Substance Use

Is Alcoholism Genetic? Here’s What You Need to Know

alcoholic parents with daughter in the middle

Table of Contents

Get Help Now

check insurance
Check your insurance by using our Online Form
call us
Talk to someone now.
Call (855) 430-9439

Anecdotal evidence shows that alcohol misuse can result from genetic factors. Today, studies have demonstrated that genes could predispose a person to alcohol dependence. Research like this could help identify people who have a higher risk of misusing alcohol so it can be mitigated and treated appropriately.

Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us

Alcoholism Statistics in the United States

According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.1 million people in the US suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). This encompasses issues often referred to as alcohol dependence, alcohol misuse, alcohol addiction, and even the oft-used term—alcoholism.

To know the severity of this problem, consider these numbers:

  • According to NSDUH data, there are 429,000 adolescents (ages 12 to 17) suffering from AUD. Of these numbers, 263,000 are females and 166,000 are males. (1) (2) (5)
  • Between 2006 and 2014, there was a 47% increase in alcohol-related emergencies and deaths. (Note: This data remains unchanged as the source did not provide an update for this specific statistic.) (3)
  • Approximately 98,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year.
  • Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the US.
  • In 2022, alcohol-related deaths accounted for 29% (10,450) of the total driving fatalities.
  • Of the 88,000 deaths due to liver diseases, 43.5% are alcohol-related. (6)

Alcohol use disorder has become a prevalent problem that affects even the youth. And thus, the question arises—is alcoholism genetic? Scientists and those in the medical field know there’s too much riding on the answer to this one question.

The Role of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a subset of the government’s health-focused .gov entities, has been at the forefront of alcohol research. Their mission is not just to understand the genetics of alcohol use disorder but also to provide resources and support for those struggling with substance abuse.

Their studies have shown that genes like ADH1B and ALDH2 are crucial in alcohol metabolism, with specific variants more prevalent in the Asian population. This has led to groundbreaking insights into why some individuals might experience adverse reactions to alcohol, offering a protective factor against excessive consumption.

Understanding Genetics

Our genes determine our physical traits and, to some extent, our behavioral characteristics. Genes are made up of DNA, the hereditary material that’s inherited from parents.

1. Heredity and Genetics From a Medical Perspective

While heredity and genetics are closely linked, they can mean different things from a medical perspective. With hereditary diseases, the illness stems from the parent’s DNA.

This is then passed to their offspring. Genetic diseases, on the other hand, are illnesses that are caused by mutations in the person’s DNA.

2. Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Recent research from Indiana University has shed light on the significant role genes play in the development of alcohol use disorders (AUDs). The study, led by Feng Zhou, Ph.D., professor emeritus of anatomy, cell biology, and physiology at IU School of Medicine, discovered that altering a group of genes known to influence neuronal plasticity and pain perceptions is linked to AUDs.

These findings suggest that it’s not just a single gene defect but a combination of genes that predispose individuals to alcoholism.

The research team utilized three different animal models from the IU Alcohol Research Center to study how these genes influence the desire for alcohol. The study analyzed approximately 3 billion DNA base pairs containing nearly 30,000 genes in 70 individual animals to pinpoint the genes responsible for drinking behaviors.

The genes associated with pain sensation were found to work in tandem with two other groups of neural channel and neural excitation genes, which are crucial for neural communication.

Researchers from the IU Alcohol Research Center used animal models to explore the genetics of alcohol use disorder. Analyzing 3 billion DNA base pairs across 70 animals, they identified genes linked to drinking behaviors.

Notably, genes related to pain sensation collaborated with neural channel and excitation genes, vital for neuroscience communication. The study highlighted genes with silent mutations affecting alcohol use and emphasized the significance of studying gene groups over individual genes.

These insights suggest that those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism could benefit from early interventions and tailored treatments.

Genes That Affect Alcohol Metabolism

People with enzyme variants that allow for the fast buildup of acetaldehyde from alcohol (ethanol) are at less risk for addiction compared to those who metabolize alcohol efficiently to acetate. This is because people with acetaldehyde buildup are more likely to have troublesome reactions.

They would experience nausea, flushing, and rapid heartbeat even with moderate amounts of liquor. The unpleasant symptoms of drinking “protect” them from consuming too much alcohol.

Gene Alteration in the Amygdala

An experiment using rats at Linköping University in Sweden discovered that those with reduced expression of the gene GAT-3 become addicted to alcohol. This gene codes for a protein that influences the levels of GABA. This brain chemical is widely thought to be involved in alcohol dependence.

