Is Addiction Hereditary?

Is addiction hereditary?

Is addiction hereditary?

Is a parent or close family member struggling with a substance abuse problem? If so, you may worry that your use of alcohol might turn into something more sinister. Science does seem to show that those with parents with a substance abuse issue are at a higher risk for substance abuse themselves. While it is not something that is necessarily directly passed to children, there does seem to be a correlation. Therefore, is addiction hereditary? Are there other factors in play?

What Does It Mean When a Condition is Hereditary?

A hereditary disease is a condition that your mother or father passes on to you. In many cases, this happens on the genetic level. Therefore, you may inherit a gene mutation. Many conditions can be caused by this type of genetic link. Some are devastating while some are minor inconveniences. A genetic disease is not necessarily a death sentence.

Carrying the defective gene in your DNA results in the development of a health problem. For example, cases in point are down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia. There are medical treatments for these conditions, but no cures. However, how does addiction fit into this spectrum?

Is Alcohol Addiction Hereditary?

Alcoholism seems to run in some families. But is there any scientific evidence that your genetic structure could predispose you to develop an addiction to alcohol?

In the strictest terms, addiction is not an actual hereditary disease. There’s no substance abuse gene. There is, however, a genetic predisposition. When looking at the condition from this vantage point, it’s fair to say there’s a hereditary aspect.

For example, if one of your parents struggles with substance abuse problems, you’re more likely to do so, too. However, unlike with other hereditary conditions, the predisposition does not translate into inevitability. It doesn’t mean that you will deal with addiction. Social and cultural influences can weigh just as heavily as genetic makeup in your decision to use drugs.

Many studies have been done and experts agree that, while there is a hereditary connection, genetics is not the only factor.

There is growing evidence that there is a genetic connection to alcoholism. Studies of laboratory animals and human test subjects indicate that genetic factors play a major role in the development of alcoholism, but it isn’t yet known how big a factor.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has found that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics.

The Children of Alcoholics: The Hereditary Aspect of Alcoholism

Multiple genes play a part in a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). Some genes increase a person’s risk and others decrease the risk directly or indirectly. It also depends on a person’s race and ethnicity. For example, some people of Asian descent carry a gene variation that alters their rate of alcohol metabolism. This causes them to have symptoms like flushing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat when they drink. People who experience these effects tend not to drink, which helps protect them from developing AUD.

Studies of families, twins, and adopted children have shown that alcoholism has a genetic component. A Swedish study followed alcohol use in twins who were adopted as children and raised separately. The rate of alcoholism was slightly higher than average among the twins that were exposed to alcoholism only through their adoptive families. But it was significantly higher among the twins whose biological fathers were alcoholics.

Dr. Marc A. Schuckit, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego has studied the nonalcoholic sons of alcoholics. When given the same amount of alcohol as sons of nonalcoholics, the alcoholic’s sons felt less dizzy, their posture was more stable and there was less of a change in the secretion of hormones that are usually affected by alcohol. In other words, they got less drunk, which shows a higher tolerance for alcohol. 

Avoiding Alcoholism

Researchers are working towards the day when simple screening tests will show which people are predisposed to alcoholism. Until that time, they recommend the following if:

  • You are a male whose father suffered from severe alcoholism, you should avoid alcohol entirely.
  • Your mother, father, or grandparent was an alcoholic, consider yourself at risk. If you choose to drink, limit your intake to one or two drinks per occasion and avoid drinking every day. Avoid drinking when you are depressed or alone.
  • You find yourself drinking to excess (more than five drinks per occasion), drinking to get drunk or blacking out, get help right away.

Some genes that play a part in the risky behaviors associated with alcohol abuse have been identified. Some are directly related and some only have an indirect influence. Follow-up studies have attempted to pinpoint the exact genes connected to alcoholism, but have not produced conclusive results.

Genes that affect alcohol consumption may increase the overall risk by increasing drinking, or reduce risk by reducing drinking. However, for those who have the genes that reduce drinking and drink heavily despite them, the risk increases.

Genetic Sensitivity and Alcoholism

A study was done in which scientists selectively bred two strains of mice. The study included mice that were not genetically sensitive to alcohol and those that were acutely sensitive to it. The two strains showed dramatically different behavior when exposed to identical amounts of alcohol. The ability to genetically select for these traits shows that there are genetic bases for them.

