Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

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Updated on August, 24th 2020

We all inherit things from our parents. Blue eyes. Dark skin. A liking for classic rock and roll music. A witty sense of humor. Even several diseases are hereditary, such as down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia.

But what about alcoholism? Is it hereditary? Not only that but to what extent is alcohol abuse inherited from your parents and how much of it is determined by environmental factors? In this blog, we’ll look at the different causes of alcoholism, the influence of genes on alcohol abuse, and some common questions about alcohol use disorder and treatment.

Defining Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse

“Alcohol use disorder” is the scientific term for alcoholism, but the two terms refer to the same thing: a chronic disease that is characterized by the habitual intake of alcoholic beverages.1

Although there is some dispute over whether alcoholism is or is not a disease, the World Health Organization (and several other respected organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse) categorize it as such.

Alcohol use disorder interferes with normal daily functions at work, home, and school, and also affects several different aspects of a person’s health, such as their physical and mental wellbeing.

Characteristic signs and symptoms of alcoholism often include:

  • Being unable to quit drinking
  • Developing a tolerance (needing more alcohol to achieve the same effects)
  • Experiencing withdrawal when the effects of alcohol wear off
  • Spending most of one’s time getting drunk or recovering from hangovers
  • Putting oneself or others at risk for physical harm while drinking
  • Hiding drinking habits from friends and loved ones
  • Continuing to drink despite problems it causes at home, work, or school
  • Consistently having strong cravings for alcohol
  • Finding excuses to drink

Even though less than 10 percent of alcoholics receive professional treatment for their alcohol abuse, 15.1 million adults in the U.S. suffer from alcoholism (or alcohol use disorder). Young people are not exempt either. An additional 623,000 teens in the U.S. have alcohol use disorder.

What Causes Someone to Become an Alcoholic?

Unlike some other diseases, there is no singular cause for alcoholism. Rather, the disease is caused by a combination of genetic/inherited factors and environmental factors. It develops over time and tends to run in families. However, certain risk factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder.

According to Healthline, some of the most common risk factors for alcoholism include:2

  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol regularly or binge drinking
  • Having a parent or other close family member who is an alcoholic
  • Having a mental health problem like anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia
  • Experiencing high levels of stress
  • Spending time with alcohol-abusing peers
  • Having very low self-esteem
  • Being a part of a cultural or family group in which alcohol abuse is commonplace

A person with several of these risk factors may be more likely to develop alcoholism, although many people who identify with one or more of the above factors do not struggle with alcohol abuse.

3 Surprising Factors that May Increase the Risk of Addiction

A research study published in May of 2017 in the Journal of Development and Psychopathology found some factors that most people would consider to be good, can actually increase a young person’s likelihood of developing drug and alcohol addiction down the road.3 Factors cited in the study included:

  • Living in an affluent, well-to-do neighborhood
  • Having disposable income
  • Attending a high school that is distinguished and highly-regarded

The 2017 study reported that its subjects, who were all upper-middle-class citizens, were much more likely to develop substance use disorders later in life. In fact, the rate of substance abuse problems among these individuals was two to three times higher than that of the national average.3

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cause for these study results, it could involve a lack of parental involvement or simply that more money provides more opportunities for young people to access drugs and alcohol.

How DNA and Genetics Lead to Alcoholism

If one or both of your parents were alcoholics, it might be easy to believe that you’ll suffer the same fate or that their behaviors were the cause of yours. This is not necessarily true.

Genes can lead to diseases in different ways. In some instances, inheriting a gene may mean you have a 50/50 chance of getting that disease. But in other cases, it’s more dependent on risk. The latter is true for alcoholism, and as a result, you can combat your inherited risk with healthy behaviors.4

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 50 to 60 percent of the risk for alcoholism is genetically determined. This is true for both men and women. The remainder of the risk is influenced by environmental factors.5

A person may have a lower or higher risk of developing alcoholism depending on several different alcohol-related traits (also known as phenotypes). These include one’s:

  • Sensitivity to the physical effects of alcohol
  • Tolerance
  • Susceptibility to alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Alcohol-related organ damage

The risk is often determined by how those phenotypes are shaped by their genes and how each trait interacts with other environmental factors.

For example, research studies have determined that some people of Asian descent have a gene variant that changes the rate at which they metabolize alcohol, causing symptoms like nausea and rapid heartbeat. As a result, some people who experience such symptoms avoid alcohol and, in turn, reduce their likelihood of developing alcoholism.6

Although the results of scientific studies and research make it clear that genetics play a role in the development of alcoholism, genes are not solely responsible for alcohol addiction. So just because alcohol use disorder runs in your family, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically become an alcoholic.

