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Is Alcoholism Hereditary or Genetic? The Facts and Science

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Alcoholism is a disease that affects millions of people in the country. It affects people of all ages, economic statuses, and ethnic backgrounds. Alcoholism does not discriminate. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) states that 44 million people have alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed substances in the world. Most people can drink alcohol and without cause for worry.  That said, it is an addictive substance, and excessive use can lead to dependence and later alcoholism. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. It changes the brain’s chemistry and how it processes reward.

When someone drinks alcohol, several brain neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, are affected, as noted in an NIAAA research paper from 1997. The neurotransmitters help to regulate mood and central nervous system functions. Alcohol use affects them. Alcoholism is also deemed a behavioral disease carrying social implications.

Due to alcoholism’s complexity, there are several contributing factors involved, including heredity and genetics. The NIAAA says that about half of the risk of alcoholism can be linked to genetics. It can also be partially caused by heredity when the disease runs in the family. However, this does not necessarily mean that an alcoholic parent will pass the disease onto a child. It simply means that there could be specific risk factors involved.

Understanding the Difference between Heredity and Genetics

Heredity and genetics are terms used interchangeably when discussing diseases that run in families. However, a hereditary disease is one that is referred to as “running in the family.” It is one that is passed down through the generations. Hereditary diseases are caused by genetic mutations, according to Healthgrades. This is how hereditary and genetic diseases often become interchangeable.

A genetic disease is also the result of a gene mutation, and it may or may not be hereditary. The mutations happen either randomly or from an environmental factor. They are not passed down through the family.

So is alcoholism hereditary or genetic?

Alcoholism and Heredity

It is known that children of alcoholic parents have a greater chance of struggling with alcohol abuse later in life. Some children inherit the genes for alcoholism, and some do not. It is also known that when there is a family history of alcoholism, it is linked to a greater risk of being genetically predisposed to the disease. 

The factors involved are how close the relatives are to each other. If one parent is an alcoholic, there is a three to four-time higher chance that a child may inherit the disease. When extended relatives come into play, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles struggling with alcoholism, the strong association to the disease is not present.

Growing up in an environment of alcohol abuse can lead to a child “inheriting” alcoholism.  Other factors, like gene mutation and learned behaviors, also hold a role in whether alcoholism is inherited.

genetic-alcoholism

Alcoholism and Genetics

Genetics and heredity are very closely linked. Parents pass their genes down to their offspring; therefore, the offspring inherit the genes.

A person with a genetic disease has an abnormality in their genome. Examples of genetic diseases include cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, and Sickle cell anemia. A person with a hereditary disease received the genetic mutation from their DNA of their parents. A search of heredity diseases produces the same results.

Researchers believe that 50 percent of the root cause for alcoholism is genetics. A person who is predisposed to absorbing alcohol in a way that results in pleasurable effects versus feeling negative effects, such as being nauseous, having mood swings, or overheating, has a higher chance of developing alcoholism.

A 2008 study from the NIAAA found that “genes are responsible for about half of the risk” of alcoholism, and not a single factor alone. Environmental factors, as well as genetics, are key players.

The science behind this might be better understood by explaining specific genes and how they relate to becoming an alcoholic:

GABA and GABRA2

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that produces relaxation by slowing down the central nervous system and decreases stress. It is one of the major inhibitory neurotransmitters affected by the consumption of alcohol. GABRA2 (gamma-Aminobutyric acid type A receptor subunit Alpha-2) is a protein-coding gene that affects GABA-receptors. The journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research reports that it is linked to the beginning of alcoholism. The presence of GABRA2 can contribute to the hereditary nature of alcoholism.

CHRM2

This gene is considered to be a “long-arm” of Chromosome 7, which the acetylcholine receptor gene CHRM2 (cholinergic muscarinic 2 receptor). A study published in the journal Genes, Brain and Behavior reports that CHRM2 may influence the limbic and cortical structure of the brain, which is the part of the brain that involves memory, learning, attention levels, and information processing. 

