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Genetics of Alcoholism

Those who have a family history of alcoholism have a higher risk of developing a drinking problem. Studies show that alcoholism is approximately 50 percent attributable to genetics.

Alcohol Addiction and Genetics

Man with liquor bottleOur genetic structure determines all our human traits. Our DNA dictates our physical characteristics (such as eye color) and also our behavioral characteristics (such as aggression). These genes are passed on to us by our parents.

Among the behavioral traits parents can pass on to their children is a predisposition toward alcohol abuse and addiction.

Among those abusing alcohol, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism have a higher risk of becoming addicted. Although people can inherit alcoholic tendencies, the development of an alcohol use disorder is also dependent on social factors. Some who have inherited genes making them susceptible to alcoholism are responsible drinkers or never take a drink in their life.

Environment vs. DNA

Genetic makeup only accounts for half of the alcoholic equation. There are also countless environmental factors (work, stress, relationships) that may lead to alcoholism.

Our hereditary behaviors interact with our environment to form the basis of our decisions. Some people are more sensitive to stress, making it harder to cope with an unhealthy relationship or a fast-paced job. Some people experience a traumatizing event and turn to alcohol to self-medicate.

However, even those with a high genetic risk to substance abuse must first be driven by a nonhereditary factor to do it. The catalyst that leads to alcohol abuse is usually an environmental factor, such as work-related stress.

Some environmental factors that are particularly risky for those who are genetically inclined include:

  • Drug accessibility
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Peer pressure
  • Witnessing violence

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The “Alcoholic Gene”

DNAThere isn’t a single gene responsible for alcoholism. There are hundreds of genes in a person’s DNA that may amplify the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Identifying these genes is difficult because each plays a small role in a much larger picture. Yet, studies have shown that certain combinations of genes have a strong relationship to alcoholism.

There are also behavioral genes passed down that could influence a propensity for alcoholism. Mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, are more common in people with a family history of these disorders. People with mental illness have a higher risk of turning to substance abuse as a way of coping. Mental disorders can be hereditary, which partially illuminates the complex link between genetics and addiction.

Mental illness increases the likelihood of developing alcoholism by 20 percent.

Are You at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?

Those with a history of alcoholism in their family have the highest risk of becoming alcoholics. If you have more than one relative with an alcohol addiction or other substance use disorder, you may have inherited the genes that put you at risk. The more family members (related by birth) you have with an alcohol problem, the higher your risk.

Just because someone may have a strong susceptibility toward alcoholism does not mean he or she is resigned to that fate. No one can control their genetic makeup, but everyone can take measures to prevent an addiction. Some of the best ways to curb a genetic predisposition from becoming a full-on alcohol addiction include:

  • Knowing family history of substance abuse
  • Maintaining healthy friendships
  • Enforcing strong family ties
  • Seeking relationship counseling
  • Managing stress
  • Understanding the symptoms of addiction

If you have a genetic risk of developing an alcohol addiction and have exhibited signs of this disorder, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Counseling and support can help tackle social factors that could contribute to an alcohol problem in the future. If you or a loved one has already developed a problem, there are outpatient and inpatient programs to steer you down the right path. Find help now.

Sources & Author Last Edited: January 22, 2016

  1. Genes, Environment, Comorbidity. (2008). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/addiction-science/genes-environment-comorbidity
  2. How Do Genes, Gender and Environment Affect Substance Abuse? National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: https://ncadd.org/in-the-news/1230-how-do-genes-gender-and-environment-affect-substance-abuse
  3. Mental Illnesses. (2015). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/basics/causes/con-20033813
  4. Mental Illness and Substance Abuse. The National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: https://www.nber.org/digest/apr02/w8699.html
  5. DNA & Behavior: Is Our Fate in Our Genes? (2007). The DNA Files. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: http://www.dnafiles.org/?q=programs/dna-behavior
  6. Researchers Identify a Group of 39 Genes Linked with Alcoholism. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: https://ncadd.org/in-the-news/938-researchers-identify-a-group-of-39-genes-linked-with-alcoholism
  7. Drug Facts: Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Disorders. (2011). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved on May 6, 2015 from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/comorbidity-addiction-other-mental-disorders
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