The Facts: Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Published On 18-June-2020
By Tim Wood

is alcoholism genetic

Genetics plays a large part in determining our personalities and traits. Parents who are alcoholics can pass along to their children as a genetic predisposition. In this post, we will discuss whether alcoholism is genetic or caused by environmental factors.

This can come in several forms, such as a higher likelihood of developing a mental illness or a lack of ability to handle stress. Both of those are high-risk factors for alcohol abuse.

Their genetics govern everything about a person’s physical makeup, and hundreds of genes determine small vulnerabilities in behavioural and physical growth that can be added together to create a higher susceptibility.

That is not to say that anyone who has these specific genes will become addicted to alcohol; it is merely more likely. [1] There is a way out of alcoholic tendencies, and a predisposition to alcoholism should not define your fate.

The Difference Between Genetic and Hereditary

Although these two terms are usually used interchangeably in everyday conversations, medically, they have slightly different meanings. Below we have outlined their differences and how they can play a part in someone being more likely to develop alcohol dependency.

1. Genetics and Alcohol

Genetics is used when medical professionals are referring to a person’s entire genome. “In humans, a copy of the entire genome—more than 3 billion DNA base pairs—is contained in all cells that have a nucleus.” [2]

Genetics are complicated because there are strong and latent genes, there is also a chance that someone may have a gene that does not activate so they will not see the same effects as someone else with that same gene.

Some specific genes have been identified as contributing to alcohol abuse, and they are linked to reward centres in the brain. [3]

2. Heredity and Alcohol

Heredity is used when speaking about genes inherited directly from parents. A survey from the Indiana University School of Medicine showed that less than half of people who had alcoholic parents developed a dependency of their own.

This could be because they did not inherit those specific genes from their parent. [4] Also, the environment in which someone is raised can determine which genes are activated, which means that no one who has inherited genes that make them more likely to become addicted to alcohol will do so without extenuating factors.

Who May Become an Alcohol Abuser?

Researchers have isolated a good indicator of whether someone will be at higher risk. Beta-endorphins are hormones used by the brain to block specific pain. “It is produced in response to pain, exercise, and other forms of stress.” [5] 

They found that young adults that showed lower levels of beta-endorphin tend to become more easily addicted to alcohol. This is excellent because it is something that can be used to test teens and young adults before they ever have their first drink allowing them to get help.

Alcoholism and Parents

Genetic and environmental components all come into play in determining whether someone is more likely to become dependent on alcohol. Below we have listed some of the ways that alcoholic parents can influence their children:

1. Drinking at an early age

Drinking before the age of 15 is a significant risk factor and is six times more likely to development of alcohol abuse. It has been noted that people who grow up with alcoholic parents are more likely to drink earlier than their peers.

2. Following a Parent’s Example of Drinking

A home environment is a powerful influence on children and young adults. People who grow up in a situation where one or both parents abuse alcohol are four times more likely than their peers to follow the same patterns.

All of this is to say that environmental factors play just as massive a role as genetics. Alcoholism genetic symptoms can be seen clearly from childhood for those raised by alcoholic parents.

The Alcoholic Genes

While there is still a lot of research that needs to be done into genetic connections to alcohol addiction, significant progress has been made in the last several decades. Several significant genes have been identified. Below is a brief description of each.

1. ADH1B

While this gene has been seen in every demographic is more common among East Asians. Certain studies indicate that nearly 70% of East Asians have this particular gene. [6]

In comparison, only approximately 5% of Europeans have been found to have it. This gene makes it so that when alcohol is consumed, there is a reaction leading to heavy sweating and an uncomfortable flush and feelings of nausea which is likely designed to deter consuming the toxin.

Europeans who do not have this gene are more likely to drink excessively because they do not experience the same level of discomfort.

2. GABRB1

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) mutations create a reward response in the brain when alcohol is consumed. Studies have also found that mice with this mutation not only feel a higher reward response in the brain but also are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. [7]

GABA causes relaxation, releases stress, and relieves anxiety. The GABRB1 mutation makes it so that there is less GABA when people with it are sober, which can lead them to drink to get that sense of relief. This is sometimes called the “self-medication hypothesis.”

