Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Is alcoholism genetic? While genes contribute to addiction, they are not the only risk factor. Learn more here.

Table of Contents

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also called alcohol use disorder or AUD, occurs when the body has an uncontrollable urge to consume alcohol. Individuals with AUD may have difficulty not drinking or are often preoccupied with thoughts of drinking. They will continue to drink regardless of the personal, physical, and emotional harm caused by their drinking.

is alcoholism genetic

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What Causes Alcoholism?

When someone has a family member with an alcohol use disorder, it is not uncommon to wonder if alcoholism may be genetic or if one can inherit alcohol addiction from a parent. Studies have shown genetics are responsible for about 50% of the risk factors of alcoholism.1

What Are the Chances You Will Inherit It?

Although alcoholism and genetics are linked, it is crucial to remember that a family history of alcoholism does not guarantee the development of alcoholism. Researchers have long known that alcohol use disorders run in families; however, this knowledge alone is insufficient to state a particular alcoholic gene or firmly state an alcoholic parent will certainly cause a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

As mentioned above, current studies suggest a connection between alcoholism and genetics in approximately half of alcohol use disorder cases. Consequently, it is not possible to say that alcohol genetics is the sole contributor to alcoholism. Additionally, researchers state there is no single alcoholic gene.

How Do Genes Influence Alcohol Use Disorder?

Our DNA contains approximately twenty thousand genes. Of those, a handful (particularly ADH1B and ALDH2) are closely connected to problematic drinking behaviors. Genetic factors related to addiction are passed down through DNA from one generation to the next. In certain instances, genetic traits, such as a lack of impulse control, can be passed on. Nonetheless, a predisposition for a particular illness or condition does not guarantee it will occur.2

Is Alcohol Tolerance Genetic?

Another question frequently surrounding alcoholism and genetics is whether there is an alcohol tolerance gene or whether tolerance is genetic. Someone develops a tolerance to alcohol (or another drug) when the body becomes accustomed to the substance, requiring larger quantities at more frequent intervals to produce desired results. Tolerance evolves out of use, not an alcoholism inherited trait.

How Much Does a Genetic Predisposition to Alcoholism Increase Your Chance of Addiction?

Some studies suggest between 50% and 60% of the genetic basis for alcoholism can be attributed to genetic predisposition. Although this indicates alcohol use disorder genetics play a notable role in one’s risk for developing AUD, environmental factors are another significant element.3
Genes can affect several other factors influencing how drinking affects physical and emotional health. For example, genetics affect:
  • How the body reacts (sensitivity) to alcohol
  • How the body metabolizes alcohol
  • The type of withdrawal symptoms experienced when not drinking
  • Tolerance to alcohol
  • How drinking affects the organs and their function

Alcoholism's Genetic Component

Countless research studies point to a strong connection between genetics and alcohol.

Fruit Fly Similarities

For almost one hundred years, researchers have used the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to help better understand genetics, development, and behavior. Fruit flies have a rather complex nervous system and can help science to learn more about genetic sensitivities to alcohol and how alcohol affects the nervous system. Studies have offered insight into the effects of alcohol on brain function, tolerance, the body, and brain chemicals.4

Why Do Genetics Influence the Likelihood of Alcoholism?

While genetics do affect one’s risk for developing an AUD, alcoholism is not necessarily a hereditary addiction. A hereditary condition is passed down from parents to children through DNA. It is important to remember that genetics do not account for 100% of the reasons someone may develop a problematic relationship with alcohol.

Can a Person Be Born With an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Although addiction can be caused by specific genes, someone is not born with an alcohol use disorder. As mentioned above, only about half of one’s genetic predisposition to alcoholism comes from hereditary addiction. The remaining risk factors evolve from environmental and social factors that people encounter during childhood and as they age.

Are You at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?

The genetic model of addiction suggests alcoholic tendencies can be passed down from parents to children. For those who have a family member with an alcohol use disorder, it is common to wonder if they are at an increased risk of developing a personal history of alcoholism or a genetic addiction.

Managing Risks

There is no alcoholism genetic test or another way to rule out or guarantee how genetics will influence someone’s relationship with alcohol. Thus, understanding the risk factors and developing preventative skills (coping tools) can help manage stressors and triggers without drinking. For example:

  • Learn and practice effective stress management and self-care skills
  • Seek relationship counseling or family counseling for complicated relationships
  • Maintain healthy friendships
  • Learn about potential family history of substance abuse
  • Enforce and foster healthy and strong family connections
  • Understand the signs and symptoms of an alcohol use disorder

Environmental Factors for Alcohol Use

While genetics contribute to approximately half of one’s risk of developing alcoholic tendencies, the remaining risk can be attributed to environmental factors. Environmental factors are characteristics of people’s surroundings (e.g., home, social environment, neighborhood) that encourage or discourage alcohol use. Typical environmental factors for alcohol use disorders include:

  • Enabling someone who is an alcoholic
  • Growing up with problematic alcohol use in the home
  • An environment where alcoholic behaviors and problematic drinking are normalized

What Are Risk Factors for Alcoholism?

Risk factors for alcoholism involve genetic alcoholic tendencies interacting with environmental factors, such as life experiences, trauma exposure, and mental health conditions. A few common risk factors for alcohol addiction include:

  • A history of trauma, including childhood trauma
  • Cognitive impairment (memory issues, developmental delays)
  • Starting to drink at a young age (teen drinking)
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions
  • Impulse control disorders during childhood and adolescence
Disorders that often co-occur with AUD include major depressive disorder (MDD) at 28%, schizophrenia at 33.7%, and personality disorders (PDs) at 50% to 70%.5
alcoholism genetic

Tips to Avoid Alcoholism When It Runs in the Family

Although it is impossible to control alcohol abuse genetics, people can control the other factors that contribute to AUD development. Remember, a family history of alcohol addiction increases the risk significantly. Therefore, being proactive with one’s behaviors around alcohol may help reduce the likelihood of developing an addiction. Consider the following:

  • Avoid engaging in binge drinking
  • Make an effort to stay within moderate drinking limitations
  • Participate in sober activities with others who wish to remain sober
  • Spend time with others who do not drink
  • Do not use alcohol to self-medicate physical or mental health symptoms

Get Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder at Profound Recovery

The safest and most successful way to overcome an alcohol use disorder is to seek help from a treatment program specializing in detox and alcohol addiction treatment, like Profound Recovery in Woodland Hills, California. Members of our treatment team will work with you to develop a personalized care plan that addresses your recovery needs and goals. 

With a variety of evidence-based clinical therapies and multiple holistic therapies to choose from, our treatment plans are developed to help heal your mind, body, and spirit. To learn more about how Profound Treatment can help you take the first steps towards achieving lasting sobriety, contact a member of our admissions department today.

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