Experts have wondered why some people who drink alcohol develop a physical or psychological dependence on it and why others don’t. Various studies have found that genetics and environmental factors both affect the risk of alcoholism. If you find yourself wondering about your risk, you can read on to learn more about the role of genetics in alcoholism.
Is Alcoholism Genetic?
While researchers are trying to determine whether or not alcoholism can be hereditary, there is already evidence that suggests that genetics play a role in the risk of developing an alcohol problem. Other studies have examined the pattern of alcoholism in families and determined that it may be hereditary.
Scientists believe that alcohol abuse and dependence are often related to the brain’s reward system. Alcohol triggers the release of neurotransmitters, which send signals to the brain’s reward center to release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine.
The neurotransmitter reward system also affects other brain areas, such as emotional responses. When people experience alcohol-related problems, it is believed that this is related to their reward system and how the neurotransmitters affect their emotional responses. Studies have found that a person’s genes can affect their emotional responses.
Genetic Risk Factors
Scientists have found that people with certain genes may be more likely to develop alcohol problems. These genes are related to:
- Chemical reactions in the brain
- Cravings or an addiction to alcohol
- The tendency to become dependent on alcohol
Alcoholism is also associated with genes that control:
- Brain cell structure and function
- The functions of certain neurotransmitters
The Dopamine Gene
One gene, in particular, has a strong association with alcoholism. The gene codes for the enzyme (MAOA) that breaks down the neurotransmitter dopamine. Recent research has shown that a version of the gene that causes a person to have low levels of the MAOA enzyme can cause an increased risk of alcohol dependence.
Some research has also shown that some people have a different version of the dopamine gene (DAT1) which can cause a higher risk of alcoholism.
The Serotonin Gene
Some genes play a role in the risk of alcoholism-related to the neurotransmitter serotonin. One of these genes is called the serotonin transporter gene. Some people inherit a gene version that causes their brains to take in more serotonin from the bloodstream.
A study found that people with this gene are more likely to be alcoholics and develop an alcohol-related problem than those with a different version of the gene. Another serotonin gene has been linked to alcoholism. The gene codes for a serotonin transporter that takes serotonin back into the nerve cells. It is also believed that this gene can increase the risk of alcoholism in some people.
Is Alcohol Tolerance Genetic?
Some people can drink alcohol at levels that would kill most other people. A tolerance for alcohol is usually a sign of alcoholism. People who have this tolerance level tend to swallow the alcohol without breathing it into their lungs. They also generally have a higher tolerance for other drugs such as cocaine.
People who have this kind of alcohol tolerance will develop physical cravings for alcohol and may need a drink to fall asleep. They may also begin to experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking for periods.
Research on the Genetics of Alcoholism
Researchers are still learning more about the role of genes in alcoholism. Some studies have suggested that certain genes may only make people more likely to be dependent on alcohol. Other genes may increase the person’s risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.
Research has also shown that individuals with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism may have an increased risk of developing an alcohol problem when exposed to stressful or traumatic experiences.
Can Someone’s DNA Test Show If They Are At Risk of Alcoholism?
Some researchers believe that alcohol addiction comes from a combination of genes. They believe that a person’s DNA does not make them an alcoholic but that genes make a person more susceptible to developing an alcohol problem.
Other researchers believe that alcoholism comes from environmental factors like peer pressure and family history. They believe that genetic factors may influence the risk of alcoholism but are not the cause.
The research is still ongoing, but the role of genetics in alcoholism can be seen in how some people respond differently to the same level of alcohol consumption.
People who have a family history of alcoholism are more likely to develop an alcohol problem. Their bodies are more likely to crave that alcohol or be dependent on it. However, even in these cases, the environment they are exposed to can change their risk. For example, a person with a high risk of alcoholism may find that they can drink without problems if they only drink in a social setting and not at home with the family.
The Causes of Alcoholism
Many different factors cause alcoholism, including:
- Brain Chemistry: Certain brain chemicals that help control our emotions and impulses are affected when people drink.
- Genetics: Genetic factors play a role in the risk of alcoholism.
- Neurotransmitters: Changes in the brain’s reward system can cause pleasure from alcohol.
- Environmental Factors: Factors such as alcoholism in the family (genetics), peer pressure, stress, and violent or unhappy home life can impact the risk of alcohol problems.
Risk Factors for Alcoholism
Alcoholism is more likely to occur in people who have a family history of alcoholism. About 40 percent of Americans who are alcoholics have close relatives who are also alcoholics. Alcoholism tends to run in families.
Genetics is responsible for about half of an individual’s risk of becoming an alcoholic. People who have an alcoholic parent are four times as likely to develop an alcohol problem as those with non-alcoholic parents.
Yet, despite the strong genetic component, there is still plenty of room for environmental and behavioral factors to play a role in the person’s risk for developing alcohol problems. For example, a person with a family history of alcoholism raised in a healthy home environment is less likely to develop an alcohol problem than a person with a comparable family history who is raised in an environment where alcohol is heavily used.
The Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
While someone who drinks could have an alcohol use disorder, they might not necessarily be an alcoholic. An AUD is a medical condition that a doctor can only diagnose.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has outlined the following criteria for diagnosing AUD:
- A strong desire or craving for alcohol
- The inability to control the amount you drink
- A negative emotional effect when you try to limit or stop your drinking
- The need for greater amounts of alcohol to get the same effect
- Increased tolerance to alcohol
- Withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking
One of the defining characteristics of AUD is the presence of withdrawal symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms include the following:
- Abdominal pain
It is not uncommon for people to use alcohol to self-medicate their anxiety or depression. However, if you are using alcohol to treat your anxiety or depression symptoms, you may have a problem with alcohol use disorder.
It is important to remember that if you have an AUD, you should get help. It is possible to recover from AUD and live every day and healthy life. If your loved one has a problem with alcohol, learn about the risk factors that could lead to an AUD. Be aware of the symptoms and how you can help your loved one.
If you suffer from an alcohol use disorder and require help, contact a professional alcohol treatment center.