The sensitive mice tended to lose their inhibitions and pass out quickly. They received the nickname “long sleepers.” The “short sleepers” were the mice that were less sensitive to alcohol. They lost fewer inhibitions and tolerated the alcohol for longer before passing out. 

It needs to be emphasized that there is no “gene for alcoholism.” Both social and environmental factors contribute to the outcome.

Alcoholism and Environmental Influences

Dr. Gene Erwin, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the CU School of Pharmacy, said “Consumption of alcohol is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. This study indicated that genetic factors play more of a role, and we’re trying to understand the power of those genetic factors.”

So, if alcoholism can be traced to a certain gene or combination of genes, how can we use that information? “These genes are for risk, not for destiny,” states Dr. Enoch Gordis, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. He added that the information could help in identifying youngsters at risk of becoming alcoholics and could lead to early prevention efforts.

Alcoholism in the Family: What Does This Mean For Me?

If you have a family member who suffers from alcoholism, this doesn’t mean that you are going to become an alcoholic yourself. But your odds of developing a dependency may be higher because of this relation. Still, genes only make up about half of your risk for alcoholism. New studies suggest ways to identify those at risk and help prevent them from becoming alcoholics.

People who have inherited a likelihood of developing coronary artery disease can take precautions. Likewise, those at risk of developing alcoholism can learn to recognize the potential problems and modify their behavior accordingly.

Factors like environment and your ability to handle stress and situations that may trigger dependency are also important. It is likely that, as with most complex diseases, alcohol dependence is due to variations in hundreds of genes, interacting with different social environments. A “perfect storm” waiting to flare up inside you.

Is Alcoholism Hereditary? – Understanding Your Risk

Children and grandchildren of alcoholics need to be aware of the risks to their health. A telephone survey was conducted last year among 2,000 randomly selected residents aged 16 and older.

Although 16.6% of the participants said that one or both of their parents were alcoholics, only 5% of those surveyed knew that the children of alcoholics have an increased risk of developing the disease.

Lack of awareness can increase the chances of alcoholism developing. In the survey, the children who did not know of their higher risk drank three times as much and seven times as often as those who knew they might not develop alcoholism. Those who were not aware of the link were more likely to drink to intoxication than those who knew their risk.

Simply stated, knowing about the risk helped the grown children of alcoholics control their own drinking behavior better.

Statistics Regarding Alcoholism and Genetics

Even if you aren’t the child of an alcoholic, but you are a blood relative of one, the risk is intimidating. Dr. Theodore Reich of the Alcohol Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis conducted a study of 243 alcoholics and their families. 

Among the 202 men, 38% had alcoholic fathers and 21% had alcoholic mothers. Fifty-seven percent had alcoholic brothers and 15% had alcoholic sisters. Thirty-two percent had alcoholic sons and 19% had alcoholic daughters. Of the 41 women, the rates of alcoholism among their parents, siblings, and children were similar.

Family alcoholism tends to develop early, Reich found. By age 25, 32% of the sons of alcoholic fathers had become alcoholics. Of the alcoholic mothers, half had become alcoholics by age 25. At this rate, Reich projected, more than half of the men and women with one alcoholic parent will have developed the disease by age 40. For those with two alcoholic parents, 60-65% will be likely to have it.

National health statistics show that for individuals in the general population, alcoholism will eventually develop in about 3% of the women and 8-10% of the men.

What Causes Addiction Risk?

The term addictive personality is often used to describe someone who might be at risk for developing a substance abuse disorder. Even though there are some specific traits in people who have these disorders, those traits are not present in absolutely all cases. Some characteristics of those who have a high risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol include:

  • Being genetically related to someone with an addiction
  • Possessing another mental health disorder
  • A keen interest in adventure and taking risks
  • A disconnected and cautious personality
  • An apathetic attitude
  • The inability to regulate behavior
  • Obsessive and compulsive behavior

People with any of the above traits, or a combination of these traits, tend to have a higher risk of trying addictive substances. For example, those who are adventurous and enjoy taking risks have been found to have elevated dopamine levels in their brains. This makes them less sensitive to it, and they will often pursue more intense experiences in order to feel it. In this case, drugs and alcohol can give them the high dopamine levels that they desire.

Genetics and Alcohol-Associated Diseases

Genes that affect alcohol consumption may increase the overall risk by increasing drinking, or reduce risk by reducing drinking. However, for those who have the genes that reduce drinking and drink heavily despite them, the risk increases.

