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Is Alcoholism Hereditary? Genetics & Addiction

Understanding your genes is critical. Knowing that you’re at an enhanced risk of alcoholism could help you form protective behaviors now so you never develop alcoholism in the future.

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Almost 30 genes are connected to problem drinking. Even if you have all of them, you may never develop alcoholism.

And if you do develop alcoholism, know that you can get better. Your genes don’t doom you to a life filled with difficulty. With treatment, you can get better. 

The Role of Genes in Alcoholism Explained 

Genetic material passes from parents to children at fertilization. Every child has copies of genes from both parents. And some of those genes could enhance your risk for alcoholism. 

Protective Genes 

Genes could also reduce your alcoholism risks. Researchers have tied the ALDH1A1 gene to a slow form of alcohol processing. Toxins build up after drinking, making people feel flushed and queasy. People with this gene may not enjoy drinking as a result, and they may drink less because of it.

Most people with this genetic variant are of Asian descent.

Destructive Genes 

Researchers say multiple genes could increase your risk of developing alcoholism. Those genes could make alcohol more rewarding for you, making you more likely to keep drinking when you start.

One such gene is GABRA2. This gene is responsible for GABA receptors inside your brain, which are very sensitive to alcohol. People with this gene have more GABA activity when they drink, making each sip slightly more rewarding and harder to forget.

Another such gene is CHRM2. People with this gene are at a slightly higher risk of mental health issues like depression, and they’re more likely to become problem drinkers.

Some genes like DRD2 and SIX3 are also closely related to the development of alcoholism. In fact, some researchers say these genes may be required for people to develop alcoholism, but more research is required to make the link clear.

Are You Born With Alcoholism?

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies say that genes are not destiny. The code inside your DNA doesn’t determine how you will develop and respond to the environment around you.

Your life experiences play a role in the development of alcoholism, including those involving the following:

  • Drinking initiation: People who start drinking during adolescence change their brain chemistry in permanent ways. As they age, this alteration makes them more likely to feel anxious and reach for alcohol as a cure. If your genes make alcohol more rewarding, and you start drinking early in life, you could increase your risk of developing alcoholism.
  • Parental influence: You learn from your parents, and their behaviors impact how you act and react. If you grew up with drinkers, you might believe all adults drink to excess. When you age, it seems natural to join them at cocktail hour. A regular drinking habit, combined with genes that don’t make you feel sick when you consume alcohol, could allow alcoholism to blossom.
  • Peer groups: Spending time with people who drink raises the risk that you’ll start. Parties on campus, boozy weddings, and other liquor-filled events normalize heavy drinking and make your habits seem normal. If your genes allow you to drink to excess without passing out or feeling overly sick the next day, you may enjoy these parties, repeat them, and develop alcoholism in time.

Your genes certainly affect how vulnerable you are to alcohol’s impact. But you have a lot of influence over how those genes are expressed in your choices. 

How Can You Prevent Alcoholism?

You know you’re at a higher risk of developing alcoholism, and you don’t want the problem to happen to you. Try a few simple, commonsense steps to reduce your risk of developing problem drinking. 

Delay Drinking

Experts say one of the best ways to reduce the burden of alcoholism is to keep young people from picking up the habit.

If you’re a teenager and don’t drink, don’t start. If you’re raising children, tell them the same thing. The longer they can hold off drinking, the less chance they have of developing alcohol use disorder. 

Limit Drinking

The easiest way to avoid alcoholism is to avoid alcohol. Don’t stock your refrigerator or liquor cabinet.

Keep tea, soda, flavored water, and other nonalcoholic options available. You can’t binge on alcohol if you don’t have any in your home. 

State Your Intention

Tell your friends and family that you’re committed to sobriety. Tell them you’re not planning to drink, and explain why you’re making that choice.

Articulating your intention makes it harder for you to go back on your plans. They can even help to keep you accountable if you ask.

Address Your Trauma

If you grew up in a home with an alcoholic parent, you’ve likely faced some form of neglect or abuse. That trauma can reverberate throughout the rest of your life and raise your risk of mental health problems such as alcoholism.

Find a qualified counselor to work through those wounds. If you’re able to process your past, you’ll be less likely to turn to substances to cope.

Other Alcoholism Risk Factors 

Why do some people with alcoholism genes develop alcoholism while others don’t?

Remember that genes aren’t destiny. Plenty of other issues can raise or lower your chances of problem drinking. These are just a few of those risk factors: 

Mental Health

Underlying mental health issues, including schizophrenia, depression, and personality disorders are closely tied to alcoholism. Addressing these mental health issues properly could mean avoiding an alcoholism problem. 

Lifestyle Factors

Your family circumstances and socioeconomic status influence alcoholism risks. People with fraught relationships and financial stress tend to drink more than people without these issues. 

Peer Pressure

Living with someone who drinks to excess makes you more likely to do so too. Sharing a bottle of wine with dinner or a martini after work becomes a group activity, and soon, you’re drinking more than you meant to. 

Easy Access

When alcohol is always present, it’s easy to take a drink. Working in an office with an always-open bar, or living in a home with an always stocked liquor cabinet, makes it very tempting to drink too much.

Limiting your access could mean pausing before drinking. That pause could be just what you need to resist the temptation. 

What Can You Do Next?

If you’re drinking more than you want to, know that treatment can help. A qualified team can dig deep into your reasons for drinking, and together, you can find solutions that allow you to stop drinking and rebuild your life in a healthy way.

If you have a long history of drinking heavily, ask for help before you stop drinking. You may need a medical detoxification program to get sober safely. If you don’t get help, you could experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking suddenly.

Treatment programs really do help. You’ll have the care and support you need to put the drink down for good.

How to Talk About Alcoholism Risks

Is alcoholism hereditary? Experts don’t think so, but they do say that an understanding of genes can help people make smart decisions. If people know that they or their family members have a genetic risk of alcoholism, they could make changes to keep themselves safer.

For example, someone who understands the risks could avoid keeping alcohol in the house and limit how much they drink when out with friends. These simple steps could ensure their lifestyle doesn’t augment the risk presented by their genes.

If alcoholism runs in your family, talk with your kids. These conversation starters may help:

  • I’d like to talk to you about our family’s history of alcoholism.
  • Have your friends offered you alcohol? I’d like to talk about why drinking isn’t safe.
  • Can I talk to you about what I’ve learned about alcoholism genes?

After this conversation, your children may want to learn more. These are good resources to suggest:

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated February 14, 2024
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