3. Beta-Klotho

People who have this gene are better able to control the amount of alcohol they consume. It allows them to stop after a drink or two with no problem. When someone lacks this gene, they are more likely to develop dependency issues.

Environment vs. DNA

Environment and DNA both make up half the equation when it comes to how a person will react to drinking. Some factors will protect people from other risks they might have.

For example, if someone has mutated GABA genes but they are raised in a loving home with a parental system, high grades, and community resources, then they are far less likely to be negatively affected if they do binge drinking socially.

There are a lot of factors, and some have not even been adequately researched yet, so the complete picture is still missing. However, some of the known risk factors include the following:

  • Neglectful or abusive parents
  • Growing up in poverty
  • Being a witness to violence or victim of sexual/physical abuse
  • Unusually aggressive behaviour as a child
  • Drug and alcohol accessibility and use at a young age
  • Peer pressure and a lack of proper social skills

The Role of Family History

Many studies have come to the same conclusion that genetics make up between 50-60% of the risk of developing an alcohol addiction, while environmental factors make up the other 40-50%.

1. Genetics and Environment

There are positive environmental factors that can help overcome any genetic predispositions, including the following:

  • Positive learned self-control
  • Parental support, guidance, and monitoring
  • High school grades
  • Community and home anti-alcohol rules
  • Resources within the community

2. Children of Addicts

If at least one parent has a drug or alcohol addiction, then the likelihood their child will also fall into a similar pattern of alcohol abuse is six to eight times more likely. This is a considerable increase when compared to other peers who do not have this risk factor.

3. More Information on Related Genes

Addiction comes hardwired into our brains, thanks to genes and millions of years of evolution. If you have a family history of addiction, then it is more likely that you will share the genes that make you wired to be more likely to want to keep chasing the reward hormones that are released by acts like excessive drinking.

4. Repeated Drug or Alcohol Relapse

Even if you are not born with a genetic propensity for dependency, repeatedly relapsing with either drugs or alcohol will rewire your brain and physically change the balance of hormones.

This means that every single time you drink, the pathways in your brain will strengthen between the pleasure centre of your brain and thoughts of drinking, making it harder to quit.

5. Genes Do Not Determine Your Life

The environment in which you are raised and live in is an indicator of alcohol addiction. While we cannot always control what situation we are in, this is at least somewhat in our control when compared to genetics.

Approximately 40-50% of people who have all the high-risk factors do not end up becoming addicted to alcohol due to their choices and the choices of those around them. Having particular genetics is not a guarantee that you will become an addict.

Am I at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?

You may have noticed some signs that you may have a harder time moderating your alcohol intake than your peers. Below we go over a few of the ways that risks can be mitigated:

1. Are You Genetically Predisposed to Alcoholism?

If you are, then take all the steps you can to lessen the number of risk factors in your life. There are plenty of community resources available to assist you.

2. Which Gender is More Prone to Alcoholism?

Women are at a higher risk for alcoholism and generally show worse physical and mental results from binging or long-term excessive drinking. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more likely to abuse alcohol despite being less likely to have the same heightened risk. [8]

3. Hereditary Alcoholism Risk

Inheriting genetic predispositions from one or both of your parents does not mean that you are fated to become addicted to alcohol. Environmental factors and your own lifestyle choices have approximately the same weight in determining your future.

For more information on the signs and symptoms of alcoholism, visit our support page here.

Mitigating the Risk of Alcoholism Despite Genetics

Here are some of the best ways to fight against becoming an alcoholic if you know that you have genetic predispositions:

  • A good support system is key
  • Keep strong ties to healthy family members
  • Go to relationship counselling whenever necessary
  • Have healthy friendships
  • Have a solid support foundation in place including friends, family and your community
  • Understand any family history of substance abuse and how they are related to you
  • Be able to identify and understand signs of addiction
  • Keep your stress level under control

Looking for more answers?

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we can answer all queries and questions relating to addiction, recovery, and your potential new life ahead.

Contact us today on 0800 111 41 08 for more information.

References

[1] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders/genetics-alcohol-use-disorders

[2] https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/hgp/genome

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056340/

[4] https://academic.oup.com/her/article/16/4/457/558793

[5] https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/beta-endorphin

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1913701/

[7] https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms3816

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2913110


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