Genetics Of Alcoholism

Alcohol has an enticing effect that can naturally draw you back after just a sip. It plays on the brain and induces desirable effects that may influence you so that you repeat consumption even without meaning to. Regardless of biological profile, everyone who gets close to alcohol and engages in regular drinking has a tendency to be hooked on the substance and subsequently slip into addiction or alcoholism.

However, studies have revealed that some individuals have a higher likelihood of becoming alcoholics. Researchers believe that alcoholism runs in families with histories of alcohol dependence and addiction. As a result, if you’re a descendant of someone who had a drinking problem, the likelihood of having one yourself is high.

These studies went on further to suggest that genetics is 50% responsible for causing alcoholism. While this research connects genes to alcoholism, it’s difficult to understand exactly how. Although a study in 2017 claimed to have found a gene directly linked to alcohol addiction, scientists still believe multiple genes are interconnected in causing an inclination to alcoholism.

Our predisposition to do certain things may stem from our DNA. Just like our genes determine our physical features such as eye colour, height and facial attributes, they also dictate our behavioural traits such as aggression, to a large extent.

If you have a natural drive towards risk-taking and thrill-seeking adventures, be aware that may lead to experimenting on substances beyond what is recommended. This may also originate from genetic structure. It’s well known that we may exhibit one or two traits consistent in one (or both) of our parents. This primarily suggests that some of our proclivities – such as drinking – may have been inadvertently handed down to us.

Despite this, alcoholism has to be triggered by external social factors to take full course. There are people with family histories of alcohol addiction that are still responsible drinkers – some of whom are even teetotalers.

That said, having a genetic structure that predisposes you to alcohol does not mean you are doomed to be an alcoholic. Social and environmental factors can also lead to development of a drinking problem, which means you can fall into addiction without any genetic influences. However, the likelihood of alcoholism will be higher with a hereditary predilection.

Whether caused by genetic factors or not, alcohol addiction is not untreatable. You can get help to fight your addiction and overcome it. As long as you’re psychologically ready to kick the habit, your genetic makeup cannot stop you from doing so.

Treatment plans targeted at getting to the root of alcoholism (from a psychological aspect) can help you make lifestyle changes that will allow you to see alcohol in a different light.

Genetics and Alcoholism: An Overview

The fact that genetics is connected to alcoholism – and serves as a risk factor for developing a drinking problem – has been well established by scientists. Various studies in different parts of the world have clearly identified the relationship between genetic structure and alcohol addiction. However, the particular traits and determinants of alcohol addiction that are passed down from parents to children are yet to be established. This is the reason further research is being carried out on the issue.

Alcohol and genes are linked in various ways. For example, your genetic makeup may decrease the likelihood of experiencing a hangover after a stint of binge drinking. In different genetic cases, you may receive a large spike of dopamine when you ingest a relatively small amount of alcohol: this is due to the genetic state of your central nervous system.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for signaling pleasurable feelings that is integral to the brain’s reward system. The spike of the chemical from alcohol is what leads to addiction. When dopamine is released in large amounts, a rush of pleasure is induced, triggering a desire to consume alcohol again, since the feelings only last a while.

Genetic studies in animals have provided contributions to the field of research. They have also shown promise to be essential in helping scientists pinpoint the basis of behaviours in alcoholics and their neurochemical definitions. This means that through animal genetic testing, researchers are getting closer to understanding the exact patterns related to genes and alcoholism.

However, despite major advances in the field, a clear understanding of alcohol metabolism and addiction tendency that may solve the problem of alcoholism once and for all has not been established.

The reason for further research into alcoholism and genetics is ultimately aimed at the possibility of tackling alcoholism at the genetic level. This may involve the invention of certain gene inhibitors that will block the predisposition to alcoholism.

Medicines could be invented that would block the uptake or release of dopamine when alcohol is ingested. This might eliminate the tempting effects of alcohol. Some pharmaceutical drugs have already been developed to serve as alcohol consumption deterrents. These drugs will make you sick once they come into contact with alcohol in your system. However, most of them must be taken before alcohol is consumed.

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These interventions will target neurotransmitters and manipulate brain chemistry, rather than work through psychological, external means. Some form of new psychotherapy may also be introduced to induce changes in behaviour and world-views, aimed at preventing alcoholism rather than treating it.

