Genetics of Alcoholism

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a chronic condition characterized by an inability to consistently limit or control alcohol use and is associated with numerous health consequences. Although environmental factors are known to play a role in alcoholism, there is also a strong genetic component at work.1

The scientific evidence so far indicates that alcoholism is influenced by both genetic makeup and environmental exposures. These two influences act together like synergistic pieces of a puzzle resulting in an overall increased risk for the development of AUD among certain struggling individuals. Fortunately, thanks to extensive research on this issue, there’s a variety of preventative strategies to help reduce the development of AUD in individuals who are at risk.2

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

While they’re not a direct cause of AUD, research has increasingly confirmed that genes have a significant influence on predisposition to AUD. This risk has been associated with variations in specific genes involved in neurotransmitter metabolism. Additionally, there are certain variants of genes related to hormones such as dopamine and endorphin which are linked with increased risk for AUD.3

In addition to inheriting individual gene variants which increase the risk of developing AUD, family members may also share similar family environments which can contribute to increased susceptibility. This includes:4

  • Parenting styles that emphasize alcohol use or promote problem drinking behavior patterns within families or communities
  • Exposure to peer pressure surrounding alcohol use
  • Easy access to alcohol
  • Geographic location
  • Other socio-economic factors 

All of these factors interact with inherited genes in complex ways that could increase an individual likelihood of developing AUD.4

Signs and Symptoms of Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder  

Some individuals have an increased risk for developing physical, mental and behavioral health issues due to their genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Some common signs and symptoms that may be present include:1

  • Increased craving for alcohol
  • Higher tolerance for alcohol
  • Faster onset of intoxication when drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as a negative emotional state when not drinking
  • Difficulty controlling consumption at one time or over a period of time
  • Continued drinking even after severe negative consequences

The affected individuals may also experience strong cravings for other substances or activities in order to increase their dopamine levels (such as gambling or drug usage). Additionally, individuals struggling with the disorder often show signs of depression or anxiety due to long-term drinking and its related effects on the body and brain. In some cases, individuals struggling with the disorder may develop neurological changes in the brain due to chronic alcohol abuse which can lead to a wide range of negative consequences.1

Finally, some psychiatric disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder can increase the struggling individual’s vulnerability to developing AUD due to their strong influence on impulsivity and self-control.5

How does a Family History of Addiction Influence Alcoholism?  

Family history can play an important role in identifying risk factors associated with AUD since individuals are more likely to develop the condition if they have a first-degree relative who has had similar issues in the past.6

This includes parents and siblings.6 It’s important to note that although alcoholism genetic factors may contribute to an individual’s increased risk of developing the disorder, environmental influences and lifestyle choices also have significant impacts on whether someone will ultimately suffer from this illness.2,4

For example, individuals who come from families with histories of substance abuse may be more likely to develop AUD if they’re exposed to these behaviors during childhood or adolescence. On the other hand, some individuals who are raised in a healthy environment may have a reduced risk of alcoholism despite any potential genetic predispositions.2

Is Alcohol Tolerance Genetic? 

There are numerous studies on alcoholism that suggest a genetic component to determining how an individual’s body would react after consuming alcohol. For instance, research supported by NIAAA has found that microRNAs may be involved in the development of alcohol tolerance.7 Additionally, recent discoveries point to the presence of a gene called CYP2E1 which may affect one’s capacity for alcohol tolerance.8

Likewise, researchers have also observed distinctions between ethnicities in terms of their ability to tolerate different levels of ethanol consumption – including differences among Caucasians and Asians. As such, further exploration into this area has revealed potential gene-related correlations associated with varying attitudes toward alcohol and its effects on behavior within different communities around the world.9,10

In conclusion, while much remains unknown in regards to why some individuals can handle higher levels of drinks than others, it appears increasingly likely that there is indeed a gene-related component involved. More research needs to be done before any definitive conclusions can be drawn, but current evidence suggests that this may very well be the case going forward.7-10

Is There a Genetic Predisposition to Alcoholism?  