The study found that several nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of CHRM2 are thought to increase the odds of escalating the chances of developing a dependence on alcohol, which could lead to alcoholism and possibly to it being hereditary.

Endorphins

Endorphins can make us feel good when we do good deeds or eat specific foods. Alcohol consumption causes endorphin levels to rise. When alcohol starts wearing off, we can feel depressed as the brain works to re-establish a chemical balance without the impact of alcohol.

However, a lack of endorphins may predispose an individual to alcoholism because the lack is hereditary, Medical News Today writes.  A lack of these naturally occurring endorphins can make it harder for someone to feel happy without alcohol, therefore, increasing the drive to drink larger quantities more frequently. This, in turn, can lead to excessive drinking, dependence, and alcoholism.

ALDH2 and ADH1B

These two genes affect how alcohol is metabolized in the body. They are very prevalent in Asians. When these two genes are present, they can actually act as a protector against alcohol use disorder because they can cause a person to feel flushed, nauseous, and have a rapid heart rate when an Asian person drinks alcohol. The genes are thought to be hereditary by scientists and noted in the medical journal Alcohol, research and health, from the NIAAA.

Environmental Causes for Alcoholism

Along with the above-mentioned hereditary and genetic contributors toward alcoholism, there are outside environmental factors to consider.

Early age drinking: The younger someone starts drinking, the more likely they are to later develop alcoholism. If an adolescent doesn’t indulge in alcohol until the legal age, they are less likely to struggle with alcohol abuse later.

History of abuse: When children are raised in a stressful and traumatic home where family members are verbally, physically, and/or sexually abused, they are at a higher risk of developing alcoholism as adults.

Mental health issues: Several psychiatric conditions can put a person in a higher percentage of developing a severe alcohol use disorder, as indicated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Those mental health conditions are depression, ADHD, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. It is thought that people with certain mental health conditions use alcohol to self-medicate.

Treatment for Alcoholism

The facts and science show that, for some people, alcoholism can be inherited and passed down to family members. You may know someone, maybe yourself, who has or had an alcoholic parent. The indication that the parent struggled with alcohol abuse is usually one that determines if a child will develop an addiction to alcohol.

Alcohol does not have to become the source to solve or soothe your problems. Alcohol addiction does not need to keep passing through the family. Alcohol addiction treatment in South Florida is close by at The Palm Beach Institute

The treatment center is long-established and has a strong, successful record of helping people struggling with alcoholism learn how to live life without resorting to alcohol to cope. If alcoholism runs in your family, now is the time to stop it in its tracks. 

The well-respected addiction treatment center offers a steady slew of programs and therapies for those who wish to find healthier, more positive ways of managing life and its inevitable hurdles, stresses, and challenges. Today is the day to end alcoholism in your family.

Sources

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Facts and Statistics. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Neurotransmitter Interactions. Valenzuela, C.F. M.D., Ph.D. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh21-2/144.pdf

Healthgrades. (2020, May 5) 6 Most Common Hereditary Diseases. Fishman, S. from https://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/symptoms-and-conditions/6-most-common-hereditary-diseases

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2008) Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder. from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-use-disorder/genetics-alcohol-use-disorder

Alcohol Clinical & Experimental Research. (2015, August 6) GABRA2 Alcohol Dependence Risk Allele is Associated with Reduced Expression of Chromosome 4p12 GABAA Subunit Genes in Human Neural Cultures. Lieberman, R., et.al. from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/acer.12807

Genes, Brain and Behavior. (2010, December 22) Association of CHRM2 polymorphisms with severity of alcohol dependence. Jung, M.H., et.al. from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1601-183X.2010.00663.x

Medical News Today. Alcohol Abuse Is Hereditary. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/75738#1

Alcohol, research and health. (2007) ALDH2, ADH1B, and ADH1C genotypes in Asians: a literature review. Eng, Ming., et.al. from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17718397/

NIDA. (2020, May 28). Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use

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