However, various forms of clinical psychotherapy are already being utilised for the treatment of alcohol addiction. These have proven successful in helping recovering addicts defeat their addiction and lead sober, healthy lives.

While the invention of measures that will prevent alcoholism at the genetic level is a development we look forward to, traditional means for combating addiction (which have been effective) will still be employed until we achieve this. It’s also important to note that genetics isn’t the only cause of addiction, as other social elements can also play a key role in alcoholism.

Genetic predisposition and vulnerability

Your genetic construction is considered vital in developing a dependence on alcohol. Studies have suggested genes can be handed down by parents and grandparents that may lead you to abuse alcohol and become addicted to it. Although this is true, it does not mean you will suffer alcohol addiction if it runs in your family. It simply means you’re more vulnerable to addiction than those who may not have a family history of alcoholism.

Vulnerability to alcohol abuse can be increased (or decreased) by environmental, social, and even health factors. Elements such as peer pressure, previous abuse, incarceration, and rebelliousness could also influence your vulnerability to alcoholism.

It is difficult to stave off certain environmental and social conditions. This is because alcohol has permeated every aspect of our society due to its accessibility (and legal status) and the pleasurable effects it induces.

This often makes the fight to prevent addiction a conscious battle, similar to that of fighting off a relapse (in recovering addicts). Therefore, it’s important to watch out for these factors in order to avert falling headlong into addiction, especially when you have a family history of the problem.

Help is also available if you’ve slipped and find yourself abusing alcohol. Though your genetic predisposition may influence your treatment and recovery, it’s still a war that you can win, provided you have the required help.

Lots of addicts – even those with familial alcoholism connections – have gone on to lead sober and healthy lives, after seeking help. You too can overcome your addiction. Your genes don’t preclude you from living a happy life.

Susceptibility to alcohol addiction

If there is a case(s) of alcohol addiction in your genealogy, you do not inherit this directly: what is passed down is a susceptibility to become addicted. You may never develop an alcohol disorder throughout your life if you’re not exposed to certain alcohol-inducing, sociocultural and environmental factors. Also, if you consciously choose to avoid these influences, you may likely never succumb to addiction.

Your mental health could also make you susceptible to alcoholism: you might not have a good handle on the way you react when exposed to the substance.

Also, you could easily develop an alcohol abuse problem if you already have a drug abuse issue. Abusing other drugs can in turn lead you to transition to alcohol. Please seek help if you’re finding it difficult to quit drug usage of any kind. The substances you’re presently taking could cause you to abuse alcohol in order to explore other feelings of ‘euphoria’.

Problem drinking is also a common issue. Due to certain challenges and unfortunate situations in life, you may choose to turn to drinking to release tension or ‘ease your sorrows’.

Studies have also identified financial issues as a cause for alcohol susceptibility. Apparently, you may or may not become an alcoholic, depending on your level of income. While this may influence your susceptibility to alcohol, there’s a chance it may not lead to addiction.

Gene for Alcoholism Is Discovered

Alcoholism has been a serious issue for many decades. It is a brain disease that involves dependence on alcohol for normal body function. This disorder leads to numerous health problems, as well as changes in behaviour that will affect the alcoholic and those around them in a negative way.

As a result of this, funding has been dedicated for research to establish the possible causes of alcoholism. Consequently, researchers have since found a link between genetics and alcohol addiction. However, since the relationship between genetic structure and alcoholism was discovered, identifying the particular gene responsible for inducing addiction has presented a fresh headache to researchers. That is, until recently.

Recent studies have identified the gene that may be responsible for regulating consumption of alcohol. The reports suggest that when this gene mutates, compulsive drinking behaviours may occur. The mechanism involved in this occurrence was also identified.

Published in 2015 and carried out at the Newcastle University, the study suggested that the gene Gabrb1 modulates drinking behaviour. This gene is connected to the activities of the GABA neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, which is responsible for inhibiting nerve excitement.

Normally, alcohol abuse has a major negative effect on the neurotransmitter, causing alterations in its activity, leading to excitement and then depression. According to the findings of researchers, alcohol abuse and addiction sets in when the Gabrb1 becomes ‘faulty’ or mutates.

Findings were revealed through the actions of different groups of mice. The study showed that interest in alcohol amongst normal mice was absent. These mice drank little or no alcohol when provided with a straight choice of diluted alcohol and a bottle of water.

