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Updated on September 29, 2023
7 min read

Is Alcoholism Hereditary? A Detailed Look at Alcohol Genetics

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) has long been a subject of study. Numerous studies have shown that individuals with a family history of alcoholism are at a higher risk of developing this condition.12

Some statistics regarding alcohol and genetics include:

  • More than 7.5 million children live in homes with at least one parent with AUD16
  • Approximately 18 million US adults have an AUD. Millions more engage in risky behavior related to alcohol18
  • Children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics19

Researchers estimate that genetics account for about 50 percent of a person’s risk for developing AUD.11 However, it's important to note that genetics is just one factor. The following can also interact and influence a person’s vulnerability to alcoholism:

  • Environmental factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Social factors

How is AUD Diagnosed?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is diagnosed based on specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

These criteria include:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Cravings or a strong urge to drink
  • Unsuccessful efforts to control drinking
  • Problems at work or school due to drinking
  • Continued alcohol use despite social or interpersonal problems
  • Recurrent alcohol use despite physically hazardous situations
  • Drinking despite negative health consequences
  • Neglecting important activities due to alcohol use
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Increased tolerance

A healthcare professional can provide an accurate diagnosis, recommend the most suitable treatment plan, and monitor progress, ultimately offering a path toward recovery and improved quality of life.


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Factors that Increase Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Some people have a genetic predisposition to develop AUD. Specific genes can increase your risk, while others might decrease it.

How your body metabolizes alcohol also plays a role in developing AUD. If your body reacts poorly to moderate amounts of alcohol, you’re less likely to develop AUD.

Environmental factors, such as upbringing, can also increase the risk of AUD. Children of people with AUD have a significantly higher risk of developing the disorder.

Does Everyone with Alcoholic Parents Develop AUD?

Growing up around people with an alcohol addiction makes someone more vulnerable to developing AUD, but not all children of alcoholic parents develop AUD. This could be because not everyone inherits their parent's genes linked to AUD.

Environmental influences may also prevent the expression of their inherited genes. The role of a person’s environment in AUD shows differences when comparing people with parents addicted to alcohol versus other family members.

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.

What is the “Alcoholic” Gene?

Genetics are responsible for about half of the risk of developing AUD.12 Although AUD is related to genetics, this doesn’t mean there’s a specific gene you inherit that develops the disorder. On the other hand, not having genes linked to alcoholism doesn’t mean you won’t develop an addiction.

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

These genes include:


ADH1B gene, also known as the discomfort gene, plays a vital role in how the body responds to alcohol. People with this gene may experience discomfort, such as sweating and facial flushing, when consuming alcohol.

This discomfort often acts as a natural deterrent, limiting their alcohol intake. It can also affect your liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol.


The GABRB1 gene is linked with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) production. 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 likelier to abuse alcohol to feel better. Using alcohol in this way is referred to as self-medication.


People 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.

Other Genetic Factors For Developing AUD

In addition to the genes mentioned above, 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 a region of the brain associated with emotions and 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

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Genetics and Alcohol 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 over time.

The so-called “alcohol tolerance gene” is cytochrome P450 isozymes. Specifically, genetic variations around CYP2E1.15 Ultimately, researchers concluded that CYP2E1 affects the alcohol response level.16

The gene allows conclusions to be made about how a person’s brain perceives alcohol. However, researchers need more information before concluding 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.


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What Environmental Factors Affect Alcoholism?

Gene and environment interactions play a significant role in the development of AUD. This means having a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction can be exacerbated by your environment.

Some of the most significant environmental factors affecting alcoholism include:

Early Alcohol Consumption or Exposure

If exposed to alcohol at a young age, you’re more likely to develop AUD, especially if you start drinking at 15 or younger. This also applies to children whose mothers drank while pregnant.

Parental Attitudes Toward Alcohol

Children whose parents were open to underage drinking have an increased risk of developing alcohol addiction during adolescence or adulthood. This can happen through learned behavior or by having easy access to alcohol.

History of Abuse

Children raised in stressful homes are at higher risk of developing AUD once they are adults. This is especially true for children who experience:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Trauma

Mental Health Issues

Various mental disorders can increase the risk of developing AUD. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

In contrast, children who grew up with parental support and community resources have a lower risk of developing an alcohol addiction.

Treatment Options for AUD

AUD often requires professional medical attention, especially if you’ve developed an alcohol dependence. However, it’s important to understand that people react to treatment differently.

Talk to a healthcare professional or an addiction specialist. They can recommend treatment plans and programs that cater to your needs.

Available treatment options for AUD include:


Research shows that there is a hereditary factor in the development of alcohol use disorders (AUDs). People who grew up with family members who struggled with alcohol addiction also have a higher risk of developing it.

Only about 50 percent of genetics is responsible for the risk of developing AUD. Psychological, social, and environmental factors also influence the likelihood of developing the addiction.

If you need help treating your alcoholism, you can look for various treatment plans and programs to cater to your needs.

Updated on September 29, 2023
18 sources cited
Updated on September 29, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. “Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder" | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 2017.
  2. Morozova et al. “Genetics and Genomics of Alcohol Sensitivity.” Molecular Genetics and Genomics, 2014.
  3. “Coping When a Parent Has an Alcohol or Drug Problem.” Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
  4. Hussong et al. “Parent alcoholism impacts the severity and timing of children's externalizing symptoms.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 2010.
  5. Bennett et al. “Cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems among school-age children of alcoholic parents.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 1988.
  6. Easley, M.J., and Epstein, N. “Coping with Stress in a Family with an Alcoholic Parent.” Family Relations, 1991.
  7. Moser, R.P., and Jacob, T. “Parent-Child Interactions and Child Outcomes as Related to Gender of Alcoholic Parent.” Journal of Substance Abuse, JAI, 1997.
  8. Callan, V.J., and Jackson, D. “Children of Alcoholic Fathers and Recovered Alcoholic Fathers: Personal and Family Functioning.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1986.
  9. Lyon, D., and Greenberg, J. “Evidence of codependency in women with an alcoholic parent: Helping out Mr. Wrong.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1991.
  10. Hughes, J.M. ”Adolescent children of alcoholic parents and the relationship of Alateen to these children.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1977.
  11. Levey et al. “Genetic risk prediction and neurobiological understanding of alcoholism.” Translational Psychiatry, 2014.
  12. Foroud et al. “Genetic research: who is at risk for alcoholism.” Alcohol research & health, 2010.
  13. Ferguson, S. “Do Genetics Affect Alcohol Use?” Psych Central, 2016.
  14. Cederbaum, A. “Alcohol metabolism.” Clinical Liver Disease, 2012.
  15. Webb 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, 2011.
  16. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “More than 7 Million Children Live with a Parent with Alcohol Problems” Data Spotlight, 2012.
  17. Alcohol use disorder” MedlinePlus.
  18. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. ”Children of Alcoholics.” Facts for Families, 2011.
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