Genetics of Alcoholism

 

Alcohol Addiction and Genetics

Our genetic structure determines all our human traits. Our DNA dictates our physical characteristics (such as eye color) and also our behavioral characteristics (such as aggression). These genes are passed on to us by our parents.

Among the behavioral traits parents can pass on to their children is a predisposition toward alcohol abuse and addiction.

Among those abusing alcohol, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism have a higher risk of becoming addicted. Although people can inherit alcoholic tendencies, the development of an alcohol use disorder is also dependent on social factors. Some who have inherited genes making them susceptible to alcoholism are responsible drinkers or never take a drink in their life.

The “Alcoholic Gene”

There isn’t a single gene responsible for alcoholism. There are hundreds of genes in a person’s DNA that may amplify the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Identifying these genes is difficult because each plays a small role in a much larger picture. Yet, studies have shown that certain combinations of genes have a strong relationship to alcoholism.

There are also behavioral genes passed down that could influence a propensity for alcoholism. Mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, are more common in people with a family history of these disorders. People with mental illness have a higher risk of turning to substance abuse as a way of coping. Mental disorders can be hereditary, which partially illuminates the complex link between genetics and addiction.

Environment vs. DNA

Genetic makeup only accounts for half of the alcoholic equation. There are also countless environmental factors (work, stress, relationships) that may lead to alcoholism.

Our hereditary behaviors interact with our environment to form the basis of our decisions. Some people are more sensitive to stress, making it harder to cope with an unhealthy relationship or a fast-paced job. Some people experience a traumatizing event and turn to alcohol to self-medicate.

However, even those with a high genetic risk to substance abuse must first be driven by a nonhereditary factor to do it. The catalyst that leads to alcohol abuse is usually an environmental factor, such as work-related stress.

Some environmental factors that are particularly risky for those who are genetically inclined include:

  • Drug accessibility
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Peer pressure
  • Witnessing violence

Mental illness increases the likelihood of developing alcoholism by 20 percent.