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Genetic Factors in Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?

Table of Contents

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic condition that may damage relationships, impact mental health, and lead to physical harm.

While there are environmental and social attributes causing AUD, there is also an evident genetic component. Understanding it is crucial for effective prevention and treatment strategies.

Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Is alcoholism genetic? One’s genes do not solely determine alcohol abuse and addiction. However, studies have shown that genetics and alcoholism are closely related, with genetic factors accounting for about half of a person’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD).

The Genetic Component of Addiction

Genetics may influence addiction. It may make some people more vulnerable to developing AUD and drug abuse. Genes involved in the brain’s reward system may affect how responsive a person is to the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Genetic Risk Factors for Alcoholism

Research has suggested that genes may rouse a person’s susceptibility to abusing alcohol. These include:

  • specific genes that are involved in how your body processes alcohol,
  • genes that affect the reward pathways in the brain,
  • and genes associated with mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

However, genes alone do not determine whether someone will have an alcohol problem or become addicted.

The Role of Genetics in Alcoholism

The interaction of multiple genes affects a person’s likelihood of drinking alcohol. For example, specific genes related to alcohol metabolism may affect a person’s alcohol tolerance and the potential of having problematic drinking behaviors.

How Genes Influence Alcohol Use Disorder

These genes may affect a person’s ability to regulate their behavior, leading to increased impulsivity and aggression:

  • ADH1B: This gene encodes the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol in the body. Some people carry a variant of this gene that results in a more efficient breakdown of alcohol, leading to a lower risk of AUD.
  • ALDH2: This gene encodes the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, breaking down alcohol. Some people carry a variant of this gene that results in a buildup of acetaldehyde, a toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism, leading to flushing and other unpleasant symptoms. This variant is protective against AUD.
  • GABRA2: This gene encodes a receptor for the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which regulates anxiety and impulsivity. Variants of this gene were associated with an increased risk for AUD.
  • CHRM2: This gene encodes a receptor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is involved in learning and memory. Variants of this gene were associated with an increased risk for AUD.

Please note that these genes are just a few genetic components that may trigger alcohol use disorder. The interaction between genes and environment also determines a person’s risk for developing alcoholism.

The “Alcoholic Gene”

While there is no such thing as the “alcoholic gene,” one particular gene studied concerning alcoholism is the ADH1B gene, which codes for the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body.

People with this gene variant may experience unpleasant physical reactions when drinking, such as flushing and nausea, which may decrease their likelihood of developing AUD.

However, genetics is just one factor in developing AUD. Environmental and social factors, such as one’s family, mental illness, and social and cultural norms around drinking, also have an impact.

Alcohol Addiction And Genetics

The Genetic Component of Addiction

Half of a person’s likelihood of developing addiction may link to genetics. The other half may attribute to other things, such as stress, trauma, and social influence.

Other genes related to addiction affect how the brain processes pleasure, reward, and impulsivity. For example, variations in the dopamine receptor genes have been linked to an increased risk of addiction, as dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward pathway.

Similarly, genes that affect the function of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and impulse control, may also contribute to addiction vulnerability.

While genetics play a part in addiction, the environment also influences the expression of addiction-related genes.

How Genetics Can Affect the Development of Alcoholism

Genetics may play a role in alcoholism. Some people may be genetically predisposed to have a higher tolerance for alcohol, meaning they can drink more before feeling the effects. This increased tolerance may lead to a great potential of developing alcoholism over time. On the other hand, some people may be genetically predisposed to have a lower tolerance for alcohol. This may make them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol and potentially develop alcoholism.

However, having a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism does not necessarily mean a person will develop the condition. It simply means they may have a great potential to develop symptoms.

How Genes Can Affect Alcohol Treatment

Genes may also affect alcohol treatment in several ways. For example, certain genetic variations may make individuals more vulnerable to the side effects of medications used to treat alcohol dependence, such as nausea or headaches. Other genetic factors may affect an individual’s response to different types of treatments, making some more effective than others.

Moreover, genetics may also influence an individual’s motivation to seek and adhere to treatment. Genetic factors play a role in an individual’s tendency to engage in risk-taking behaviors, including substance use, which may impact their willingness to seek and engage in treatment.

Additionally, some genetic variations may make individuals more likely to relapse after treatment. This highlights the importance of personalized treatment plans considering the individual’s genetic makeup.

Understanding the role of genetics in alcoholism and its treatment can help clinicians prepare more effective treatment plans and interventions for individuals with alcohol use disorder to make informed decisions about their health.

Environmental Factors Vs. DNA

Alcohol consumption results from gene and environmental interactions. While genetic predisposition may play a role in the development of alcoholism, the environment may also contribute to the development of this disorder.

Research shows that we cannot overlook the role of social and environmental factors in normalizing problematic drinking and alcoholic behaviors. Family members and parents who abuse alcohol may model such behavior for children, leading to an increased likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the future.

