Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Alcoholism can affect any person of any gender, age, and socioeconomic status, but is alcoholism hereditary? The answer is yes and no. Those who have a history of alcoholism in their family are more predisposed to alcoholism themselves. There is research that shows genetics are responsible for approximately half of the risk for alcohol dependency or addiction. However, the disease is more complex than that. 

Research claims the link between alcohol use disorder and genetic predisposition may increase a person’s risk depending on certain factors like how genetics affect their metabolism rate, blood pressure, and other reactions to alcohol. If alcoholism is part of your gene pool, there are ways to be proactive about your health to prevent symptoms from occurring, since there are other environmental factors that affect alcoholism as well.

These include: age, gender, and lifestyle. Each of these affect your relationship with alcohol in some way. Is it DNA or learned behavior that’s more responsible for alcohol addiction? To further explore the question: is alcoholism genetic or hereditary, each of these factors must be examined more closely. 

How Age Affects Alcoholism?

Age plays a part in how a person responds to alcohol. For example, a young, relatively healthy person who’s just begun to drink is less susceptible to alcoholism than a person who is middle age and has been drinking their whole life. On the other hand, it’s at a young adult age where signs of alcohol abuse become prevalent. 

Adults in the 18 to 21 demographic often experience binge drinking, which can lead to blackouts and memory loss, among other side effects. This drinking behavior can lead to further problems with alcohol and eventually lead to addiction. While a person may not engage in this behavior regularly, it is still harmful to consume a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time.

Binge drinking is often categorized as consuming 4 to 5 drinks within a couple of hours. The amount is less for females, since their bodies metabolize alcohol differently. There’s no singular route to alcoholism. It can be how much you drink at one time, how often you drink, or how your body responds to it. Anyone at any age may develop it.

Gender and Alcoholism

Research shows there are differences between men and women in how they metabolize alcohol, their drinking patterns, and their long-term relationship with alcohol. Scientists have found women produce smaller amounts of alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), an enzyme that’s released in the liver and breaks down alcohol. Also, women naturally have higher levels of body fat, which retains alcohol, and lower levels of water, which helps to disperse it.

Drinking patterns seem to be consistent between males and females as they enter the young adult phase, but studies show that later brain maturity in males, in addition to peer pressure and other societal factors create more harmful drinking patterns at an earlier age. Behaviors in the beginning stages of alcohol consumption can set the path to a person’s long-term relationship with alcohol. 

Although these findings aren’t applicable across the board, it’s still interesting to understand the physiology and pattern differences that can affect men and women in various ways. It plays yet another significant part of a person’s propensity to alcoholism or if they’ll have problems with alcohol in any way. 

Lifestyles That Lead to Problems with Alcohol

Your physical environment and lifestyle can affect how you handle alcohol, which answers the question of is alcoholism hereditary or learned? It can be both. Yes, it’s been shown that certain genetics may cause someone to be susceptible to alcoholism. On the other hand, learned behavior can put someone at just as much risk. 

Drinking alcohol to deal with stress, loneliness, and other feelings may lead to alcohol dependence. Being surrounded by people who drink frequently can be a tempting influence to always drink as well. Peer pressure is common among young adults, but the societal norms of social drinking can weigh heavily on people at any age. Alcohol is innocently looked to as something that “takes the edge off”. When a person becomes reliant on this feeling, it’s easier to become addicted.

Always having access to alcohol or encouraged to drink based on friendships, work events, or a number of other situations that make up a person’s lifestyle can sway whether they’re likely to drink more often than if they were not in those types of environments. A change in lifestyle is often necessary to spur a change in drinking habits.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

There are preventative measures to take if you are naturally predisposed to alcoholism. It doesn’t mean that your genetics, age, gender, or lifestyle have to seal your fate. Also, there are different phases of people’s lives where they turn to alcohol more frequently. It’s likely that most people have experienced signs of alcohol abuse at some point in their lives. 