ADH1B and ALDH2 are the two genes that have been established to contribute to alcohol dependence. ADH1B is an alcohol dehydrogenase gene that codes for a protein responsible for breaking down ethanol in the body. Mutations of this gene have been associated with an increased risk for AUD, likely due to higher levels of ethanol remaining in the body after drinking. ALDH2 codes for an enzyme that breaks down acetaldehyde that is formed from alcohol metabolism.11,12

Gabrb1 is a gamma-Aminobutyric acid type A receptor beta-1 subunit gene, whose role in AUD is still being investigated. Gabrb1 codes for a receptor that mediates GABA neurotransmission, a major inhibitory neurotransmitter system involved in regulating both anxiety and reward pathways. Studies have suggested Gabrb1 may play an important role in alcohol dependence through its modulation of these pathways, though further research needs to be done to confirm its exact role.11

How to Reduce the Influence of Genetics and the Likelihood of Alcohol Abuse?  

The influence of genetics on the likelihood of alcoholism development cannot be completely avoided. However, there are some preventive measures that individuals can take to reduce their risk of developing the disorder.13

  1. Awareness of family history: It’s important for individuals to be aware of their family history and any past instances of alcohol abuse in the family. An individual should have this information at hand and understand the implications it may have on them.
  2. Moderation: Individuals should practice moderation when consuming alcohol. Binge drinking or drinking more than what’s recommended for a healthy lifestyle can increase an individual’s chances of developing an AUD.
  3. Supportive environment: Individuals should create a supportive environment around themselves by connecting with friends or family who don’t drink excessively or engage in risky activities related to alcohol use. This may help create positive influences as opposed to environments where excessive drinking is accepted or encouraged.
  4. Healthy activities: Individuals should focus on other activities that can improve physical and mental health instead of drinking. Exercising regularly and engaging in hobbies such as reading, painting, or playing musical instruments may be helpful when it comes to reducing the potential impact of alcoholism genetic factors.
  5. Reaching out for help: Finally, if an individual believes they may already be struggling with excessive drinking habits or have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, they should reach out for professional help from a doctor or therapist as soon as possible so they can get support and develop healthy coping strategies to manage their condition effectively.

Am I at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic Genetically?

Self-checking is a great place to start with prevention, as it requires individuals to assess their own behaviors and habits in relation to alcohol consumption. This first step may involve evaluating the person’s drinking frequency, how much they drink, and whether or not it has led to or caused any negative consequences in their life. Answering these questions truthfully can help struggling individuals determine if they are at risk of developing AUD.14

If self-evaluation suggests that someone might be at risk of developing AUD, learning how to overcome the genetic predisposition to alcoholism is essential. Some strategies for doing so include:13

  • Moderating alcohol consumption by setting limits
  • Avoiding environments where heavy drinking occurs
  • Seeking therapy or counseling that focuses on coping techniques
  • Avoiding all drugs other than prescribed medications taken under medical supervision.

If a struggling individual or their loved ones believe that they have developed AUD, enrolling in a rehab center may be necessary for getting a precise diagnosis by a medical professional and providing effective treatment. Treatment-seeking individuals can benefit from reaching out for help to an evidence-based rehabilitation center.1 American Addiction Centers is a private network of treatment centers designed to help individuals struggling with substance abuse. Treatment-seeking individuals can access a variety of potentially helpful elements of treatment, including:

  • Psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which may help patients identify triggers for drinking and develop healthier coping skills.
  • Medications like naltrexone or acamprosate, which may be prescribed in order to reduce cravings and help maintain sobriety.
  • 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which may also prove beneficial for recovery from addiction.
  • Family therapy sessions with mental health professionals, which can be useful to process the effect that the struggling individual’s AUD has on the whole family.
  • Group therapy sessions which can provide support from peers who share similar experiences.

All these treatments work together in helping struggling individuals address the underlying issues contributing to their AUD, while also providing them with the necessary tools and resources needed for sobriety maintenance.1

Some types of treatment-seeking individuals may consider themselves to be functional despite their AUD, while others may reach out for detoxification treatment due to experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Regardless of which stage the struggling individual is in, help is available. Struggling individuals may reach out through AAC’s hotline to discuss the cost of treatment and begin their first step toward recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions