Family History and Alcohol Addiction: Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also referred to as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, can affect people with or without a family history of alcoholism. There are plenty of people with a family history who do not suffer from AUD. But we still hear or read the question, “can alcoholism be inherited?” so often that there must be something to it. Right?

Yes. There IS indeed a genetic component to alcoholism1. But family history is more than just the genetic component. There is also an environmental component to alcoholism and other drug use disorders, including family history. If you are experiencing alcohol or drug use disorders and want to be free from your addiction, there is help. Reach out to Legacy Healing Centers for alcohol or drug rehab in Florida.

What exactly causes alcoholism? That’s a big, but fair question. We will do our best to give you honest, straight answers, no fear, no guilt, no shame. Just truth…and hope!

What Causes Alcoholism?

Before we dive into what causes alcoholism, what exactly IS alcoholism? More accurately called alcohol use disorder, it’s “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse…consequences.”2 It is a medical condition, a brain disorder. Just like many other medical conditions, it can be successfully treated and managed.

Can Alcoholism Be Inherited?

What causes AUD? Why do some people seem to have it from the first drink while others never develop it? There is no blanket answer as to what precisely causes AUD.

There are certain factors that can contribute to the development of AUD3:

  • How old you were when you started drinking

The age at which you started drinking can influence your likelihood of developing AUD. The younger you start, the higher the risk. Starting to drink, especially heavily, as an adolescent (12-17) or young adults (18-late 20s) puts you at the highest risk for AUD.

  • Stress levels and other environmental factors

Alcohol is often used to cope with stressful situations, the most common external, environmental factor that influences AUD. What is considered stressful to one person may not be to another. Using alcohol to cope with stress on a regular basis can contribute to the development of AUD. If you deal with chronic stress, whether from a job, relationships, or another source, your alcohol use will likely increase in amount and frequency. This consistent reliance on alcohol to cope puts you at a higher risk of AUD.

  • Mental health conditions

Just as alcohol is used to handle stressful situations, it is also a common coping mechanism against mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For some, there is a genetic component to their mental health conditions. So even if there isn’t a history of alcohol use in the family, the genetic component of mental health conditions may contribute to the development of AUD. Unfortunately, although alcohol may seem to temporarily numb you against the anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, it actually will make it worse in the long run.

  • Genetics

While there is not one specific gene that causes alcohol use disorder, genetics and family history can increase your risk of developing AUD.1,3 Genetics can influence your innate alcohol tolerance, alcohol metabolism, vulnerability to various elements of addiction, and more.

How Is Alcoholism Genetic?

There is a genetic component that may make you more susceptible to alcohol use disorder. But it’s not simply one gene or the expression of one gene. So exactly how is alcoholism genetic? Genetics play a part in the physical as well as the mental aspects of becoming addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

For some, they inherit a low level of response to alcohol, also known as a high tolerance. They can drink a lot without it affecting them as quickly as it would others. This high tolerance is not a good thing that protects you from developing AUD. Rather, it can contribute to it by causing you to drink more. It may also cause additional health problems in your brain or liver because of the excessive amount of alcohol needed to feel the desired response.

Other genes influence the way alcohol is metabolized in the body. For example, 36% of people of East Asian descent (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean heritage) have a variant in their genes that affects the production of a specific liver enzyme. This causes unpleasant side effects to drinking. While it may be a deterrent to some to drink alcohol, even light drinkers with this genetic expression may be at higher risk for detrimental health effects such as esophageal cancer3.

The way your brain functions, the hormone balance of neurotransmitters can greatly influence your mental and emotional response to alcohol4. Other behavioral traits, such as impulsivity, are also genetic expressions. Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, also have genetic components. And there is most definitely a relationship between mental health and AUD.

Heritability Estimate for Addiction to Alcohol

What is the heritability estimate for addiction to alcohol? The estimate is that 50-60% of the risk for alcohol use disorder is genetically determined.5 And that estimate is the same for men and women. However, your genetic makeup does NOT mean you are destined to have AUD if it’s in your family history. Nor does it mean you are safe from AUD if there is no blood relative or family history of it.

Instead, it is a component, a factor, that may increase your risk of alcohol addiction. There are still environmental and behavioral components at play. If you have experienced trauma and use alcohol to cope, your risk may increase if you have a familial history as well. If you began using alcohol at a young age with heavy drinking to party, genetics could make you more vulnerable to AUD. The same is true with using alcohol to cope with stress.

And if heavy use of alcohol was the normal thing you grew up seeing, that environmental component, even if not genetic, is still a part of the family history. And it still can influence your own risk of AUD.

Seek Treatment Today

There is always hope for a brighter, sober future. You can choose to proactively battle AUD with a genetic component. If you don’t take that first drink, you don’t have to try to stop. You are never resigned to your fate because of your genetics.

You can choose to seek therapy, counseling, medication, and other treatment programs to help you manage stress, anxiety, trauma, and more. You can seek healthy coping skills. And you can seek treatment for your AUD or other substance use disorder (SUD). Treatment for alcohol or drug detox is within your control.