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  • Some people who drink alcohol develop alcohol use disorders (AUDs), while others drink without ever developing any significant issues. Why?

    Research suggests hereditary or genetic components likely contribute to the risk of alcohol addiction, as well as other factors.

    How Much Influence Do Genes Have Over Alcohol Addiction?

    According to information published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, research shows that your genetic makeup accounts for approximately 50% of the likelihood that you will develop an AUD

    The remaining 50% is attributed to your environment and circumstances, especially during the developmental years spanning childhood to early adulthood.

    This information helps explain why drinking problems tend to run in families and why rates of alcohol abuse have historically been higher or lower in certain populations.

    However, while researchers have made great strides in associating certain variations of genes with AUD, the reality is that genetics, heredity, behavior, and addiction are extremely complex and often mysterious subjects.

    Genetics Vs. Heredity

    Is alcoholism hereditary or genetic? And, what’s the difference between these two terms?

    While closely related and often used interchangeably, genetics and heredity are distinct:

    • genetics refers to your genome, or the complete set of genetic instructions existing inside every cell of your body
    • genetic diseases involve abnormalities in specific genes in your DNA/genome, often arising due to random mutation
    • heredity refers to the passing-on of genetic information and physical or behavioral characteristics from one generation to the next
    • hereditary diseases involve DNA abnormalities that have been passed down from your parents, often over many generations

    Your Risk Of AUD

    This distinction is important when discussing your risk of becoming an alcoholic. Addiction can be both hereditary and genetic

    There are many cases of AUDs running in families from one generation to the next, or ones that are potentially genetic but not hereditary.

    Different combinations of genes may come together to predispose you to an AUD, even if addiction of any kind is rare on either side of your family tree.

    Genetic Predisposition For AUD

    A genetic predisposition or genetic susceptibility refers to an increased likelihood that you’ll develop a disease based on your genetic makeup.

    In the case of AUDs, genetic predispositions can result from a huge number of different gene variations or combinations, including: 

    • genes that influence your impulsiveness
    • the effect alcohol has in your brain
    • your body’s ability to break alcohol down
    • genes associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia

    Certain genes are also known to be protective against alcohol use disorders either by influencing behavior, shifting the body and brain’s response to ethanol, or by uncomfortably impairing your ability to process alcohol effectively. 

    This last condition is known as alcohol intolerance and is especially common among those of Asian descent.

    The Role Of Non-Genetic & Environmental Factors

    Genes are not destiny, and genetic factors aren’t the only things that play a role in the formation of alcohol use disorders.

    Non-genetic factors like childhood trauma, poverty, early exposure to alcohol, or PTSD are all known to increase the likelihood of turning to substance abuse. 

    And, anyone who chronically or recklessly consumes alcohol is likely to eventually develop some degree of alcohol dependence and/or addiction.

    By the same measure, those who choose not to drink alcohol at all during their lives will not develop AUD, even if they are unknowingly at high risk, genetically speaking.

    Other Risk Factors

    If you have a family history of alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse, then you have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder yourself.

    You may also be at an increased risk if you:

    • engage in excessive drinking behaviors (e.g. binge drinking, heavy drinking, or continuous drinking)
    • lack healthy relationships with family members or friends
    • struggle with depression or other mental health problems
    • started drinking from a young age
    • had a difficult/traumatic childhood
    • experience a high level of stress in your day-to-day life

    If you or a loved one suffer from alcohol use disorder, help is available. Contact Ark Behavioral Health today to learn about our addiction treatment programs.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder
    National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - What does it mean to have a genetic predisposition to a disease?
    Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology - Genetics and alcoholism

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on August 17, 2022
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