Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

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Science often grapples with the “nature versus nurture” theory about various disorders and diseases. Alcoholism is no exception. Is it a hereditary disease or learned behavior? Or both? While we’re always the masters of our fate and make our own choices, certain genes are passed down that determine the propensity to abuse alcohol.

What Is Genetics?

We are born with a certain set of genes that are in our DNA. Naturally, we get these from our parents but that doesn’t give us some license to try to blame certain negative patterns as predestined by our genetic code. Negative behavior such as alcohol abuse can also be attributed to learned behaviors from a parent or family member who has a drinking problem. It’s like that eternal question–which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Having said that, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that children from a family with alcoholics are four times more likely to develop problems with alcohol. Those statistics aren’t very promising and seem to support the genetic theory that alcoholism is hereditary, but that doesn’t mean environmental factors don’t contribute their fair share.

A Swedish study used twins who were adopted into different families so they were raised in different environments. It showed that the environment had some impact on subjects who weren’t the biological children of an alcoholic parent. However, the twins who came from alcoholic parents? They had a much higher rate of alcohol abuse despite being away from the biological parents.

Do Certain Genetic Precursors Discourage Alcoholism?

Some examples of genetic factors that can determine your vulnerability to alcoholism are the ALDH2 and ADH1B genes. They influence the metabolism of alcohol and these genes are normally in abundance in the East Asian population. These genes discourage the use of alcohol because the side effects are so negative. They prevent individuals from metabolizing alcohol properly so they might have nausea, facial flushing, or their heart may face when they drink. The genes in their body act as a natural deterrent that discourages drinking.

A beta-Klotho gene also discourages excessive drinking by influencing people to drink responsibly and control their drinking so that they indulge in moderation. An interesting note is that this gene has the same effect when it comes to sweets; this gene gives people the natural ability to consume pleasurable food and drink in moderation.

What Genetic Factors Make You More Susceptible to Alcoholism?

On the other side of the spectrum are genes that influence drinking and alcohol addiction. The gene GARBB1 encourages alcohol use as it produces a feel-good neurotransmitter known as GABA. When the brain increases the production of any kind of comforting neurotransmitter or chemical, the chances for addiction increase dramatically.

Any genetic factor that gives you a higher tolerance to alcohol or “rewards” you by releasing pleasurable chemicals in the brain can increase your chance of becoming an alcoholic. However, there are other factors to consider.

Gender can influence how you react to alcohol. Women are less likely to become alcoholics but often suffer more damage when they do. This includes physical symptoms related to their metabolism, hormones, and body mass. Men, on the other hand, may not suffer as many physical effects but are more likely to become alcoholics. Neither one is a winning situation.

What Effects Can Studies Have in Treatment?

In an ideal world, researchers would figure out a way to prevent alcoholism but we’re still a long way off. A practical example might be unlocking the secret to why naltrexone works for some people and hardly works on others. Is it genetic? Is there another medication that might be more effective?

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) believe the key to learning more about genetic effects on drinking behavior can be learned by studying fruit flies. They behave like humans who have been drinking and show the same molecular mechanisms. By studying them, someday we may have a greater understanding of the genetics that trigger alcoholism. More importantly, that may give us the key to more effective treatment.

What Is the Takeaway?

While some people may be genetically more susceptible to alcohol or addiction, it is not a predestined fate because you still have free will and can choose what you do and how you react to situations. If you notice there is a lot of drinking in your family or even substance abuse, it’s probably best to abstain completely to maintain your health and sobriety. That can be hard in a family of drinkers.

That also should not give you any excuses to blame a drinking problem on genetics or chalk it up to fate. If you know that there is a genetic predisposition in your family, you know how important it is to make sure there aren’t any other factors that may contribute to a drinking problem such as stress or an environment that encourages you to drink.

Scientists have long fought over the “nature versus nurture” argument and they have conducted studies that indicate there may be a strong genetic predisposition to alcoholism. For those people who carry those genetic markers of alcoholism, however, their fates are not set in stone. Environmental factors contribute to alcohol use and abuse as well. The studies may lead us to more effective treatments for those who specifically suffer from alcohol abuse and provide answers as to why some treatments aren’t effective for some people. Whether you’re genetically predisposed to alcohol abuse or recreational use, Everlast Recovery Center can help treat your substance abuse problem. From detoxification to recovery, we’ll provide counseling and holistic therapies to help you achieve a sober life. Through therapeutic activities like art therapy, yoga, or equine therapy, our Riverside, California facility offers you professional guidance and low staff-to-patient ratios. You’ll find the support you need here. Call us today and learn how we can help at 866-DETOX-25, (866-338-6925).

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