Alcoholism – or alcohol use disorder (AUD) as its officially known – is a form of drinking that includes compulsive behaviors and physical dependence related to alcohol. Because this condition is so prevalent and seems to run in families, researchers are exploring the link between alcoholism and genetics.
It’s a bit more complicated than an “alcohol gene,” however. Genes can influence alcohol use and AUD, but they’re not the only factor that determines whether someone will develop a drinking problem. Environmental and social factors also play a role.
The Link Between Alcoholism and Genetics
Genes are segments of DNA that give instructions for how to build protein molecules that affect how the body functions. There are about 20,000 genes in the body, which determine everything from eye color to hair color to certain personality traits.
If several family members have AUD, you could be at an increased risk of developing the condition. This is due to both genetic factors and family history. There isn’t a single “alcoholic gene” that’s responsible for alcoholism.
Multiple genes play a role in an individual’s risk for developing AUD, both increasing or decreasing it. Some researchers examined two specific genes – the ALDH2 and ADH2B genes, which affect how the body metabolizes alcohol.
For example, people of Asian descent have a genetic variant that affects their alcohol metabolism and causes symptoms like flushing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. As a result, these people often avoid alcohol consumption – protecting them from developing AUD.
In studies with adopted children, the subjects were more likely to have an AUD if their biological parents did. If their adoptive parents had drinking issues, they weren’t as likely to misuse alcohol as they were with the genetic component.
How Does Genetic Predisposition Increase the Chance of Alcoholism?
Genetics are estimated to increase the risk of alcoholism by about 50% to 60%. But environmental factors and interactions between the genetics and environment are also important.
Different genes influence alcoholism in different ways. They can affect:
- How alcohol is metabolized – which affects how someone misuses it
- Sensitivity to the effects of alcohol
- The alcohol tolerance level
- The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal
- The impact of alcohol on the organs in the body
In addition, genetics can affect how effective AUD treatment is. For example. Naltrexone can be used to treat alcoholism, but people with a certain gene respond better to naltrexone.
Other Factors That Affect Alcoholism
Our DNA forms the basis of who we are and interacts with the environment to determine our personality traits, decisions, thoughts, and behaviors. So, someone could have no genetic risk factors for alcohol misuse but may turn to alcohol because of anxiety, stress, or trauma, leading to alcoholism.
Here are some common risk factors for alcoholism:
- Childhood trauma
- Lack of parental supervision
- Aggressive behavior in childhood
- Experimentation with substance abuse
- Poor social skills
- Availability of alcohol
- Access to drugs
- Peer pressure
- Keeping a social circle of people who engage in substance abuse
- Experiencing or witnessing violence
- Exposure to trauma of various forms
Genetics is only part of the alcoholism formula, and it doesn’t have to be one of the genes implicated in alcoholism. Other genes, such as genes that influence mental health conditions that often co-occur with substance use disorders, can increase the likelihood of developing AUD.
Can You Be Born with Alcoholism?
When pregnant mothers use different substances like amphetamines or narcotics, the baby can be born addicted to the substance. The same isn’t true of alcoholism, however.
Babies can be born with the genes that predispose them to developing an alcohol use disorder, but that only accounts for about half of the overall risk. The rest will be determined by the social and environmental factors that shape their lives.
That said, babies can be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from being exposed to alcohol in the womb, which can cause physical problems and problems with behavior and learning, so it’s important to abstain from all alcohol use during the entire pregnancy.
Tests for Alcoholism Genes
There’s growing research in the area of genetic testing to identify predisposition to substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder (OUD) and AUD. Based on research from the Indiana University School of Medicine, 11 genes that are a reliable marker for AUD can be identified using genetic testing. These genes are not only associated with alcoholism but other conditions like bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.
If someone has these genes, it’s by no means a guarantee that they will develop alcoholism. Environmental factors are still at play, but knowing there’s a genetic predisposition can help people take steps to drink responsibly and avoid misuse and dependence.
Tips to Avoid Alcoholism If You’re Genetically Predisposed
If you think AUD runs in your family, it’s best to be careful drinking or limit your alcohol use. Though it’s a combination of factors, the prevalence of unhealthy alcohol use in society – combined with genetic factors – can be a recipe for alcoholism.
So, what’s a “normal” drink? According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is no more than two drinks for men and one drink for women per day. Staying within those limitations or avoiding alcohol altogether may be the safest choice.
If you do choose to drink alcohol, make sure to monitor your drinking, avoid binging, and spend time with people who don’t drink excessively.
If you’re a parent worried about your child’s future alcohol use, here are some tips:
- Share information and education about the dangers of alcohol use and family history, but make sure it’s appropriate for the age group.
- Pay attention to your child’s social circle and how they spend their time.
- Help your child develop skills like communication, active listening, and problem-solving.
- Set family rules that include abstaining from alcohol use.
- Build your child’s confidence and sense of responsibility through youth leadership programs and mentors.
The Bottom Line on Alcoholism and Genetics
Genetics play a big role in developing alcoholism, but they’re not alone. Numerous other environmental and social factors can influence alcohol use and alcohol use disorder. If you’re struggling with AUD, Desert Cove Recovery’s alcohol treatment center can help you overcome your addiction and go on to live a healthy, happy life free of substances. Contact us today to learn more.
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