Addiction is a chronic, often life-long illness that affects the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and scientists have long debated over possible genetic and hereditary contributors to addiction. Alcohol use disorder (commonly referred to as alcohol abuse or alcoholism) is a significant problem facing people in the United States. In fact, one estimate posits that as many as 18 million adults in the nation—about one in every 12 individuals—suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Like the abuse of any intoxicating substance, alcoholism can lead to a litany of adverse effects, behaviors, and consequences, including the following:
- Inability to limit alcohol use
- Neglect of critical responsibilities due to alcohol use
- Financial or legal problems such as driving while under the influence
- Social isolation and withdrawal/family conflict
- Anxiety or depression
- Suicidal ideations
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Liver damage, including inflammation and cirrhosis
- Increased risk of cancer, including those related to the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, breast, colon, and rectum
- Alcohol-related dementia
How Heredity Contributes to Alcoholism
Alcoholism has indeed been linked to certain genes. Having a parent, sibling, or other close relatives who struggle with alcohol use disorder increases the risk that the individual will also encounter a similar addiction.
Heredity and genetics are closely linked, in that genes are passed down to children, and these children, therefore, inherit genes. Still, from a medical or biological standpoint, there are some differences when considering hereditary vs. genetic conditions.
Moreover, an individual with a genetic disease has a specific abnormality in their “genome,” which is the complete set of genes or genetic material existing in a cell or organism. A person who suffers from an inherited illness has received that genetic mutation or trait from either one or both parental sets of DNA. When scientists argue whether alcoholism is hereditary or genetic, they debate whether the disease is a product from a larger gene pool passed down from a parent or if the condition originates from specific mutations in specific genes.
Science suggests that genetics are about half of the underlying reason for AUD. If a person is predisposed to break down alcohol in a manner in which the pleasant effects, such as euphoria, increased energy, and sociability, are more outstanding than adverse effects, the person may be more susceptible to developing an AUD if they drink alcohol.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse (2008) and Alcoholism (NIAAA) analyzed research on AUD and a possible genetic link. The study discovered that genetic factors accounted for, on average, about 50% of the variance among those who struggle with an AUD. Since that time, specific genes that contribute to AUD have been identified, and they correlate with the brain’s reward center and how it develops.
A “phenotype” is a term that denotes the set of characteristics of an individual that results from the interaction of its genes with the environment. For example, a person who has one parent with brown eyes and one parent with green eyes has genes for both colors, but typically only one color will be expressed. Particularly strong genes can be an exception, though.
Furthermore, there is a gene responsible for the function and movement of a neurotransmitter known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This appears to be a healthy gene in general, yet, for individuals with this gene, it is actually linked to a higher chance of having an AUD. Genes that influence a person’s propensity for alcoholism can be expressed in a number of ways.
For one, people with a family history of AUD are found to have a smaller than average amygdala, which is the region of the brain that is thought to play a vital role in emotions associated with drug cravings. Also, individuals who have a genetic predisposition to AUD may encounter fewer or different warning signals from their body and mind when they need to stop drinking. Finally, abnormal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin have been linked to individuals who are predisposed to an AUD.
Alcohol Use Disorder and Heredity
Although the children of alcoholics have as much as a fourfold increased risk of experiencing an AUD later in life, a survey from 2011 revealed that less than half of them actually suffer with an AUD. This can be explained, at least in part, by the non-inheritance of any alcoholism-associated genes or by an environment that led to a particular, perhaps fortunate, expression of those genes.
A family history of substance abuse, statistically, is associated with an increased chance of AUD, depending upon the closeness of the relationship. Children with just one parent who suffers from AUD has a 3-4 times increased risk of having an AUD themselves. Having other relatives, including aunts, uncles, etc. who struggle with alcoholism does not have as strong of an association, however.
While this correlation can influence whether a person inherits certain genetic mutations that make them susceptible to an AUD, growing up in an addiction-filled environment can also predispose a person to the disease. Moreover, the environment influences how certain genes are expressed, and learned behaviors can modify how a person perceives alcohol or drug use.
When individuals are exposed to substantial amounts of an addictive substance, over time, it is probable that the substance abuse will “hijack” or rewire the individual’s brain to crave it. Even without a genetic or hereditary predisposition, a person can still develop a propensity toward AUD as a result of the culture in which they are emersed.
Other environmental factors that can impact the expression of alcohol use disorder include the following:
Alcohol use at an early age – Individuals who drink alcohol in their youth or teenage years are more likely to develop an AUD. And those who avoid alcohol until the legal drinking age are less likely to engage in alcohol abuse.
A history of abuse or trauma – Children who were raised in stressful or impoverished environments, especially those who were verbally, physically, or sexually abused, are at an increased risk of suffering from an AUD in adulthood. Likewise, while in treatment, these individuals may require special emphasis on treating underlying trauma to free themselves from alcoholism.
Mental health conditions – Psychiatric conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and ADHD, put an individual at a heightened risk of developing an AUD. For these individuals, alcohol or other drugs is often used as a means to self-medicate against specific mental health disorders.
Peer groups – Individuals who hang out in social groups that use alcohol or drugs are more likely to use themselves. This could be because they are already vulnerable to substance use, but it may also be caused by a need to experience acceptance and the use of a substance as a social lubricant.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Detoxing with the assistance of medical intervention, followed by engagement in a comprehensive rehab program, is the best approach for a person struggling with alcohol addiction. Therapy, counseling, and social support are essential components offered in a rehab program, and these treatments help the person understand the nature of their addiction, avoid triggers and prevent relapse, and sustain a sober, happy, and healthy lifestyle.
Just Believe Recovery features these services in residential and partial hospitalization formats, including behavioral therapy, counseling, and active participation in group therapy and 12-step programs. Our expert medical and mental health personnel specialize in addiction and provide patients with the tools, education, and insight they need to recover and maintain long-lasting well-being and sobriety.
The satisfying and healthy life you deserve is within your reach, and we can help! Contact us today to find out how!