Last Updated on November 30, 2020
There are many theories about why some people become addicted to alcohol, while others do not. One explanation we often hear about is genetics—that some people are born predisposed to alcoholism. But is it true? Can your genes really determine if you become addicted to alcohol? Is alcoholism genetic?
The short answer is, partially. There are some genes that can influence your risk, and there is strong evidence that alcohol addiction can run in families. However, there are many other factors that can determine if you become an alcoholic.
In other words, if others in your family have struggled with drinking, you aren’t doomed. And if you have no genes for alcoholism whatsoever, you aren’t totally off the hook.
Below, we’ll investigate how big a role genetic factors play in alcohol addiction, what the other factors may be, and what you can do to reduce your risk.
Can Alcoholism Run in Families?
To begin with, there is significant evidence that alcohol abuse can be passed down from generation to generation. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, people with an alcoholic parent are about four times as likely to struggle with alcohol, and numerous studies echo this connection to one degree or another.
But is this the consequence of home environment, or genes? The evidence shows a little bit of both.
Firstly, studies of adopted children raised with alcoholic siblings showed a higher likelihood of alcohol abuse than otherwise. This means that, even if you don’t share genes with your relatives, the experience of growing up with family members who abuse alcohol may increase your risk.
Other studies on children of alcoholics have found links between having an alcoholic parent, and problems like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Each of these problems has been linked to substance abuse.
In other words, psychology and home environment likely have a significant impact on how alcoholism is passed down through families. But your experience growing up clearly isn’t the only factor. Although it can be hard to separate the different causes from each other, there is solid evidence that genes play a role.
The Role of Genetics
Several studies on children of alcoholics adopted by other families show that these children still have a higher likelihood of alcoholism. This suggests that even if you’ve been separated from your biological relatives, a genetic history of alcohol abuse still has an impact.
Other studies on identical and fraternal twins seem to confirm this. Identical twins share the same exact genes, while fraternal twins do not. When raised in the exact same environment, identical twins seem more likely to share the same addiction patterns than fraternal twins. While other factors might affect this, it strongly suggests that genes have some impact on alcohol abuse.
Scientists have even identified several genes that they believe influence alcohol addiction. The most obvious of these are the genes that cause “alcohol flush reaction”—most common in people of Asian descent. It makes sense that a person with an allergic reaction to alcohol would be less likely to abuse it. But several other genes also appear to make a difference, in more subtle ways. Research is ongoing.
As of this moment, however, there does not appear to be a single ”alcoholic gene.” Our understanding of how genetics affect alcoholism is still developing. And to make things even more complicated, some research suggests your relationship with alcohol might actually affect your genes.
Epigenetics is the “fancy poster child” of genetics research. Studies suggests that triggers in your environment can alter the way your genes express themselves—effectively turning genes on or off. What’s even more interesting is that you may be able to partially pass these changes on. Your life experience, and that of your family, may in some ways change your DNA.
The research on epigenetics and alcohol is still developing, but some studies suggest there is a link. Alcohol may be one of the substances that can alter the expression of your genes. In other words, excessive drinking as an adult could impact your DNA, and even alter the genes you pass down to your children. This might increase the likelihood that they will also develop alcohol use disorder.
In summary, it seems there are several reasons that alcohol abuse can run in families. These include both genetics and environmental factors, and possibly even a combination of the two.
Factors Beyond Genetics
Although genes and family history seem to play a significant role in alcohol addiction, they are far from the only factors. Alcohol use disorder ultimately develops from an interaction between alcohol and your brain chemistry. While your genes might make you more vulnerable, your behavior patterns, mental health, and life experience all play a role.
One common reason why people become dependent on alcohol is self-medication. Anxiety, depression, and a number of other disorders are linked to excessive alcohol use. While genetics might also influence these issues, you don’t need a family history of alcoholism to struggle with one of these problems.
Life experience can also be a factor. Trauma or extreme stress can lead a person to seek coping mechanisms. If drinking helps you relax after a hard day, it can become a pattern—even if you have no genetic history of addiction. Even frequent binge drinking with friends can change the reward system of your brain, leaving you vulnerable to cravings, and alcohol dependence.
In other words, while alcoholism may be partially genetic, there is often much more to the story. No person is guaranteed to develop an addiction, just as nobody is completely immune to it.
What Can You Do if Alcoholism Runs in Your Family?
If you have a family history of alcoholism, and you’re concerned about your own risk, there are several things you can do to reduce your chances of becoming addicted:
- Avoid drinking to cope with stress or negative emotions
- Stick with moderation: 1-2 drinks per day, or 7-14 per week maximum
- Be aware of when you drink, and for what reasons
- Build your social life around activities that don’t involve alcohol
- If you find you have too intense a response to alcohol, consider abstinence
If you’re already struggling with your alcohol consumption, there are new ways of cutting back or quitting without putting your life on hold. Ria Health is one online program that gives you access to medications, medical support, coaching, and digital tools, all from an app on your smartphone.
Get in touch with a member of our team today to learn more.