In collaboration with a co-author from the University of Texas, the researchers took brain samples of deceased people who suffered from alcohol use disorder. They discovered those samples have lower GAT-3 in the amygdala as well.

Genes That Affect Mental Illness

There are gene variations that could predispose a person to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. People with mental illness are more prone to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

3. Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Can children inherit genetic materials from their parents that increase their vulnerability to alcohol? Several notable studies have been conducted to answer this question.

Study of Twins

A comprehensive association study conducted jointly by the University of Washington and the University of Queensland meticulously tracked the lives of 5,889 male and female twins, delving deep into the genetics of alcohol use disorder. This cohort included both fraternal and identical twins.

It’s essential to note that while fraternal twins have distinct genetic profiles, identical twins share the exact genome. Given this genetic similarity, if heredity plays a significant role in alcoholism, identical twins should exhibit a pronounced concordance rate. In genetics, the concordance rate signifies the likelihood of two individuals with similar genes manifesting the same condition.

The findings of this twin study were revealing:

  • For female identical twins, if one displays signs of alcohol problems, the probability of her twin sister also grappling with alcoholism stands at 30% at some juncture in their lives. In contrast, among male identical twins, if one twin exhibits substance abuse related to alcohol, his twin faces a 50% susceptibility to alcohol addiction.
  • In the case of female fraternal twins, the study found a 16% likelihood of both twins confronting alcoholism. Simultaneously, male fraternal twins presented a 33% chance of both developing alcohol dependence. Interestingly, this rate mirrors the risk observed in the broader male population, underscoring the intricate interplay between genetics and environment in shaping our relationship with alcohol.

Hereditary predisposition to AUD is one of the risk factors identified by these results. The sole determinant of alcohol dependence, however, is not it.

Heritability of Alcoholism in Families

Research has illuminated that genetics is a significant factor in the risk of developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), but it’s not the only one. A comprehensive review by the University of Cambridge, which analyzed 12 studies involving twins and adopted children, found that genetics accounts for about half of the risk for alcoholism.

This suggests that while a family history of alcoholism can increase susceptibility, it doesn’t dictate destiny.

The study underscores a widely recognized notion: the propensity for alcoholism can be passed down through families. However, it’s crucial to remember that heredity is just one piece of a larger puzzle that includes environmental influences and personal choices. (8)

4. The Intersection of Psychiatry and Genetics in Alcoholism

Within psychiatry, the exploration of the alcoholic gene has intensified, aiming to understand its influence on a person’s risk of alcoholism. Recent genome-wide studies (GWAS) have pinpointed specific genetic variants linked to this predisposition.

However, a crucial disclaimer is that these markers don’t guarantee one will become a heavy drinker. The National Institute on Drug Abuse highlights a potential overlap between genes related to alcoholism and opioid misuse.

In healthcare, such findings can guide interventions, from outpatient treatments to more intensive care, based on an individual’s genetic risk. The transparency of research, ensured by accessible journal papers, is vital in addressing the societal impacts of heavy drinking.

The Neuroscience Behind Alcohol Dependence

Neuroscience offers a window into the brain’s workings, shedding light on why some individuals might be more prone to alcohol misuse. The genetics of alcohol use disorder isn’t just about the genes we inherit but also about how they interact with our brain’s structures and functions.

For instance, the ADH1B gene, commonly studied in association studies, has been linked to the brain’s reward pathways. Additionally, researchers like Edenberg and Gelernter have explored how genetic variations might influence neurotransmitters like GABA, providing insights into the complex interplay between our genes, our brain, and our behaviors.

Genes vs. Environment

Research shows that genetics and gene variations can increase alcoholism risk. Genetic factors contribute only partially to risk. Twin studies show that 70% of women and 50% of men can go their own way, even if they share identical genes and struggle with alcoholism.

Our genetics and environment interact complexly and affect our daily choices. People with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism often start drinking due to environmental stressors. 

Genetically predisposed people who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Genetically predisposed people raised in supportive environments are less likely to become alcoholics. Alcohol abuse increases with genetic and environmental risk factors. (9)

Environmental Risk Factors for Alcoholism

1. Accessibility to Alcohol

In regions where alcohol is either prohibitively expensive or challenging to procure, there’s a noticeable reduction in alcohol problems and misuse. Intriguingly, in the United States, factors like family wealth play a pivotal role in substance use disorders.

Data suggests that individuals hailing from families with an annual household income surpassing $75,000 face a higher susceptibility to becoming an alcoholic in comparison to their counterparts from economically modest backgrounds.