Environmental Causes of Alcoholism

As is previously mentioned, a person’s environment also plays a large role in the development of alcoholism. Some of the most common environmental factors that contribute to alcohol use disorder are:

  • Income – Surprisingly, educated, upper-income Americans are more likely to drink than those with a lower income. According to Gallup’s annual Consumption Habits poll, 78 percent of people with an annual household income of $78,000 or more drink while only 45 percent of people with an annual household income of $30,000 or less drink alcohol.7
  • Early experiences with alcohol – Studies show kids who start drinking at an early age are more likely to develop alcohol addiction and alcohol use disorder later in life. Heavy drinking in adolescence is also a major risk factor for developing alcoholism.8
  • Parental involvement – A lack of parental involvement or negative parental involvement (such as physical or sexual abuse) can contribute to psychological stress and in turn, increase a person’s risk of developing addiction to alcohol and other substances as a means of coping.9
  • Friends and family who approve of drinking – Some people may grow up in a household or culture in which excessive drinking of alcohol is viewed favorably. This can teach a child or teen that drinking alcohol or getting drunk is fun or that it’s the only way to celebrate life events or milestones.9
  • High levels of stress – Certain life events, physical illnesses, or professional occupations like doctors, lawyers, or construction workers, may be the cause of additional stress in a person’s life. As a result, a person may cope with that stress by abusing alcohol.

How Do I Know If I’m an Alcoholic?

If you are an alcoholic, a medical professional such as your doctor or counselor may be able to give you an assessment that will determine whether your drinking habits could be defined as alcohol use disorder.

If you suspect you are an alcoholic, chances are, you probably have reason to be concerned. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I try to hide my drinking from close friends and family?
  • Do I drink to feel better about disappointing life events or stressful situations?
  • Am I able to drink more alcohol now than when I first started drinking?
  • Have I ever blacked out after a night of drinking or had memory lapses even though I didn’t pass out?
  • Do I feel uncomfortable without a drink in my hand?
  • Do I drink first thing in the morning?
  • Do I ever feel guilty about my drinking habits?
  • Has a close friend or family member ever approached me about my drinking?
  • Do I regret things I’ve said or done while I was under the influence of alcohol?
  • Have I tried to stop drinking but failed?
  • Have I suffered legal consequences like jail time or DUIs because of my drinking?
  • Do I stay drunk for days at a time?
  • Do I ever hallucinate after long periods of drinking?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, your drinking habits may be problematic, and you may have alcohol use disorder. Instead of being discouraged or scared, just remember that many great things happen when you stop drinking alcohol, and you don’t have to give up fun or freedom to do it.

Is There Treatment for Hereditary Alcoholism?

Despite your family history or upbringing, you always have a choice. Your fate as an alcoholic has not been predetermined and you have every opportunity to change your behaviors, your mindset, and your beliefs about yourself and the world around you.

If you think you might be addicted to alcohol, talk to a trusted friend or loved one about it. He or she can help you find the resources you need to get the help you need.

Most people who are suffering from alcohol use disorder need to complete alcohol detox before they can start a rehab program. A medical detox, like the treatment Briarwood offers, consists of 24/7 medical and clinical care and a supportive, alcohol-free environment in which you can purge your body and mind from the harmful effects of alcohol abuse.

There are many benefits to getting sober at a medical detox center rather than at home, and it’s also a much safe option.

Don’t let your genetics or your environment determine your fate. Get help for your alcohol addiction and start your new life today. Just call Briarwood Detox Center to speak with an admissions specialist about our alcohol detox program.

  1. References:
    1. https://www.healthyplace.com/addictions/alcoholism/what-is-alcoholism-definition-of-alcoholism
    2. https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/basics#risk-factors
    3. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/development-and-psychopathology/article/adolescents-from-upper-middle-class-communities-substance-misuse-and-addiction-across-early-adulthood/FDB120DD01CC8CEE7A9FB3979306A57C
    4. https://www.webmd.com/men/features/are-you-destined-to-get-your-parents-illnesses
    5. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa60.htm
    6. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders/genetics-alcohol-use-disorders
    7. https://news.gallup.com/poll/184358/drinking-highest-among-educated-upper-income-americans.aspx
    8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472665/
    9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7804018

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