Scientists have discovered 188 different genetic correlations to health outcomes among a study group. A recent analysis found that alcohol consumption was related to various diseases including the following: 

  • Tuberculosis
  • Pneumonia
  • Cirrhosis
  • Various cancers
  • Cardiovascular diseases

AUD is correlated to lower intelligence and the likelihood of quitting smoking and a greater risk of insomnia and most mental health disorders.

Particularly affected is the upper digestive tract, colon, rectum, and liver. The oral cavity and esophagus receive exposure to high levels of alcohol. It is not surprising that alcohol consumption contributes to diseases of the gastrointestinal system, such as pancreatitis, and cancers of the upper GI tract.

Can Our Genes Affect Alcohol Treatment?

Scientists are researching how genes may influence the effectiveness of treatments for AUD. The drug Naltrexone shows to help reduce drinking for some, but not all, patients with AUD. Research shows that patients that have a variation in a specific gene respond positively to the drug while those without the specific gene do not. A better understanding of how genes affect treatment outcomes will help doctors prescribe the treatment that will help each patient.

Genetic studies can only help predict a propensity for alcoholism and can help in preventing the disease if you are aware of your risk. Until then the best outcomes begin with professional assistance.

Are You Suffering From Alcoholism?

Only 15%-25% of people with drinking problems seek help from doctors or treatment programs. Many do not use treatment services until they are a court, family member, or employer forces them. People in alcohol treatment often have the most serious problems such as co-occurring health, mental health, and psychosocial disorders. Studies also show that 66-75% of risky drinkers do make positive changes.

For most people, treatment for AUD is helpful. Overcoming this disease is an ongoing process and you may relapse. If you are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, you may relapse a few times. You should look at relapse as a temporary setback and keep trying. Return to treatment right away to learn more about your relapse triggers and improve your coping skills. This will help you be more successful the next time.

One reason people don’t seek treatment earlier on is that both alcohol problems and treatment remain stigmatized in our society. Other barriers are that the person doesn’t believe that their problem is serious enough to need treatment. If you are concerned enough to be reading this, or if you have a family member that’s an alcoholic, the problem is serious enough. 

What Is Treatment for Alcoholism Like?

  • Detox For people who have severe alcohol use disorder, this is a key step. The goal is to stop drinking and give your body time to get the alcohol out of your system. This takes a few days to a week. Most people go to a hospital or treatment center because of the withdrawal symptoms.
  • Counseling and therapy — Psychologists, social workers, or alcohol counselors will help you learn new skills and strategies for everyday life.
  • Dealing with comorbid (co-occurring) conditions — You may need therapy for a longer time to deal with comorbid conditions such as depression and anxiety.
  • Medications — No medicine can cure your AUD, but some can help your recovery. They can make drinking less enjoyable so you don’t want to do it as much. 
  • Group therapy — Group therapy or a support group can help during rehab. This helps you stay on track as you get your life in order. Led by a therapist you get the benefits of therapy and the support of other members.
  • Support groups — These are not led by therapists. Instead, these are groups of other people who have alcohol use disorder such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Your peers can offer understanding and advice and help keep you accountable.
  • Ongoing treatment — Recovery can take a long time. You may need ongoing treatment. Some people in recovery do relapse and drink again. If you do, don’t think you’ve failed. It’s only a stage in the process.

More About Treatment for Alcoholism

Addiction therapy specialists recognize that substance abuse is a disease. You don’t choose it. Because it’s chronic, it can crop up even after being in remission for years. Like so many other illnesses, it responds well to treatment.

In fact, effective treatment frequently takes place in a rehab setting. Individual therapy is of vital importance in this setting. Moreover, it allows for one-on-one conversations with a specialist. This type of treatment lets you set goals and establishes a custom approach for overall healing.

For example, modalities include:

Many therapists suggest bringing in family members to receive care, too. Doing so offers a two-fold benefit. Specifically, it allows loved ones closest to you to heal. However, it also provides a way for them to learn how to support your recovery efforts at this time.

How Do I Get Help for Alcohol Use Disorder?

At Crest View Treatment Center’s facility, our team is ready to talk to you and answer your questions. If you are the child of an alcoholic or worried that your drinking might get out of control, there’s hope. We have experts who have been where you are, ready to help. All members of our staff are trained, addiction specialists. Just contact us today to learn more about how we can help.