Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Last Updated: Feb 24th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Alcoholism (or alcohol addiction) is a substance use disorder, an actual brain disease. Like other disorders, it directly affects the way the brain usually works. In this case, the changes in brain function are brought on by damage after prolonged exposure to substances. 

This damage can affect simple functions like judgment, decision-making, behavior, self-control, and many others. These changes cause chemical and neural imbalances that can have long-term consequences. By the time a person is an alcoholic, much of the damage will have reached severe levels. 

Because it is a process, someone who is addicted might not realize how deep in it they are. The way that tolerance gradually builds up makes it harder for them to see that. As the disorder develops, other areas of their lives will be affected. The changes in behavior and decision-making will result in them having control over very little in their lives.

Only a licensed professional can say whether a person is addicted or not. However, that lack of control is the most significant sign of alcoholism and other substance use disorders. Having drinks when socializing or a few times a month, however, is not necessarily alcoholism. There is a difference, and there are many red flags to look out for if you’re concerned about yourself or others:

  • Drinking alone at home (notably worse if it’s in secret)
  • Not being able to cut down or limit alcohol consumption
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, activities, and people they once enjoyed
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking for a while
  • Blacking out often and rarely remembering what they did when drinking
  • Having “set drinking times”, like drinking every day after work, and being annoyed when others comment on it 
  • Storing alcohol in unlikely places, sometimes even bringing it with them to inappropriate places
  • Having legal problems due to their drinking habits
  • Not keeping to their schedule or not doing the tasks they need to
  • Engaging in risky behavior to drink or while drinking

A person won’t go from a monthly drink to full-on alcoholism in a week. A person goes through many stages until they become addicted. But once many of these red flags start to show, they might be treading dangerous ground. 

What is most important to understand is that alcoholism is a disease. Until very recently, drug and alcohol addiction was considered by most to be a character flaw or “bad habit.” Today, scientists, medical professionals, and even the general public understand that addiction is a disease that can be treated. But many people still ask themselves: is alcoholism genetic?

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

For a long time, scientists have known that alcoholism seems to run in families. Now, it is known that genetics play a role in alcohol addiction. But the definitive answer to the question “is alcoholism genetic?” has generated many discussions in the addiction treatment community.

According to research, genes account for about half of the risk of alcoholism. Some have even stated that alcoholism can be considered a genetic disease and that many genes might affect it. Genes related to the development of alcoholism have also been identified, and studies believe more will be uncovered.

For instance, at the University of Texas, researchers identified sets of genes that work together as a network in people addicted to alcohol. These genes seem to “work differently” in non-alcoholics. 

Scientists are hopeful that these findings could help people with addictions, including treatments and therapies in the future. Knowing which addiction genes work together can also possibly lead to screening for a patient’s potential for alcoholism. This would help stop addiction before it ever begins.

Having a family history may or may not be a sign of the presence of alcoholism-related genes. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it runs in the family, but it is a red flag. Knowing more about that history and the people who developed alcoholism can be a preventative measure.

Although a link to genetics and alcoholism has been proven, that alone won’t make someone an alcoholic. Addiction is triggered when coping mechanisms are not enough to overcome external stressors and factors. In other words, a person might be “pushed” into addiction. That is because environmental factors also make up a (significant) portion of the risk.

The Bigger Issue Than Genetics

A more important issue than whether alcoholism is genetic is family relationships. How people treat each other and behave within families can influence addiction more than genes. Family life is known to affect whether children grow up to become addicted to alcohol. The following family problems do contribute to alcoholism, according to researchers:

  • Alcoholic parent(s) suffering from alcoholism or other disorders
  • Both parents drinking excessively or abusing other drugs
  • Severe alcohol abuse by parents occuring in the home (worse if the kids have access to alcohol)
  • Aggression, abuse, or violence are present in the family

A person’s experiences can be a much stronger factor in alcoholism than genetics. Negative, stressful events in the family can create an environment where one might be prone to developing alcoholism. In fact, that goes beyond family experiences.

Experiencing abuse and trauma on any level can trigger the disorder. As mentioned, when stressors become too much, that is when someone might try to “self-medicate” with alcohol. Additionally, this also happens with mental disorders that can cause symptoms that are quite hard to deal with. In fact, about 60% of people suffering from addiction also report suffering from a psychiatric disorder, making a dual diagnosis more common than a single one.

Because drinking is common behavior and legal, alcohol is the easiest substance to obtain. Therefore, it might be the first option for someone who is having a hard time. Since drinking is often portrayed in the media as a way to relax and cope, this behavior is even more likely.

How To Address Alcoholism With Your Family

Just because a parent(s) might suffer from alcoholism, it’s not a given that their children will, too. 

One can learn from their parents’ lifestyles and experiences. If you or maybe your partner suffer from alcoholism, and you want to address it with your family, you can – and you should. Keeping a topic so important taboo is what makes some repeat the family’s history. 

Maybe your kid might have seen a relative struggle with it, and they’ve asked: “is alcoholism genetic?”. Or perhaps they might have asked you, “what is alcoholism?”. Whatever might have caused the need to discuss it, it is important to be honest, and transparent. You should also be open to any questions they might have about alcoholism. Here are some tips for helping your children or teenagers remain free from addiction:

  • Help them understand the problems of underage drinking and not to drink until they are of legal age.
  • Teach your children through words, and as an example, how to drink with moderation.
  • Explain that alcoholism is a disease, but not a character trait – you can be a good person and become addicted to alcohol.
  • Talk to healthcare professionals who can make recommendations to help you and your children avoid problems with alcoholism.
  • If a parent or sibling is in treatment, make sure to include the whole family in activities involving them in the program.

The last point is important not just for the family, but for the person in treatment as well. The entire family needs to know what will change in their dynamic in order to help the patient. Younger family members will also get a chance to understand the process better. 

The National Association of Children of Alcoholics suggests that, when talking to kids, one can use the “7 C’s”. This would help children process a little better while introducing essential concepts about alcoholism at an early age. These 7 C’s are:

  1. I didn’t cause it.
  2. I can’t cure it.
  3. I can’t control it.
  4. I can care for myself
  5. by communicating my feelings,
  6. making healthy choices, and
  7. by celebrating myself.

Knowing the right time to approach this might be hard. Sometimes, it might be because of an event. Other times, because they might become older and have chances of being exposed to alcohol. But you must have this discussion. Otherwise, if they have problems, they might be hesitant to ask for help.

First Step Behavioral Health Changes The Fate Of Families

Alcoholism is a disorder, and as such, it requires proper attention and treatment. If you or someone you love needs help with alcohol addiction, First Step Behavioral Health can provide hope and care for families. Through treatment, the future can be brighter and more hopeful than ever before. 

We understand that families are affected by a patient’s alcoholism and vice-versa. We also acknowledge the importance of their involvement in a healthy way in order to support a patient. That is why our program promotes family participation through organized activities. We also provide resources for the family to learn about alcoholism and how to best support the patient.

If you want to learn more about overcoming an alcohol addiction, visit our website for more information, and contact First Step Behavioral Health, or call 855-425-4846 now. We can help you and your family learn about the challenges of alcoholism. Families need to stick together no matter what, and we hope to be that “glue” through recovery.

References:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056340/

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.