2. Stress

Every individual reacts to stress uniquely, influenced by environmental factors and genetic predisposition. Those immersed in high-stress occupations or environments often tend to heavy alcohol consumption, more so than those in less stressful situations.

This correlation hints at the intricate dance between neuroscience, genetics, and our environment in shaping our relationship with substances like alcohol.

3. Home Environment

The home environment, particularly during formative years, can significantly influence one’s relationship with alcohol. Children deprived of consistent parental guidance or those subjected to abusive households are at an increased risk of turning to alcohol, potentially leading to substance abuse later in life.

This underscores the importance of early intervention and awareness, especially in homes where family members have a history of alcohol-related issues.

4. Social Factors

Peer pressure is also an essential factor, especially with adolescents. If an adolescent’s friends drink heavily, they are more likely to drink to conform. In addition, religious background and culture may also play a role in a person’s decision-making.

A person is more prone to consuming alcohol if it is deemed acceptable to one’s faith and society. (4)

Aside from risk factors, there are also positive “protective” factors that make a person less susceptible to alcohol addiction. These factors make people resilient even though they are in a high-risk environment.

These factors include:

  • Safe community with access to adequate resources.
  • Stable home with close parental guidance and ample support.
  • Strong policies against alcohol.
  • Educational opportunities and good grades.

5. Media Influence and Advertising

The portrayal of alcohol in media, including television, movies, and advertising, can significantly shape an individual’s perceptions and attitudes toward drinking. Exposure to frequent and glamorous depictions of alcohol consumption, mainly when targeted at younger audiences, can normalize excessive drinking behaviors. (7)

Moreover, aggressive marketing strategies by alcohol brands, offering promotions and discounts, can further entice individuals, especially those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, to indulge more than they might have otherwise. It’s crucial for regulatory bodies to monitor and control such influences, ensuring that they don’t exacerbate the substance use disorders already prevalent in society.

Are You at Risk of Becoming an Alcoholic?

If there’s a history of alcoholism in the family, you have a higher risk of developing AUD. The more close relatives suffer from this condition, the higher your risk. However, knowing your family history of addiction shouldn’t make you feel hopeless, as if you’re bound to the same fate.

Instead, the awareness should prod you to protect yourself from the damage that alcohol could bring to your life and health.

Here are some ways you can do just that:

  • Have a robust support system and maintain close ties with your family
  • Cultivate healthy friendships
  • Seek counseling when necessary
  • Learn to manage stress.

Be Aware of the Early Signs of Alcohol Addiction

If you or a loved one has a high risk for alcohol addiction, knowing the early warning signs of dependence helps. It’s essential to seek intervention at the early onset of support. Withdrawal symptoms may be more bearable at this stage.

To diagnose alcohol use disorder and its severity, clinicians from the American Psychiatric Association issued the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This manual provides 11 criteria to diagnose the disorder.

These are:

  • They were consuming alcohol over a more extended period or in more significant amounts than the person intended.
  • Inability to cut down or control alcohol consumption.
  • A strong craving for alcohol.
  • Spending so much effort to buy, consume, and recover from the after-effects of alcohol.
  • Inability to fulfill obligations and responsibilities at home, in the workplace, or at school due to alcohol use.
  • Social and interpersonal conflicts arising from the continued use of alcohol and its behavioral effects.
  • Continued alcohol consumption even in situations where it is considered dangerous (i.e. driving, swimming, or operating heavy machinery).
  • Giving up hobbies and other important social and work-related activities because of alcohol use.
  • Continued use of alcohol even when it’s taking a toll on physical and mental health.
  • Developing alcohol tolerance. People with tolerance experience diminished effects of the same amount of alcohol consumed. They may need to increase the amount to achieve the desired result.
  • Experiencing withdrawal, a set of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms, when one attempts to stop using alcohol.

If a person experiences any 2 to 3 symptoms, they will be diagnosed with mild alcohol use disorder. Any 4 to 5 symptoms are considered moderate, and six or more severe. Treatment will largely depend on the severity of the condition.

By staying informed, seeking alcohol treatment when necessary, and leveraging resources from institutions like the NIAAA, individuals can chart a path toward recovery and resilience.

Zinnia Health Can Help

Are you suffering from alcohol use disorder? You have to know that you can rise above the addiction. Your genes may predispose you to it, but you don’t have to let it define or dictate your choices. You can make better choices starting now.

We at Zinnia Health have a team of professionals to help you in your journey to recovery. Call us at (855) 540-9439 or the national drug abuse hotline for a free assessment today.


Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us