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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

is alcoholism genetic | Renaissance Recovery

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, affecting the reward and motivation centers, and it is also a genetic problem. Indeed, scientists have argued about the genetic and hereditary influences on addiction for decades. To truly understand the influence of genetics and heredity, we must understand the difference between the two.

Alcohol use disorder, the medical term for alcoholism and alcohol abuse, has been linked to some specific genes. Having a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, who struggles with alcohol use disorder increases the chances that a person will also struggle with the same addiction. This makes a strong argument for the learned behavior theory but in reality, there may be other influences that might predispose a person to alcohol addiction. While genetics and heredity are obviously closely linked – because parents pass their genes down to their children, so children inherit the genes –from a medical perspective, there are some differences when discussing genetic versus hereditary diseases.

A person with a genetic disease has an abnormality in their genomean individual with a hereditary disease has received a genetic mutation from their parents’ DNA. When scientists debate whether alcohol use disorder is genetic or hereditary, they debate whether the condition stems from a larger set of genes that are passed down or if the disease stems from mutations in some genes.

Is Being an Alcoholic Genetic?

Alcoholism is a serious problem and one estimate suggests that as many as 18 million adults in the country struggle with alcohol use disorder; that is one in 12 individuals. Around 100,000 people die every year because of alcoholism, including deaths due to cirrhosis and other organ damage. Chronic heavy drinking also increases the risk of kidney disease, diabetes, and several cancers. Genetics are 50 percent of the underlying reason for alcohol use disorder. If a person is predisposed to metabolize alcohol in such a way that the pleasurable effects are more prominent than feeling nauseous, overheating, or experiencing mood swings, the person may be more likely to develop alcohol use disorder.

A 2008 study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reviewed much of the research on alcohol use disorder and a possible genetic contribution. The study concluded that genetic factors account for 40-60 percent of the variance among people who struggle with alcohol use disorder. Since then, some specific genes that contribute to alcohol use disorder have been found, and they correlate with the development of the reward centers in the brain

A good example is when a person has one parent with blue eyes and one parent with brown eyes, so they have genes for both eye colors, but only one eye color will be expressed. Strong genes are the exception to the rule, and a gene responsible for the movement of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in synapses between neurons appears to be a strong gene associated with a higher risk of alcoholism. When trying to determine if alcoholism is genetic, scientists must precisely understand how this genetic sequence can ultimately influence the outcome for a person.

Genes that influence alcoholism may be explained in various ways:

  • Smaller amygdala: People who have a family history of alcoholism have, in some studies, been shown to have a smaller than average amygdala. This is the part of the brain that likely plays a role in the emotions associated with cravings.
  • Different warning signs: People who have a genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder may experience fewer or different warning signals from their brain or body when they need to stop drinking.
  • Abnormal serotonin levels: Serotonin is one of the most important mood-regulating neurotransmitters and is closely associated with depression. Unusual levels of serotonin have also been associated with people who are genetically predisposed to alcohol use disorder.

Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

While children of alcoholics have a two to four times higher chance of issues with alcohol abuse later in life, a survey in 2011 found that only about 46% of them actually developed an alcohol use disorder. A partial explanation is that perhaps they are inheriting the genes for alcoholism, or it could be explained by the environment that led to a specific expression of those genes. If you are looking for an answer to the question “is alcoholism genetic?” you may feel a bit lost, but statistically, a family with a history of alcoholism is more likely to pass on an increased risk of an alcohol use disorder, depending on how close the relatives are to each other.

Children who have one parent who struggles with alcohol use disorder have 3-4 times increased risk of becoming an alcoholic themselves. Having more extended relatives, such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other family members, who struggle with alcohol abuse, however, does not have the same strong association. While this relation can influence whether or not a person inherits genetic mutations that predispose them to alcohol use disorder, growing up in where several close relatives suffer from addition can also predispose a person to the condition.

Environment affects how genes are expressed, and learned behaviors can change how a person perceives drugs or alcohol.

Other Influences on Alcoholism

Other environmental factors that can influence the expression of alcoholism genes include:

  • Early drinking age: People who drink in adolescence are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder; those who avoid alcohol until legal drinking age are less likely to struggle with alcoholism.
  • History of abuse: Children who were raised in emotionally stressful homes, especially those who were verbally, physically, or sexually abused, are at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder as adults.
  • Mental health problems: Psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia, put a person at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder. It is believed that alcohol may be used as a way to self-medicate certain mental health symptoms like mood swings.

Treatment for Genetic Alcoholism at Renaissance

Now that you have a better understanding of the question “is alcoholism genetic?” you may be wondering how you can get help for a genetic issue like this, but it is always possible to end the addiction. As is the case with any form of addiction treatment, detoxing (with the help of medical supervision) through a rehabilitation program is the best first step.

Some detox facilities in the United States specialize in drug rehab while others focus on alcohol rehab, but many are blended. Do your research before your decide. A sober living home (often called a halfway house or transitional living home) is the next step and helps to establish a routine of sobriety and healthy living. Therapy and social support components as offered in sober living housing, rehabilitation programs, AA meetings which use the 12 step program are a cornerstone in addiction treatment.

Having a support that includes a sponsor has also proven to be very effective and will help the individual understand their addiction, avoid triggers for relapse, and maintain a sober, healthy lifestyle. These treatment options have all shown proven success rates. If you need help finding a treatment program, contact us today.

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country