It is now understood that many health problems have a genetic component. So naturally it has been asked whether alcoholism is hereditary. That isn’t to say that bad genes be an excuse for bad drinking behaviour. However, studies have suggested that genetics do play a factor in the risk of developing an alcohol addiction.
Genetics have been studied for a long time, and over the years, scientists have linked a number of genes, in both humans and animals, to addiction. Today, there are an estimated 930 genes associated with alcoholism, and more are being discovered every day.
Rather than blaming one’s alcohol use disorder on their parents, people should use this evidence of a genetic connection to make better choices and prevent problems in the future.
Is Alcoholism Hereditary? Nature vs Nurture
While genetics do play a key role in determining who we are and who we become, they are never the sole factor. Just because someone is genetically programmed to have a disease doesn’t mean they will develop said disease. Just because someone isn’t, doesn’t mean they can’t. With alcoholism, both nature and nurture together can influence the likelihood of whether one develops an addiction.
Genetic predisposition or not,if you are raised in a family where excessive drinking is commonplace, you are more likely to become an alcoholic. However, biological children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. Conversely, if you have an alcoholic family history, you have a higher risk of developing an addiction than someone who doesn’t have any genetic factors. This is true even if you are raised in an alcohol-free home,
Genetics account for roughly 40-60% of the risk factors that increase the chances of becoming an alcoholic. The other half comes from environmental factors. This includes your childhood/family situation, current environment, peer pressure, gender, and mental health state.
For example, the case with antisocial personality disorder is quite similar. Studies suggest that the predisposition for having ASPD is also about 50%, and this genetic half determines one’s brain chemistry. ASPD is stigmatised because of its association with violent behaviour, crime, and serial killers. However, not everyone who is born with the ASPD brain chemistry turns to a life of crime. Psychologists have noticed that those with an ASPD predisposition who were raised in a poor environment were more likely to turn to crime. Those who were raised in a caring environment were less likely to exhibit negative behaviours.
Other factors aside, there is proof that there are various genes linked to alcohol abuse. Each of them affects different aspects of the body, contributing to the raised risk of developing alcoholism – but hereditary or not, there is no one ‘alcoholic gene’. There are genes that are tied to alcohol misuse indirectly. Here are a few examples:
Alcohol Intolerance Gene
A number of genes linked to alcoholism influence one’s metabolism of alcohol. Two well-known ones are ALDH2 and ADH1B. Nearly omnipresent in the East Asian population, these genes determine how well the body metabolises alcohol.
Normally, alcohol is first converted into acetaldehyde. However, it is a rather toxic compound which causes facial flushing, nausea, tachycardia and other unpleasant symptoms. If you have the aforementioned genes, you won’t be able to metabolise alcohol properly. This will cause a buildup in your body, resulting in a bad reaction to any alcohol you consume.
These genes are linked to alcoholism because their presence is a natural deterrent for drinking. Thus, someone that has a copy of such a gene will be less likely to consume alcohol, and therefore less likely to develop a drinking problem.
Certain genes, such as GARBB1, affect one’s natural production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for inducing relaxation and reducing anxiety. Someone with this gene will have naturally lower levels of GABA, and since GABA production is increased by alcohol, the person will be more likely to consume alcohol as a way of self-medication.
Alcohol Reward Gene
There are also other genes, that determine how the brain’s reward system responds to alcohol. The stronger the reward effect, the more likely the person is to drink and drink heavily.
Controlled Consumption Gene
The beta-Klotho gene has been linked to having a sweet tooth and responsible drinking. People who have this gene are more likely to be able to control their alcohol consumption. For example, they can stop after one or two drinks more easily than others.
Alcohol Tolerance Gene
Other genes influence one’s tolerance to alcohol. If someone has a naturally high tolerance for alcohol, they are more likely to drink more, and therefore develop an addiction.
Alcoholism and other Hereditary Factors
You must also consider that there are other genetic factors that can influence the likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder.
For example, if you have a mental health issue. There are many psychological disorders that also have ties to genetic predisposition, including depression and schizophrenia. And if you have a mental health issue, you are at a higher risk for alcoholism.
Or, if you are a woman, you will react differently to alcohol. You will suffer from more physical symptoms, as well as relapse more frequently. This is due to metabolism, hormones and body mass. On the other hand, if you are a man, you are more likely to drink heavily. This, of course, leads to higher levels of addiction among men.
Genetics and Addiction Treatment
Scientists and medical professionals are continuously studying both addiction and genetics. Hopefully in time, they will be able to find a way to prevent and treat addiction. Currently, the focus is on using genetic data to predict one’s likelihood of becoming an alcoholic. In addition, there are scientists interested in researching how alcohol treatment programmes affect people with certain genetic predispositions. For example, naltrexone, which is being studied as a medication to reduce drinking, works very well on some patients. On others, it is nearly ineffective.
Even if Alcoholism is Hereditary, It Isn’t Fate
If you have a family history of alcoholism, you are unfortunately at a higher risk of becoming an alcohol addict yourself. Your genes are a part of this story. However, they are not the only part – your environment, mental health, and stressors are all also risk factors.
Just because you have a gene with an alcoholism risk does not make you an alcoholic. Instead, you should think of it as a potential future event, but not fate. In fact, you should remember that forewarned is forearmed. If you know you are at risk of becoming an alcoholic, it could serve as motivation to prevent future problems. You can avoid problem drinking, and be vigilant about spotting any signs of alcoholism.
At the same time, if you do have an active alcohol addiction, you should not place all the blame on your parents. Environmental factors and free will contribute a large part to addiction. Additionally, a major symptom of addiction is refusing to admit that you have a problem or take responsibility for your actions. You need to believe that you can make the change, and not blame external factors, if you are going to be successful in recovery.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | January 28, 2020