Some people can have a drink at a bar, take a taxi home and go about their lives; no big deal. Others take one sip of alcohol and set into motion a process of reckless decision-making that ruins their evening or even their life. Even though they’re well aware of the danger that drinking presents, they can’t say no. In some cases, they can’t function without a drink. Why can some control their actions while others can’t? Could the answer lie in our genetic makeup? Is alcoholism genetic? Alcoholism, or by its medical term, alcohol use disorder (AUD), is caused by many factors. And yes, some of those factors are genetic.
Alcoholism has been linked to specific genes, and no doubt having a close relative that struggles with alcoholism will increase your risk of AUD. However, genetics only make up between 40-60 percent of your total risk.
People don’t wake up on their 33rd birthday to find they’re an alcoholic. It doesn’t work that way. Whereas other genetic disorders can appear out of the blue, alcoholism is something that develops over time, with different factors, most of which are environmental.
When we are young, our genetics don’t play much of – if any – a role in AUD. When and how we are exposed to alcohol as children is environmental. As such, these environmental factors play a big part in our relationship to alcohol and the way we consume the drug.
- Drinking Early– Young people that drink before the legal age – we’re talking irresponsible drinking, like binge-drinking at parties out with friends – are much more likely to develop alcoholism when they are older.
- Stress at Home– Children raised in households where they experience abuse, be it sexual, emotional or physical, are at a higher risk of becoming dependent on alcohol or other drugs as a way of coping.
- Mental Health Problems– Children that suffer from a mental disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia or any number of other disorders may be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol and are more at risk of developing AUD.
- Alcohol Dependency at Home– As mentioned earlier, children raised in a home where a close relative struggles with alcoholism are at a much higher risk than others to develop dependency as adults. In this case, parents that struggle with AUD are setting an environmental example of how to interact with alcohol.
Scientists are still trying to clarify our understanding of the way genes affect our relationship with drugs. Substance disorder is a real problem in this country, and if you’re struggling yourself, you’re not alone. One in four people will struggle with a form of substance disorder at some point in their lives. Having a genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder can certainly affect whether you develop a dependence, but determining how that gene is expressed is difficult. And, science has offered little conclusive evidence that alcoholism is caused solely by our genes.
Genes which affect alcoholism are multiple, and there is still a lot of research left to do. As we look at the whole picture it is increasing clear that your genetic predisposition is one factor among many.
Genes and Treatment
The way our genes are expressed can also impact the treatment we receive for AUD. Scientists are also trying to understand why some drug treatments like Naltrexone work for some, but not for others. Research has shown that patients with certain gene variants tend to respond more positively when it comes to reducing their alcohol consumption.
Environmental Factors Affect Genetics Too
What makes the research of how our genetic makeup impacts our relationship to alcohol even more complicated is that our understanding of how the environment affects our genes is very much unknown. Everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat has an impact on the way our genes express themselves. Alcohol itself plays a role, as the consumption of alcohol on a regular basis changes the chemicals our body produces, in turn changing some gene expressions. The study of environmental effects on gene expression is the field of epigenetics, a relatively new and growing field of science.
So is alcoholism genetic? While the factors that influence an individual’s risk of AUD are innumerable, genetics do play an important role. But, they don’t determine whether you’ll become an alcoholic. Anyone struggling with alcoholism should seek help right away. We don’t have control of our genes. And, we can’t control how and where we were raised. We do have control over our choices. No one wants to know what alcohol withdrawal feels like, but it’s the first step to recovery. At Blu By The Sea, we have state-of-the-art facilities and medical professionals that can help you detox and overcome your body’s alcohol memory, getting you on the road to recovery, both in the long and short term. If you know someone that is struggling with AUD, encourage them to seek treatment.