The difference with addiction is that the body no longer has control over whether to drink or not to drink. It physically and mentally reacts with alcohol withdrawal symptoms if there’s no alcohol in the system. Curbing excessive drinking in the beginning can help prevent alcoholism later on. 

It can be easy to compare your drinking habits to those around you, but as it’s been shown, alcohol affects people in multiple ways based on a number of factors. Here are a few of the tell-tale signs of alcohol abuse:

  • Episodes of memory loss or blackouts after drinking
  • Inability to limit how much alcohol you drink and/or continued drinking far past anyone else
  • Legal ramifications as a result of drinking, such as a DUI
  • Been involved in an alcohol-related car accident
  • Increasing problems at work or with your interpersonal relationships
  • Inability to go more than a few hours without drinking

What starts as a drinking habit of a drink or two every night can quickly lead to two or three and begin to escalate from there. Additionally, alcohol affects your brain and ability to react swiftly no matter how much you drink. Even if you feel like you have your level of consumption under control, it still causes damage to your liver, brain, and other organs the longer it occurs. 

If alcohol use disorder runs in your family or if you are continually influenced by other factors, it’s best to abstain from consuming alcohol at all, follow healthy habits, and surround yourself in a positive environment, when possible.

Preventative Action Against Alcoholism

As an adult, you can make choices that will help limit the negative influence of alcohol on your life. The first thing is to surround yourself with positive people who are supportive and look out for your best interest. A “party friend” may be fun to be around, but they are not helping you stay clean and sober. Would that person be understanding if you chose not to drink or would they try to convince you to join them? Healthy friendships and relationships set up a strong foundation where you can feel safe and have people to turn to when you need help. 

The second preventative way to avoid alcoholism is finding coping mechanisms to manage stress that doesn’t include drinking. A glass of wine to relax or a night out with friends may not automatically lead to alcohol dependency. However, if you’re already prone to fall into this type of behavior, it’s best to avoid it altogether. Limit stress in your life where you can and practice activities that help alleviate tension, such as exercising or meditation. 

Another way to help prevent alcohol abuse is to identify symptoms of addiction. If your family has a history of alcoholism, what signs were prevalent to you growing up? Do you model these same behaviors? 

Alcoholism is often considered a sensitive subject that isn’t approached lightly, but it is a disease that requires care. Once the body has become addicted to alcohol, the choice of when and how often you drink is taken away. That can be difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t been there before.

Make Healing Part of Your Story

Regardless of if you’ve dealt with alcoholism due to hereditary means, as a learned behavior, or any of the number of environmental factors that can affect its likelihood, it doesn’t have to define you or those that come after you. Healing and recovery can be part of your story as well. 

There are alcohol treatments available that provide the resources, tools, and support you need to overcome alcoholism and live a healthier, happier life. Genetics may show you a predetermined route, but you have control to switch courses at any time. Take advantage of the people and places available that can serve as a safe haven while you recover. They have the tools, resources, and expertise to help you along the path to sobriety.

Dealing with alcoholism isn’t something you have to go through alone or endure forever. You can change your relationship with it and reach a place where you feel more at peace and in control. 

As you can see, there are several risk factors that can lead an individual to substance abuse. If you or a loved one has developed an alcohol dependency, do not wait to seek help. At Northbound Addiction, our trusted team members can help you go through the medical detox process so you can go back to living a sober and clean life. To learn more about our addiction treatment programs, visit our website or contact one of our experienced health providers today. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders/genetics-alcohol-use-disorders;
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756494/
  3. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180618-why-alcohol-affects-women-more-than-men;

Article Reviewed by Paul Alexander

Paul AlexanderPaul Alexander is the founder and CEO of Northbound Treatment. He received his Certified Addiction Treatment Specialist training at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA, and was awarded Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 2002. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Law and Society, Summa Cum Laude, from University of California, Irvine, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. He believes wholeheartedly in transformational leadership, organizational health and effective, fully integrated substance use disorder treatment.

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