Social and Environmental Factors in Normalizing Problematic Drinking and Alcohol Behaviors

It’s common for alcohol abuse to be normalized in certain environments or social groups, making it harder for individuals to recognize they have a problem. These instances include:

  • Social events or gatherings where heavy drinking is the norm, such as college parties or work events
  • Certain professions that involve alcohol consumption, such as bartending or wine tasting
  • Family or friend groups where alcohol use is seen as a way to bond or cope with stress
  • Living in a community with a high prevalence of alcohol use or easy access to alcohol
  • Exposure to advertising or media that promotes heavy drinking or glamorizes alcohol use
  • Cultural or religious groups where drinking alcohol is an important part of traditions or ceremonies.

These factors and genetic predisposition may increase the risk of alcoholic behaviors.

Family History of Alcoholism

One of the most well-established risk factors for AUD is having a family history of alcoholism.

Research shows that families with a history of abusing alcohol are at a higher risk of developing AUD than those without. The risk is even greater for those with multiple family members with substance abuse.

A family with a history of alcoholism does not mean that a person will inevitably develop AUD, but it does increase their risk.

Assessing Your Risk of Alcohol Abuse

If your family has a history of alcoholism, it is important to be aware of your risk and take steps to reduce it. Here are some self-assessment questions that can help you gauge your risk of alcohol abuse:

  • Have you ever felt that you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you had a problem drinking in moderation?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover (eye-opener)?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it may be a sign that you should speak to a healthcare professional about your drinking.

Can Alcoholism Skip a Generation?

Research has shown that having a family history of alcoholism may increase a person’s risk of developing the disorder. People with a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) who has alcoholism are four to five times more likely to develop alcoholism themselves.

However, a person’s risk of alcoholism may also be influenced by their upbringing and social environment, not just their families. So, even if someone’s family has a history of alcoholism or other substance use disorders, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will develop the disorder or inherit the so-called alcoholism gene.

It’s important for individuals who are concerned about their risk of developing alcoholism to consider their family and their drinking behaviors. Self-reflection and seeking help from professionals, such as addiction treatment centers, can aid in early intervention and prevent the development of a substance use disorder.

Alcohol Metabolism and the Risk for AUD

The liver metabolizes alcohol and breaks it into harmless substances the body can excrete. However, the alcohol metabolism rate can vary from person to person, which may affect a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorders.

Research has shown that people who quickly metabolize alcohol are at a higher risk for developing AUD. This is because they can consume more alcohol before feeling its effects, which may lead to more frequent and excessive drinking. On the other hand, people who metabolize alcohol slowly may be less likely to develop an AUD because they feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and may be less likely to drink excessively.

The Genetic Factors Contributing to Alcohol-Associated Diseases

Alcohol-associated diseases are health conditions or disorders that may develop with excessive alcohol consumption. These diseases may affect various body parts, including the liver, pancreas, heart, brain, and immune system.

Some common alcohol-associated diseases include liver cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, pancreatitis, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, and various types of cancer. These diseases may have serious health consequences and even be life-threatening if left untreated.

Are You at Risk? Seek Help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or addiction, don’t hesitate to seek help from reputable American addiction centers like NuView Treatment Center. Our compassionate and experienced staff can provide the support and resources you need to overcome addiction and achieve lasting recovery. Remember, you are not alone. There is hope for a brighter future. Reach out for help today.

Frequently Asked Questions

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This means they can drink more before feeling the effects of alcohol. However, tolerance is not the same as addiction or alcoholism. Having a high tolerance does not necessarily mean someone will become an alcoholic.

Yes, there is some evidence to suggest that there may be a genetic link between alcoholism and depression. People with alcoholism may be more likely to develop depression and vice versa. However, the relationship between the two conditions is complex and not fully understood.

While genes may play a role in an individual’s risk for developing alcoholism, they are not the only factor. Environmental factors, like childhood experiences and peer pressure, may also play a significant role. It’s important to remember that genes do not determine someone’s fate; they contribute to their overall risk.

Yes, many genes may contribute to alcoholism. Some of these genes affect how the body metabolizes alcohol, while others affect how the brain responds to alcohol. It’s important to remember that no single gene is responsible for alcoholism and that the interplay between multiple genes and environmental factors is complex.

Yes, someone with a family history of alcoholism can drink moderately. However, they need to be aware of their increased risk of developing alcoholism and monitor their drinking carefully. It’s also important for them to seek help if they can’t control their drinking.

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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol use disorder.

National Library of Medicine. (2013). Genetics and alcoholism.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2008). Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.

National Library of Medicine. (2007). The Genetics of Alcohol Metabolism: Role of Alcohol Dehydrogenase and Aldehyde Dehydrogenase Variants.

National Library of Medicine. (2009). Genes and Addictions.

National Library of Medicine. (2016). Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use.

World Health Organization. (2022). Alcohol.

National Library of Medicine. (1998). The Impact of a Family History of Alcoholism on the Relationship Between Age at Onset of Alcohol Use and DSM–IV Alcohol Dependence.

Science Direct. (2016) Molecular Aspects of Alcohol and Nutrition: Chapter 23 – Alcohol Metabolism and Epigenetic Methylation and Acetylation.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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