However, mice with faulty or mutated Gabrb1 exhibited an overwhelming preference for alcohol over water when offered a straight choice between the two. The mice chose alcohol for almost 85% of their daily fluid consumption.

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Identifying the gene for alcohol preference

Researchers investigated why mice preferred alcohol over water in relation to the gene, Gabrb1. The gene itself altered alcohol preference in such a strong manner that mice exhibited compulsive behaviours towards alcohol.

The mice were willing to work to get alcohol into their systems and would voluntarily consume the substance for an hour until their movements become impaired.

The cause of binge drinking among these mice was tracked, and a connection to the mutated gene Gabrb1 was established. The gene is a protein encoder for an important component of the brain’s GABAA receptor, which responds to the GABA transmitter for brain chemistry regulation.

With the mutation of the gene Gabrb1, the receptor no longer waits for the GABA neurotransmitter to act, causing feelings of excitement and pleasure that lead to compulsive alcohol-seeking behaviours.

It has long been known that the GABA system is entwined with the regulation of alcohol consumption in humans. This finding shows a correlation between genetics and alcoholism.

The beta-klotho gene

In 2016, American and European researchers found a gene responsible for inducing alcohol cravings and inhibiting it. The study suggested that this gene is responsible for regulating social drinking behaviours and its absence or presence will result in binge drinking or responsible drinking respectively. The research scrutinised the records of more than 100,000 heavy and light drinkers.

According to the study, the gene works alongside other genes (including FGF19 and FGF21). The gene beta-klotho is said to work through a feedback circuit that runs from the liver (where alcohol is processed) to the brain, where a cellular machine is developed by the combination of beta-klotho and FGF21 receptors. This cellular machine binds to the hormone FGF21 in the liver to signal the reaction to alcohol.

The mice approach was also used to properly determine the effect of this gene on alcohol consumption. It found that mice lacking the ability to produce the beta-klotho gene drank more alcohol than water when presented with both options. Meanwhile, mice with the ability to produce the beta-klotho gene showed a relative lack of interest in alcohol.

10 ways Your Genes Influence Your Drinking Habits

Your genetic makeup influences how you drink alcohol in a number of ways. How much alcohol you drink, how you’re drawn to the substance, the frequency at which you drink, as well as how alcohol will affect you all have links to your DNA.

Here are ten ways your genes may have a say on how you consume alcohol:

1. Sulfite allergy

Sulfites are naturally occurring chemicals in wine and are also used for preservation in food processing. If you’re sensitive to sulfites, you will experience allergic reactions that range from mild to fatal when you ingest beer or wine (or indeed any other foods that contain the chemical). These symptoms include diarrhoea, skin rashes and respiratory symptoms. You could also suffer an asthma attack after consuming a pint of beer or glass of wine.

Although the condition is rare, research has suggested that a previous case in your family’s history indicates the likelihood of you having a sulfate sensitivity being high. So, you might want to avoid wine if you possess this genetic trait.

2. Age of first drink

Early onset of alcohol consumption is related to alcoholism. This means drinking at a young age has the tendency to make you a binge drinker in the long run. Research that studied over 7,200 twins (published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology) found a genetic connection between early drinking and alcohol dependence. The study’s findings suggest a powerful disposition to alcohol abuse, based on how early in life an individual begins to consume alcohol.

3. Development of cirrhosis

As long as you abuse alcohol, you will be at risk of developing cirrhosis. This is a liver disease, characterised by the thickening of fibrous tissues, irreversible scarring of the liver, inflammation, and cell degeneration. If you have a family member with cirrhosis and are a binge drinker yourself, your risk of developing this complication will be markedly high.

4. Alcohol tolerance

A University of North Carolina study found that some people may possess a gene that provides a high level of protection from alcohol intoxication. The study – which surveyed 238 college students along with their siblings – investigated the role of genes in terms of tolerance to alcohol. Findings in the study suggest that a DNA region consisting of CYP2E1 genes has a link to alcohol tolerance.

Certainly, a higher tolerance for alcohol will require more of the substance to be consumed in order to achieve the pleasurable effects of the substance. This could easily lead to alcohol abuse.

5. Hangover

Some of us come down hard the morning after a night of drinking alcohol, but some seem to get lucky when it comes to hangovers. However, this is not considered luck according to researchers. Studies have found that genetic structure has a role to play in suffering a headache the next morning after a night’s drinking.

