Is Alcoholism Genetic? – Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the brain’s reward center, and researchers have long debated over possible genetic and hereditary contributors to addiction. Alcohol use disorder (also referred to as alcoholism or alcohol abuse) is a massive problem in the U.S. In fact – one estimate proposes that as many as 18 million adults in the country suffer from alcohol use disorder – or approximately one in 12 people.
Like the abuse of any psychoactive substance, alcoholism can lead to an extensive list of adverse effects, behaviors, and consequences, including:
- Inability to limit alcohol consumption
- Neglect of personal responsibilities due to alcohol use
- Financial or legal issues such as driving while intoxicated
- Social isolation/family conflict
- Anxiety or depression
- Suicidal ideation
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Liver damage – inflammation and cirrhosis
- Increased risk of cancer, including mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, breast, colon, and rectum
- Alcohol-related dementia
How Genetics Contribute to Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcoholism has indeed been associated with certain genes. Having a parent, sibling, or another close relative who suffers from alcohol use disorder increases the risk that the person will also experience the same addiction.
Although heredity and genetics are closely linked (parents pass genes down to children, and children, therefore, inherit genes) from a medical standpoint, there are some differences when considering hereditary vs. genetic diseases.
Moreover, a person with a genetic disease has a specific abnormality in their particular genome (the complete set of genes or genetic material existing in a cell or organism) a person with an inherited disease has received that genetic mutation or trait from one or both parental sets of DNA. When researchers argue whether alcoholism is genetic or hereditary, they debate whether the disease is a product from a larger gene set passed down from a parent, or if the condition stems from mutations in certain genes.
Science suggests that genetics are roughly half of the underlying reason for AUD. If an individual is predisposed to metabolize alcohol in a manner in which the pleasant effects (such as euphoria and sociability) are more outstanding than adverse effects (such as nausea and moodiness) the person may be more likely to develop an AUD if they engage in alcohol use.
A study from 2008 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) examined research on AUD and a possible genetic association. The study found that genetic factors accounted for 40-60% of the variance among those who suffer from an AUD. Since that time, certain genes that contribute to AUD have been discovered, and they correlate with the reward center of the brain and how it develops.
A phenotype is a set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. How exactly a phenotype is expressed is complicated – for example, a person with one parent with green eyes and one parent with brown eyes has genes for both colors – yet usually, only one color will be expressed. But strong genes are an exception – moreover, a gene responsible for the movement of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in synapses between neurons appears to be a strong gene linked to a higher chance of an AUD. Yet is still unknown how exactly this genetic array ultimately impacts a person’s outcome.
Genes that impact a person’s propensity for alcoholism can be expressed in a variety of ways. For one, individuals with a family history of AUD have been found to have a smaller than average amygdala, the part of the brain that is thought to play a key role in emotions associated with cravings.
Also, people who have a genetic predisposition to AUD may experience fewer or different warning signals from their body and brain when they need to stop drinking. Finally, abnormal levels of serotonin (a mood-regulating neurotransmitter) have been linked to people who are predisposed to an AUD.
Is Alcoholism Hereditary?
Although children of alcoholics have as much as a fourfold increased risk of suffering from an AUD later in life, a 2011 survey revealed that less than half of them actually experience an AUD. This can be explained, in part, by the non-inheritance of alcoholism-associated genes or by an environment that resulted in a specific expression of those genes.
A family history of AUD, statistically, is associated with an increased chance of AUD, depending upon the closeness of the relationship. Children with just one parent who experiences an AUD has a 3-4 times increased risk of having an AUD themselves. Having other relatives, such as aunts, uncles, etc. who suffer from alcoholism does not have as strong of an association, however.
While this correlation can impact whether a person inherits certain genetic mutations that make them vulnerable to an AUD, growing up in an environment affected by addiction can also predispose an individual to the disease.
Moreover, the environment influences how genes are expressed, and learned behaviors can alter how a person perceives alcohol or drug use.
When individuals are exposed to significant amounts of an addictive substance, over time, it is probable that the substance use will “hijack” or rewire the person’s brain to crave it. Even with a genetic predisposition, a person can still inherit a tendency toward AUD as a result of the culture they are emersed in.
Other environmental factors that can impact the expression of alcoholism genes include the following:
Alcohol use at an early age – people who consume alcohol in their youth are more likely to develop an AUD, and those who avoid alcohol until the legal drinking age are less apt to experience alcoholism.
A history of abuse – children who grew up in stressful environments, particularly those who were physically, verbally, or sexually abused are at a heightened risk of suffering from an AUD in adulthood.
Mental health conditions – psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and PTSD place an individual at an increased risk of developing AUD. For these people, alcohol or other drugs is often used as a means to self-medicate against certain mental health symptoms.
Peer groups – people, especially youth, who hang out in social groups that use alcohol or drugs are more likely to use themselves. This could be because they are already predisposed to substance use, but it may also be caused by a need to fit in and the utilization of substance as a social lubricant.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Detoxing with the assistance of medical supervision, followed by participation in a rehab program, is the best approach for an individual struggling with alcohol addiction. Therapy and social support are critical components offered in a rehab program, and these treatments help the individual understand their addiction, avoid triggers and prevent relapse, and sustain a sober, healthy lifestyle.
Our center offers these services in resident, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient formats. All tracks include behavioral therapy, counseling, and participation in 12-step programs. Our expert medical and mental health staff specialize in addiction and provide patients with the tools and insight they need to recover and maintain longstanding wellness and sobriety.
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