Is Alcoholism Hereditary?
- January 15, 2021
Is alcoholism hereditary? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that as of 2019, an estimated 14.1 million Americans ages 18 and older had alcohol use disorder, or AUD. The NIAAA also reported that of that 14.1 million adults, rates broke down to an estimated 8.9 million men and 5.2 million women with the disorder. Keep in mind, these numbers only reflect Americans ages 18+ and do not include the many other younger individuals who are experiencing alcohol use disorder.
Research has shown that disease of addiction links backs to genetics, environment, or a combination of both. So, trying to answer whether or not alcoholism is hereditary is slightly more complex than just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, especially because there are many factors that can play a role in that determination.
The Hereditary/Genetic Component of Alcoholism
When something is hereditary, it means that it can be directly passed down from one generation to the next. Some common hereditary traits include tongue rolling, hairline shape, and handedness. Hereditary diseases include sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs disease. Addiction, including specific types like alcohol use disorder, are not technically hereditary, but rather more genetic. This means that those who experience alcoholism may have genes that make them predisposed to developing this specific type of addiction, but do not necessarily inherit the actual disease. Genes can be passed from generation to generation, but it is often external and other biological factors that determine if those genes will lend themselves to triggering the onset of a disease like alcoholism.
So, what makes the disease of alcoholism one that can be inherently genetic? Studies show that genes play a significant role in the development of alcoholism, so let’s consider some main factors:
- The amygdala — The amygdala is a part of the brain where the fight-or-flight response comes from. It is directly related to the body’s stress response and controls responses to fear. The amygdala is also a main component of memory. Studies have shown that many of those who have a family history of alcoholism all share one common component — a smaller than average amygdala. When the amygdala is not of average size, it can create increased anxiety and negative emotions, predisposing a person to utilizing alcohol to cope with distressing feelings and experiences.
- Brain signals — The brain sends out signals to people all the time, as this action is what helps us function. Families can have genetics that cause their brains to not send out certain types of signals as strongly as they should. In families where alcoholism is present, studies have uncovered that some signals in the brain that are associated with telling a person to stop drinking are much less than average.
- Serotonin — Serotonin is a hormone present in the brain that works to regulate and stabilize mood and feelings of wellbeing. Research has shown that a large majority of people who find themselves addicted to alcohol have low serotonin levels and that those low levels are shared within other members of their families.
- Impulsivity — Impulsivity is a characteristic that is highly heritable. It is also a characteristic that lends itself to the development of addiction, as those who have low impulse control are more likely to experiment with alcohol, use it recklessly, and ignore signals to stop drinking.
The overall mental health of a family is also a major predictor of if future generations will also experience alcoholism or other issues.
Mental Illness and Alcoholism
Like addiction, mental illness is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This is important because mental illness is one of the top triggers for the development of alcoholism, as the symptoms associated with specific illnesses can be too much to bear. For example, a highly heritable mental illness is depression, especially among women. So, it is not surprising to see a bloodline of women all experiencing depression in their own ways. But it is also important to understand that having one or more mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on, predisposes someone to abusing alcohol in the future. So, when we discuss heritable traits that can influence the development of alcoholism, the past mental health history of the family should always be considered.
Environment and Alcoholism
When we talk about how one’s environment can influence their likelihood of developing alcoholism, we are often discussing the things that happen to them throughout their lives — things that are typically uncontrollable. But, the environment that a person is brought up in can be highly reflective of their family’s genetic predispositions. So, even if someone does not inherit certain genes that lend themselves to alcoholism, they may be influenced by those members of their family who do have those genes and allow them to spill out into the environment.
For example, we just mentioned mental illness. If a child’s mother has bipolar disorder but is not getting treated for it, the environment that the child is being exposed to is likely emotionally unstable to the point where there is a lot of uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, and little hope for a better future. The effects of that mother’s untreated bipolar disorder can influence the way in which their child perceives the world, how they respond to fear and trauma, and what type of coping skills they develop as they grow. So, while the child may not have inherited a mental illness, they can still be affected by the symptoms of it.
Combating the Hereditary Component of Alcoholism
So is alcoholism hereditary? There is no way to alter your genetic makeup no matter how hard you try. What was given to you is what you have to work with, no exceptions. But, if you come from a family where alcoholism or other drug addiction has occurred and is occurring, there are things you can do to combat your chances of becoming an alcoholic, too. Not only can you abstain from drinking alcohol or using drugs, but you can also see a therapist regularly. Being able to speak to someone outside of your family who can help you grow and develop proper coping skills can set you up for success rather than failure. Consider these and other options to help mitigate your risk of falling into the dangerous and deadly cycle of alcoholism.
Alcohol Rehab in Orange County
If you are addicted to alcohol and need help, do not pass up one more opportunity to reach out and ask for help. We understand the challenges you are facing and want you to know that we are here for you. Call Asana Recovery right now to get started on your path towards recovery with us by your side.