According to research published in PubMed, having a genetic structure that predisposes you to alcohol can cause you to have vivid memories of your hangover. If you fall into this category, it’s best to cut back on your drinking or seek professional help, than take a ‘hair of the dog’ approach.

6. Fertility

Alcohol abuse has been linked to infertility by scientists via numerous studies. Consuming too much alcohol may impair your reproductive function. This is because alcohol induces deformities and mutations in the human body. One research even suggested that a single glass of alcohol can slash reproductive prospects by a whopping 50%! Additional studies suggested that fertility in men – and the likelihood of conception in women – will continue to decrease in proportion to increased alcohol consumption.

In women, alcohol directly affects fertility by disrupting the menstrual cycle and causing abnormalities in the function that regulates ovulation. This is why alcohol results in certain conditions, such as lack of ovulation (anovulation), absence of menses (amenorrhea), and other deficiencies related to reproduction.

Consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can also result in impaired fetal development and growth, as well as instant abortion. As a consequence, you should terminate alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

In men, alcohol can seriously damage delicate cells involved in sperm production over time.

7. Gout

Gout is a painful form of arthritis. This kind of muscle inflammation mainly attacks the feet and causes extreme pain. It is mainly triggered by high uric acid levels in the bloodstream. People who suffer from gout are advised to avoid alcohol and maintain a diet low in purines (which can be found in certain seafood and meats).

8. ADH Mutation

A recent study discovered that humans are developing genes that may block alcohol addiction. Published in February 2018 in the Journal of Nature Ecology and Evolution, it surveyed the genotype data of 2500 living individuals in a kind of Genome-wide association study.

Authored by two University of Pennsylvania researchers, the research found that mutated ADH genes made people sick from consuming alcohol. The ADH genes are responsible for an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase (found in the liver and stomach), which is involved in alcohol metabolism.

Alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down alcohol into a toxic compound known as acetaldehyde, which is further converted to a harmless substance called acetate acid.

The research states that ADH gene variants have risen over the past 10,000 years independently in Africa and Asia. These genes are said to cause sickness in people consuming alcohol, which may lead them to stop drinking.

9. Alcohol elimination

The rate at which your body metabolises alcohol determines (in part) how fast you become intoxicated and how rapidly you begin to feel the effects of alcohol. Some factors – including genetic ones – play major roles in the acceleration or deceleration of the metabolism of alcohol.

10. Cancer

Drinking alcohol regularly also presents the risk of developing different kinds of cancers. They include liver cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, and head and neck cancer. This is as a result of certain breakdowns in vitamins and gene mutations caused by alcohol.

You could also be at high risk of cancer if you have a family history of cancer and alcohol abuse.

Alcoholism: A Case of Predestination?

The fact that genes play a large role in alcoholism is one that has been generally accepted. Scientists are almost taking advantage in trying to make a fortune-telling solution out of it. At some point however, genetic testing will likely be able to point to who will or won’t succumb to alcohol addiction.

That you have a family history of addiction to alcohol doesn’t mean that alcoholism for you is inevitable. You are merely susceptible and predisposed to succumbing to alcoholism. However, with today’s sociocultural structure, it would seem hard to escape. Even those without genes related to alcohol seem to develop the habit just as fast.

Whether you will fall prey to addiction or not generally depends on you. Indeed, social and environmental factors (as well as peer pressure) could succeed in bending your will, even when you’re not really drawn to alcohol. However, with a resolute mind, you can fight the forces that pull you towards addiction and maintain a sober life.

You shouldn’t feel helpless or as though you’re on an inevitable trajectory towards addiction once you find out you have a susceptibility to alcoholism; especially if you’ve been drinking regularly. Alcoholism can be averted, even if you possess the related DNA.

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Environment vs. DNA

Genetic structure only answers for half of the cause of alcoholism. In fact, genes alone cannot lead to addiction. There are countless environmental components that complete the alcoholism equation.

There has to be interplay between genetics and the environment for alcohol abuse to occur in individuals that possess the gene. For those that do not possess the gene, addiction is still a possibility.

This means that with or without a genetic predisposition to alcohol, you can succumb to addiction. However, without environmental factors present, substance abuse will likely never occur.

