Your Questions Answered: Is Alcoholism Genetic?
I don’t remember much from last night. It was another night out. It seems like I live for the moments I don’t remember.
I woke up this morning with a bottle staring at me from my dresser. I drank too much last night. I can feel it. I told myself the last time that it was the last time. I’m just like my dad.
Looking back, I’m not even sure how or when it started. Maybe this is who I am.
Am I finally starting to admit it? Do I have a problem with alcohol? Was this passed down to me? What do I do? How do I fix it?
Alcohol use disorder (the medical term for alcoholism) affects millions of Americans. For some, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when drinking started to become a problem. Every story is different. However, one common question seems to find itself at the forefront: “Why do I have alcohol use disorder?”
Honestly, in some instances, it’s a fair question. For example, let’s say back in college, “John” could drink more than anyone. So, after graduating, how did he move on so quickly from his binge-drinking days?
Time and time again, it comes down to the fact that people just handle things differently. And that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t mean “John” is any better a person because he isn’t as susceptible to alcohol use disorder.
Experts continue to learn more and more about addiction, including any genetic (inborn) impacts. So, is alcohol use disorder actually genetic? Let’s take a look.
What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines alcohol use disorder as a “medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”
Alcohol use disorder is common in the United States. Symptoms of AUD may be different for everyone, but may include:
- Strong urges to drink
- Drinking more or longer than expected
- Wanting to cut down on drinking but being unable to
- Drinking despite the problems alcohol is causing
- Abandoning activities you once enjoyed to drink
- Finding yourself in dangerous situations as a result of drinking
- Needing to drink more and more to feel the effects of alcohol
- Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the more symptoms you’re having, the more severe your alcohol use disorder may be.
In some cases, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be very uncomfortable, which is why professional treatment with supervision is always recommended if you’re looking to address your alcohol use disorder. Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Mood swings
- Loss of appetite
- Insomnia (unable to sleep)
- Rapid heart rate
You may also experience a severe alcohol withdrawal condition called delirium tremens. This can cause fever, seizures, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), agitation, and severe confusion. Delirium tremens is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.
Alcohol Use Disorder, Genetics, and Other Contributing Factors
Do genetics play a large role in developing alcohol use disorder? Well, it’s a little complicated.
According to the NIH, “Alcohol use disorder often seems to run in families, and we may hear about scientific studies of an ‘[alcohol use disorder] gene.’ Genetics certainly influence our likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder, but the story isn’t so simple.”
Furthermore, research shows genetics are responsible for around 50% of the risk for alcohol use disorder. So, genetics really aren’t solely responsible. There are other important factors that can contribute to AUD, such as environmental factors. A parent’s drinking habits, even without genetics, have an impact. Where you grew up and who you grew up with can also contribute to AUD.
Another contributor is when you started drinking. For example, according to the NIH, “A recent national survey found that among people ages 26 and older, those who began drinking before age 15 were more than five times as likely to report having alcohol use disorder in the past year as those who waited until age 21 or later to begin drinking. The risk for females in this group is higher than that of males.”
Mental health conditions and trauma can also play a major role in the development of alcohol use disorder — mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression. Those with childhood trauma may also be vulnerable to alcohol use disorder, the NIH says.
Alcohol Use Disorder and Mental Health
We discussed mental health as a contributing factor to alcohol use disorder above, but there’s actually a name given to the coexistence of a substance use disorder (such as alcohol use disorder) and a mental health disorder. This is known as having co-occurring disorders.
According to the NIH, “Researchers have found that about half of individuals who experience a substance use disorder during their lives will also experience a co-occurring mental disorder and vice versa. Co-occurring disorders can include anxiety disorders, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and schizophrenia, among others.”
There are three possibilities, according to researchers, as to why these disorders coexist so often. One belief is that common risk factors, such as stress and trauma, can cause changes to genetics that are passed down, contributing to the development of either disorder.
There’s also a belief that mental health disorders can contribute to substance use disorders. For example, if someone is depressed or dealing with a condition such as PTSD, they may drink to ease the symptoms of those mental health disorders.
Finally, some experts believe substance use disorders contribute to mental health disorders by changing brain function and structure.
How Does Too Much Alcohol Affect One’s Health?
It’s no secret that drinking too much alcohol can have a negative impact on your health. That said, excessive drinking can consist of binge drinking and/or heavy drinking.
Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks on a single occasion for women and five or more drinks on a single occasion for men. Heavy drinking is defined as eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.
Excessive drinking can impact your health in the short term by increasing the likelihood of:
- Risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex
- Violent acts
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol syndrome among pregnant women
In the long term, excessive drinking can lead to:
- High blood pressure
- Weakening of the immune system
- Memory problems
- Mental health problems like depression or anxiety
- Alcohol use disorder
- Problems with family or friends
- Problems at school or work
- Cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box, liver, esophagus, colon, and more
Excessive drinking also increases the risk of alcohol poisoning (sometimes referred to as alcohol overdose). The symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Slow breathing
- Slow heart rate
- Low body temperature
- Trouble remaining conscious (awake)
- No gag reflex, which can increase the risk of choking
- Bluish skin color
This is an emergency situation, and 911 should be called immediately if someone is showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
You Can Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder
No one should have to battle alcohol use disorder alone. If you or someone you know is displaying any symptoms of AUD, do not hesitate to reach out for help.
It takes strength to admit you need help addressing a problem. Eventually, we’ll all need a helping hand.
By seeking professional help for alcohol use disorder, you can learn the tools needed to leave alcohol behind forever. Take the first step today.
Pinnacle Peak Recovery: We’re Here for You
Pinnacle Peak Recovery’s alcoholism treatment in Scottsdale, Arizona, typically begins with alcohol detox that lasts around five to 10 days to provide you with the safest and most comfortable experience possible.
You will then receive personalized treatment tailored to your unique needs. We have effective programs led by experienced professionals to help you learn new life skills that will benefit you on the road to recovery. You’ll also learn what contributes to your alcohol use disorder and how to manage it.
Last, but certainly not least, you will be given everything you need to prevent relapse and live a sober life. To learn more, call (866) 954-0524.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder?
There can be a predisposition to alcohol use disorder, but not all of the time. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Alcohol use disorder often seems to run in families, and we may hear about scientific studies of an ‘[alcohol use disorder] gene.’ Genetics certainly influence our likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder, but the story isn’t so simple.” Other factors, such as our environment, mental health disorders, and who we’re surrounded by, can also impact chances of developing alcohol use disorder.
Is alcohol use disorder genetic or cultural?
There are numerous contributing factors to alcohol use disorder. Yes, experts say alcohol use disorder can be genetic, but it can also be cultural. For example, here in the United States, binge drinking is quite common as it fits in with cultural norms, especially in the college scene. In some other countries, or cultures, alcohol is simply a beverage people will have at a meal with their family. In essence, there’s more of an objective, responsible approach to consuming alcohol in some countries/cultures.
What is the heritability of alcohol use disorder?
According to experts, alcohol use disorder is 50% heritable (capable of being inherited). This means genetics are responsible for around 50% of the risk for alcohol use disorder. This answers a lot of questions in regards to alcohol use disorder being strictly a trait that is passed down from generation to generation. Essentially, other factors come into play as well.