generation to generation such as eye color, height, heart disease, and yes — Addiction. The NIDA states these factors (like having a parent with addiction) can explain between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

This TedTalk, “From Genes to Addiction: How Risk Unfolds Across the Lifespan” explains how our dispositions are not our destiny without our environment being accounted for.

Understanding our pre-dispositions and becoming informed on how these different factors can affect us is very important. Our environments largely influence the genetic expression of addiction. This influence happens during childhood and beyond.

Overlapping Root Causes

Risk factors like biology, trauma, and a person’s environment play a large role in determining the risk of addiction.

Genetics commonly overlap other root causes, such as environmental factors. Other root causes we discuss are childhood adversity, trauma influences, neurological factors, and emotional pain. Mental health problems are also a common co-occurring condition in substance-using populations (Dauber, 2018).

The overlapping root causes can contribute to a person’s overall level of risk or protection from addiction.

In most cases, the root causes of addiction do bleed into one another making it more difficult to strengthen a person’s level of protection. Those who identify with more than one root cause have a higher risk of being affected by addiction. Genetics and environmental factors are two of the most impacted areas in overlapping root causes.

What is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the environmental exposures or choices that people make that in fact restructure their DNA at the cellular level.

According to the NIDA, a person’s exposure to drugs or stress in a social or cultural environment can alter both gene expression and gene function. Research shows in some cases, these choices affect the health of a person on an individual level and can be passed down to future generations.

For example, both genetics and lifestyle factors— such as diet, physical activity, and stress—affect high blood pressure risk. NIDA research has led to findings of how a person’s environment and their immediate surroundings affect substance use in particular.

Research effort studying identical twins found that gene variations that make a person vulnerable to drug addiction. “Twin studies explore the roles and interrelationship of genetic and environmental risk factors in the development of drug use, abuse, and dependence,” says Dr. Naimah Weinberg of NIDA’s Division of Epidemiology, Services, and Prevention Research.

Studies on Twin Genetics

“The results we see from these twin studies are making important advances in our understanding of the role of genetic influences in drug abuse,” observes NIDA’s Dr. Weinberg. “Although the studies can’t tell us anything about the risk for a particular individual, they are of enormous value in helping define the variations in drug abuse vulnerability in the population.”

Dr. Ming Tsuang, a NIDA-supported researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has found that, in males, genetic influences are stronger for abuse of some drugs than for others. Dr. Tsuang says. In addition to this shared vulnerability, the researchers found different vulnerabilities for different drugs. “Each category of drugs we looked at, except psychedelics, had unique genetic influences,” Dr. Tsuang says. “The genetic influence for abuse was greater for heroin than for any other drug.”

Research continues to come out and new studies allow us to dive deeper into addiction and the genetic influences that can cause it.

Manipulating the Addiction Gene

Currently, scientists are using gene research to develop targeted medications that can be individualized for specific patient needs. As of now, it is proven that we do have the ability to manipulate gene expression through meditation (Venditti, 2020).

A 2017 Harvard Medical School Study showed that after meditating 15 minutes daily for eight weeks, the meditators had changes in 172 genes that control inflammation, sleep-wake rhythms in the body, and how sugar processes (Venditti, 2020). These changes had the effect of lowering their blood pressure. Practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga help increase self-awareness.

Meditation Fights Against the Addiction Gene

So far genetic research has found meditation and mindfulness to be specific practices that have a positive influence on a person’s well-being.

Figure 1. The effects of psycho-affective states or traits (stress, depression, anxiety, neuroticism) on mental health and well-being in aging populations and risks for dementia. Meditation training might help reduce these adverse psycho-affective states or traits, and thereby improve sleep, cognition, and mental health and well-being in aging and reduce the risk, or delay the onset, of Alzheimer’s disease (Abbott and Lavretsky, 2013Bower et al., 2015Chételat et al., 2018).

The evidence for mindfulness and meditation practices is getting stronger and growing as more holistic approaches and mind-body practices are being integrated with conventional medicine. In fact, a considerable amount of literature suggests that mind-body activities can alleviate stress-dependent symptoms of various diseases including psychological disorders (e.g., mood and anxiety disorders), inflammatory diseases, aging, and cancer (Abbott and Lavretsky, 2013Bower et al., 2015Chételat et al., 2018).

In the large meta-analysis, where they looked at 18 different DNA studies to find the connection between meditation, mindfulness practices, and the changes in gene expression. They found a consistent and persisting result whereby 81% of the studies found that mind-body interventions (such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong, have a strong physical component, others like meditation and mindfulness, and breath regulation techniques) can reduce the levels of stress that activates the nervous system. This translation in the meta-analysis proved to reverse the effects of gene expression and inflammation caused by chronic stress (Buric, 2017).

Meditation is a Must

Meditation is used as a primary tool for restructuring our gene expression. It allows parts of our brain to transform and regulate the body. Meditation creates a state of peace and resilience to external distracting noise over time and consistent practice. Meditation encourages clarity, concentration, focus, and self-awareness.

Practicing meditation for as little as 10 minutes a day creates a higher success rate when trying to control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve a greater capacity for relaxation. Brain scans have shown that experienced meditators have stronger control over their posterior cingulate cortex – the part of the brain activated by stress and cravings.

As meditation affects these areas of the brain and body on a daily basis, over time our genetic expressions will be altered to create calmer reactions and fewer feelings of impulse or being out of control. If you are hesitant about trying meditation, look into choosing a mantra to silently repeat for a few minutes. This is a great way to move forward into a daily meditation practice.


Start with small goals that work toward updating your brain and body on a cellular level. Do what feels right for you and begin committing to a few minutes each day to meditate. The feelings of being overwhelmed, stress, or worried are the exact feelings and reactions we want to become nonreactionary against.

We are looking to feel more grateful and at ease in our present moments. Beginning a goal of even just 2-3 minutes each day is amazing. Taking the action and time out for yourself to use this powerful tool will allow room for healing deep-rooted genetics.

Deep dive of the NIH Drug Fact Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction here.










Buric I, Farias M, Jong J, Mee C and Brazil IA (2017) What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind-Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices. Front. Immunol. 8:670. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670

Chételat, Gaël & Lutz, Antoine & Arenaza-Urquijo, Eider & Collette, Fabienne & Klimecki, Olga & Marchant, Natalie. (2018). Why could meditation practice help promote mental health and well-being in aging?. Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy. 10. 10.1186/s13195-018-0388-5.

Co-occurring Mental Disorders in Substance Abuse Treatment: the Current Health Care Situation in Germany. Dauber H, Braun B, Pfeiffer-Gerschel T, Kraus L, Pogarell O. Int J Ment Health Addict. 2018; 16(1):66-80.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, June 10). Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from

Venditti, Sabrina et al. “Molecules of Silence: Effects of Meditation on Gene Expression and Epigenetics.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 11 1767. 11 Aug. 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01767

Volkow, N. (2019, February 19). SafeSpace. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from