Many things are handed down through families, from your dad’s blue eyes or your mom’s musical ability to your grandparents’ antique trunk or cherished set of China. But could alcoholism — or the genetic predisposition toward it — be something else you inherit?
Scientists have long researched how significant a role genetics play in determining whether children and grandchildren are at risk of inheriting this destructive disease. And the answer, while still up for some debate, is as complex as the gene pool is deep.
Is There an Alcoholism Gene?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research conclusively supports the idea that alcoholism is not simply the result of family environment, but that it is, in part, genetic. In fact, studies on identical twins have shown that “about 50 to 60 percent of the risk for alcoholism is genetically determined.”1
Among those who are at risk, the genetic impact varies. For example, some people carry a variant of a gene that makes them more vulnerable to intoxication, while others possess a variant of a gene wherein they don’t feel drunk even when they drink heavily.1 Some people groups — like certain Asian populations, for example — carry a gene that impacts the way they metabolize alcohol, which causes symptoms like nausea, flushing and rapid heartbeat when they drink. So they are often genetically “encouraged” to avoid alcohol.2
“There are certain genes that are atypical genes that, for example, produce too few dopamine receptors in the reward center. With people who have those types of problems, they often don’t feel as happy as others around them. They just don’t feel like they fit in, kind of irritable and discontent,” author Cardwell Nuckols explains in an interview with the Recovery Unscripted podcast. “What we’re finding, interestingly enough, is that if they really get involved in groups and actively participate in groups, we’re seeing that that can … solve a lot of those genetic problems.”6
So, yes, if you have a history of alcohol abuse or addiction in your family, you are genetically more at risk to develop alcohol problems, but your fate is anything but sealed. There are plenty of other factors to consider like stress and anxiety, as well as the behavior and influence of your peers.
“It’s not one gene, one problem,” says genetics professor William Muir. “This trait [alcoholism] is controlled by vast numbers of genes and networks … It’s very difficult to tease out the difference between what your genes are telling you to do and what you choose to do.”3
The Biology of Alcohol Dependence
When you drink, even moderately, a series of events take place in your brain. First, drinking releases two naturally occurring neurotransmitters: GABA and dopamine. GABA calms the brain down, while dopamine is responsible for the brain’s pleasure or reward system. The dopamine rush is what signals the brain that what is happening is good and rewarding.
Over time, the dopamine-fueled message of pleasure requires more alcohol (or any other substance of choice) to achieve the same level of pleasure as experienced earlier with less consumption. So, to continue transmitting that pleasure rush, your brain says, “More! More!”
When these neurotransmitters are released too often, a variety of physical consequences begin to emerge, from shortness of breath, increased heart rate and high blood pressure to night terrors, delusions and increased levels of depression.
Drinking also initiates a chemical release of endorphins, which is normal in response to pleasurable activities like exercise or sex. When one drinks to excess, an excessive amount of endorphins may be released, which can ultimately have negative consequences, such as lower sex drive, infertility, extreme fatigue and depression.
As moderate drinking turns to occasional binge drinking then turns to more chronic, regular heavy drinking, the brain — as well as every major organ, colon, bones and the central nervous system — experiences unhealthy changes in size, shape, structure, capacity and function.4
Another lesser-known brain chemical that influences drug-seeking behavior is glutamate. “As your disease progresses, dopamine and reinforcement and pleasure and endorphins to some degree are driving all of that. Then once you’ve reached the late middle stage, maybe we start to see glutamate become a key player,” says Nuckols. “What that does is it knocks the prefrontal cortex offline, even if you had a well-developed one like [co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous] Bill Wilson. He could swear to his wife by the family Bible he was going to change his ways, but when he went down in Manhattan and got around the people he drank with and his drinking hole, he had no top-down ability to say ‘no.’”6
Just as the condition of the soil impacts the growth of the seeds planted in it, so the environment in which children grow influences how they grow — emotionally, intellectually, physically and otherwise. What parents model for their children, as well as how they treat each other and how they interact with their children impact the child’s risk for alcoholism.
Research indicates that a person’s risk increases if he or she is in a family with the following difficulties:
- An alcoholic parent is depressed or has other psychological problems
- Both parents abuse alcohol and/or other drugs
- The parents’ alcohol abuse is severe
- Conflicts lead to aggression and violence in the family5
However, even if you grew up in a home where one or more of the above was the case, there is no guarantee you will develop those same issues. The risk is higher, but many children who grow up in troubled or alcoholic families do not fall into those same patterns.
Take Control of Your Genetic Destiny
Your genetic inheritance does play a role in the development of alcoholism, it is scientific fact. It is not simply a matter of one having the will to not drink. If you have a genetic vulnerability, moderate, social drinking may be more difficult to maintain over time.3 That is why it is especially important to seek professional advice if you begin to see symptoms — be it social, legal, medical or a mental health complication – of a growing alcohol use problem.
If you have experienced the trauma of alcoholism in your family or if you’re experiencing the negative impact of alcohol dependence in your life today, it’s never too late to take control of your destiny. You are not bound by your genetic history. Addiction specialists like those we have here at The Canyon can assess your situation or that of someone you love to determine what kind of help might be needed to avoid or recover from alcohol addiction.
1 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The Genetics of Alcoholism. July 2003.
2 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder. N.d. Accessed 28 April 2017.
3 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. A Family History of Alcoholism: Are You At Risk? June 2012.
4 Tapert, Susan F. What Does Alcohol Do to Your Brain? Psychology Today. 2 October 2008.
5 van Hoose, Natalie. Drink Seeking Rats Provide Sobering Look Into Genetics of Alcoholism. Purdue University. 4 August 2016.
6 “The Science of Recovery with Cardwell Nuckols.” Recovery Unscripted, August 2, 2017.