Our hereditary traits interact with our external environment to form the foundations of our decisions and actions. Some people have more sensitivity to stress, making it more difficult to cope with a fast-paced and demanding job, an unhealthy relationship, or even financial burden.

However, even if you have a high genetic risk to alcoholism, you must first be driven by a factor that is nonhereditary. The trigger that leads to substance abuse is normally an environmental factor, like work- or relationship-related stress.

Some environmental elements that are notably risky for people who are genetically predisposed include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Drug accessibility
  • Witnessing violence
  • Peer pressure
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Facts and Statistics about Genetics of Alcoholism

Here are some quick facts about the genetics of alcoholism:

  • It’s an accepted fact that a family history of alcoholism indicates a predisposition to a drinking disorder.
  • Genetic makeup accounts for 50% of the cause of alcoholism.
  • At least one environmental factor has to trigger addiction in those with a genetic inclination.
  • Without any environmental factor present, alcoholism (despite gene susceptibility) will likely not occur.
  • About three million deaths occur worldwide as a result of alcoholism each year.
  • There are more than one gene responsible for causing alcohol addiction.
  • An early onset of drinking may lead to problem drinking later in life.
  • The risk of developing alcohol addiction as a result of inherited genes is eight times higher in male children than female children.
  • Tolerance to alcohol plays a role in alcoholism.
  • Genes have been discovered that may decrease (instead of increase) a person’s risks of alcohol addiction.
  • Individuals with certain genetic makeups can experience milder hangovers after abusing alcohol.

Myths and Lies about Genetics of Alcoholism

There are a number of myths concerning alcoholism and genetics – some of which are for individual gain and others mere misconceptions. Here are some such myths:

Genetics has no influence in alcohol addiction: despite the consensus in the research field about the role genetics has to play in alcoholism, some individuals still believe it’s all a lie and totally unfounded. However, numerous studies have proved time and again that alcohol addiction is connected to genetic components.

Genetic predisposition dooms you to alcoholism: the idea that you’re fated to become an alcoholic if you have a familial connection to the disorder is simply false. Genetic components only serve as half the cause of drinking disorders and require other environmental factors to be triggered.

Genetic disposition to alcoholism makes treatment impossible: while your genetic makeup may cause a few bumps in your recovery as an addict, you can still defeat your addiction and live a healthy life.

Only one gene is responsible for substance abuse: scientists believe addiction from the genetic level happens as a result of the involvement of multiple genes.

The firewater myth: this stated that a particular race (especially native Indians) were sensitive to alcohol, had an inherent craving for the substance, misbehaved when intoxicated, were susceptible to alcohol use disorder, and could not solve their drinking issues on their own. This myth has been refuted by scientific studies.

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How to Get Help Today

If you have a drinking problem, help is available. A hereditary predisposition to alcoholism does not seal your fate as an addict. You can break free from the binds of alcohol addiction and live a healthy life again. All you need is professional help.

There are treatment plans and procedures geared towards helping you defeat your addiction. A medically assisted detox plan will see to it that the remnants of alcohol are eliminated safely from your system. Thereafter, you’ll be taught life-changing skills on how to live without the influence of alcohol. You’ll also be integrated back into society with a brand new mindset, armed with the necessary skills to battle addiction and environmental cues head-on.

Predisposed to alcoholism or not, an alcohol-free future still lies ahead.


Frequently Asked Questions

Should your family history influence how you drink?

Some genes (that may lead you to binge drinking) may have been passed down to you if there’s a previous case of alcohol addiction somewhere in your family history. This will predispose you to certain drinking behaviours, meaning that if you start consuming alcohol, your subsequent drinking behaviour may be influenced by your family history.

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Alcoholism is genetic, but not entirely. Studies have found that genetics only account for 50% involvement in alcohol addiction. The rest relies on environmental and social components. These nonhereditary components are also responsible for triggering the genetic factors.

Why do some people become addicted to alcohol and drugs, while others do not?

This is partly because of the genes they carry. They may easily succumb to addiction more than other people – even with the same environmental and social factors present – due to their genetic makeup. However, some individuals fall into addiction more easily than others because of differences in environmental and social situations.

Am I Born to Drink?

No one is born to drink. However, everyone is at risk of drinking disorders. Despite genetic factors, environmental components must be present to trigger the ‘drinking’ gene. In short, everyone can avoid alcohol addiction.

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