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Alcohol and Genetics: Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disease. It has long been thought to be hereditary. Research has linked it to specific genes.

Research shows that someone with a close relative who has alcohol use disorder has a higher risk of developing AUD. This is especially the case with a parent or sibling.12

However, whether or not AUD and other addictions are hereditary isn’t a simple issue.

Genetics influence a person’s likelihood of developing AUD, but it isn’t the only factor. Many people have family members with AUD who do not develop the disorder.

Researchers estimate that genetics account for about 50 percent of a person’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder. The environment and other factors play an equal role.13

Biological Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

There are multiple genes linked to AUD.

Specific genes increase a person’s risk. Others might decrease that risk.

How a person’s body metabolizes alcohol plays a role. If their body reacts poorly to moderate amounts of alcohol, they are less likely to develop AUD.

Children of people with AUD have a significantly higher risk of developing the disorder themselves. However, not everyone with alcoholic parents develops AUD.

This could be because not everyone inherits their parent's genes linked to AUD. Or their environmental influences may prevent the expression of their inherited genes.

The role of environment in AUD is also seen when comparing people with parents who are addicted to alcohol versus other family members. Growing up around people with addiction makes someone more vulnerable to developing AUD.

Learned behaviors also affect how a person views alcohol later in life. Even without a genetic component, a person can still develop AUD when raised in a certain environment.

The “Alcoholic” Gene

Alcohol use disorder is related to genetics. But this doesn’t mean there is a specific gene you inherit which means you will develop the disorder. And not having genes linked to alcoholism doesn’t mean you won’t develop a problem with addiction.

Genetics are approximately 50 percent responsible for someone developing AUD.13

A 2018 study also showed that genetic factors account for 40 to 60 percent of the reason people develop AUD.14 Since that study, specific genes were identified that link with the development of the disorder.

These genes include:

  • ADH1B — This gene causes someone to feel hot and sweaty, develop a face and body flush, and increase feelings of sickness when they consume alcohol. This gene affects the liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol. When people with this gene drink, they feel uncomfortable. It helps stop people from drinking too much or too frequently.
  • GABRB1 — This gene is linked with the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Consuming alcohol alters the amount of GABA available to the brain. This promotes relaxation and relieves anxiety. If someone has a mutation in this area and does not produce enough GABA while sober, they are more likely to abuse alcohol to feel better. This is what is meant a person drinks to “self-medicate.
  • Beta-Klotho — Those who have this gene can control their drinking. Most can consume a drink or two and then stop. Someone without this gene is less likely to control their urge to keep drinking alcohol.

In addition to these genes, researchers have also found the following factors to be involved in a person developing AUD:

  • Smaller amygdalas are common in people with a family history of alcoholism. This is the part of the brain linked with cravings.
  • People with abnormal serotonin levels seem to be genetically vulnerable to developing AUD
  • People with a genetic vulnerability to AUD tend to lack the normal warning signals experienced by someone without the predisposition that tells them when to stop drinking 

Genetics and Alcohol Tolerance 

One of the most significant genetic factors in determining someone’s risk of developing AUD is tolerance.

Researchers have identified an alcohol tolerance gene that makes a person more likely to abuse alcohol. A person who tolerates higher amounts of alcohol has a higher risk of AUD as time goes on.

The so-called alcohol tolerance gene is cytochrome P450 isozymes. It is found on chromosome 10.15

Ultimately, researchers concluded that genetic variations in and around CYP2E1 affect the level of response to alcohol.16 The gene allows conclusions to be made about how a person’s brain perceives alcohol. 

However, researchers need more information before reaching any solid conclusions about alcohol tolerance and CYP2E1.

Other genetic factors and environment likely play a bigger role than any single gene in whether or not a person develops AUD.

Alcohol and Genetics Statistics

Some statistics regarding alcohol and genetics include:

  • More than 7.5 million children live in homes with at least one parent with AUD. 17
  • Approximately 18 million US adults have an AUD. Millions more engage in risky behavior related to alcohol.18
  • Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics.19

Environmental Factors That Affect Alcoholism

In most cases, environmental factors play as big a role in a person’s developing AUD as genetics does.

Some of the most significant environmental factors affecting alcoholism include:

How early a person began consuming alcohol

Those who drink when they are young have a higher risk of developing AUD. This also applies to drinking while pregnant.

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Parental attitudes toward alcohol

Children whose parents were open to the idea of underage drinking have a greater chance of becoming addicted either as teenagers or adults.

Abusive history

Children raised in stressful homes are at higher risk of developing AUD once they are adults. This is especially in homes with sexual, physical, or verbal abuse.

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Mental health issues

A variety of disorders suggest a higher risk of developing AUD. This includes anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD.

In contrast, children who grew up with the following tended to have a lower risk for developing an alcohol addiction:

  • Homes with parental monitoring and support
  • Lessons of self-control
  • Access to community resources
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Updated on March 25, 2022
12 sources cited
  1. “Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder" | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Nih.Gov, 2017
  2. Morozova, Tatiana V., et al. “Genetics and Genomics of Alcohol Sensitivity.” Molecular Genetics and Genomics, vol. 289, no. 3, 2014, pp. 253–269
  3. “Family Alcoholism Statistics - Alcoholism Statistics.” Alcoholism-Statistics.Com, 2013
  4. “Coping With an Alcoholic Parent.” Coping With an Alcoholic Parent - Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital
  5. Hussong, A. M., Huang, W., Curran, P. J., Chassin, L., & Zucker, R. A. . Parent alcoholism impacts the severity and timing of children's externalizing symptoms. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 38, 367–380
  6. Bennett, L. A., Wolin, S. J., & Reiss, D. . Cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems among school-age children of alcoholic parents. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 145, 185–190.
  7. Easley, Margaret J., and Norman Epstein. “Coping with Stress in a Family with an Alcoholic Parent.” Family Relations, vol. 40, no. 2, 1991, pp. 218–224. JSTOR
  8. Moser, Richard P., and Theodore Jacob. “Parent-Child Interactions and Child Outcomes as Related to Gender of Alcoholic Parent.” Journal of Substance Abuse, JAI, 15 May 2002
  9. Callan, V J, and D Jackson. “Children of Alcoholic Fathers and Recovered Alcoholic Fathers: Personal and Family Functioning.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 1986
  10. Lyon, D., & Greenberg, J. . Evidence of codependency in women with an alcoholic parent: Helping out Mr. Wrong. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 435–439 Hughes, J. M. . Adolescent children of alcoholic parents and the relationship of Alateen to these children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 45, 946–947 Levey, D., Le-Niculescu, H., Frank, J. et al. Genetic risk prediction and neurobiological understanding of alcoholism. Transl Psychiatry 4, e391
  11. Foroud, Tatiana et al. “Genetic research: who is at risk for alcoholism.” Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 33,1-2 : 64-75. Alcohol Consumption and Genetics, Psych Central, Jane Collingwood, May 2016 Cederbaum, Arthur I. “Alcohol metabolism.” Clinics in liver disease vol. 16,4 : 667-85 Webb, Amy et al. “The investigation into CYP2E1 in relation to the level of response to alcohol through a combination of linkage and association analysis.” Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research vol. 35,1
  12. More than 7 Million Children Live with a Parent with Alcohol Problems, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), February 2012 Alcohol use disorder, MedlinePlus, November 2017 American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Children of Alcoholics. Published December 2011.

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