People have for years heard that alcoholism is related to genetics, and for many, it’s been a cause for concern. You’ll frequently hear the phrase “alcoholism runs in our family,” being mentioned, and it leaves people fearful that they’re going to develop a drinking problem or become an alcoholic because someone in their family is an alcoholic.
Yes, it’s true that alcoholism is related to genetics in some ways, and there are heredity components to addiction, but that’s not the whole story. This means that just because your mother, for example, is an alcoholic, doesn’t mean that you will absolutely become one, although your risk may be higher than a peer who doesn’t have an alcoholic family member.
Understanding why alcoholism is genetic and how it’s genetic can be important to help people with addiction in their family avoid potential triggers and factors that could put them at a higher risk for developing alcoholism.
Chronic Disease and Genetics
Before looking at specifically why alcoholism is genetic and how alcoholism is related to genetics, it’s worthwhile to first look at chronic diseases in general. Alcoholism is classified as a chronic disease for a few different reasons.
First, alcoholism is progressive in nature. This means that someone will start out exhibiting symptoms of the early stages of alcoholism and then move on to later stages over the years. This is similar to what happens with other chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
Also, alcoholism doesn’t have a cure, but it does have treatment and management options.
As with other chronic diseases, alcoholism is thought to be linked to a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
Why Alcoholism is Genetic
Beyond looking at the general role of genetics and also environment in chronic diseases, what about why alcoholism is genetic specifically?
Alcoholism, which is also called alcohol use disorder (AUD), is influenced by genes, but there’s not necessarily a single alcoholism gene, at least not that researchers are currently aware of.
Instead, researchers believe that genes are responsible for about fifty percent of the risk a person has for developing alcoholism. The rest of the risk is based on environmental factors the interaction between genes and the environment.
There are also several genes that can play a role in the development of alcoholism. There are genes that raise not only the likelihood of someone becoming an alcoholic but also genes that lower that risk which is why some people say they’re “protected” from alcoholism.
There is currently a lot of research being done not just on the role of why alcoholism is genetic and how alcoholism is related to genetics, but also in areas of how genes influence the effectiveness of treatment for alcoholism. For example, there has been some treatment progress with the introduction of drugs like naltrexone, but this doesn’t help everyone, so there is a theory that people with variations in certain specific genes may respond differently to the drug than others.
In addition to a variety of certain genes influencing a person’s likelihood of becoming an alcoholic, there are behavioral genes that can also increase or decrease a person’s chance.
For example, when someone has a certain mental illness like depression, or they have a history of it in their family, they may be at a greater risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, often because it’s a way of coping or self-medicating.
Because of the fact that mental disorders can be hereditary, it’s one more reason why alcoholism is genetic in some ways.
Will You Become an Alcoholic?
A frequent question people have when it comes to how alcoholism is related to genetics is whether or not they will become an alcoholic.
There is no definite answer to this, even if you are at a higher risk than other peers. While the more family members a person has with a substance abuse problem or an addiction, the more likely they are also to have a problem, that doesn’t mean it’s your fate.
There are steps that can be taken to avoid alcoholism, even when their genetic and environmental factors point to this outcome.
This can include being aware of your family history with alcoholism or substance abuse, knowing the facts about these topics, and empowering yourself through information. It’s also important that you learn healthy ways to manage stress, work on building strong relationships, avoid situations that could trigger you to drink excessively, and that you always know the warning signs of addiction.
Just because alcoholism is related to genetics doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to have a drinking problem if your parents do. As with most chronic diseases, it’s a complex situation, but there are lifestyle choices you can make to protect yourself against potential genetic risks.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.