Over 6% of American adults struggle with alcohol use disorders every year. An extra 623,000 individuals aged between 12 and 17 years also report recent binge drinking.
That said, and contrary to popular belief, alcohol addiction is not entirely genetic. Research shows that genes determine only 50% of the person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). The other 50% is up to environmental factors that can either steer the person toward substance abuse or away from it.
Let’s discuss the role of gene and environment interactions in alcohol use disorder in more detail.
What Is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction occurs when a person no longer has control over their alcohol intake. Patients feel a consistent need to drink alcohol and if this need isn’t fulfilled, negative emotions, like anger, overpower their mental state.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), AUD is a “repetitive pattern of alcohol use that leads to clinical impairment and distress.”
An individual is diagnosed with AUD when they experience any two of the 11 specified symptoms during a 12-month period. These include:
- Consumed alcohol more or for longer periods than they usually do
- Tried to stop drinking but couldn’t
- Spent too much time trying to obtain alcohol, drink it, and recover from its effects
- Felt irresistible urges to consume alcohol
- Realized alcohol drinking is interfering with their responsibilities
- Continued drinking even though it caused trouble with their relationships
- Reduced time spent on other activities and hobbies to drink
- Experienced situations where drinking risked their safety (e.g. being drunk while driving)
- Drank alcohol despite having health problems
- Increased the number of drinks to experience the same effect
- Had withdrawal symptoms
Note that symptoms one and two must be there to label someone’s condition as an alcohol use disorder. If someone drank more alcohol in the past 12 months but didn’t feel like they were losing control over their alcohol consumption, they do not have an addiction.
As for severity levels, symptoms one to three are classified as mild AUD. Symptoms four and five indicate moderate AUD. For symptom six and above, that’s severe AUD that needs immediate treatment.
If you or your loved one are struggling with alcohol or substance use disorder, you can begin your recovery journey today. By reaching out to Curednation’s top telemedicine doctors, who specialize in treating substance abuse, you can place yourself on the right track to wellness.
Is Alcohol Addiction Genetic?
Yes, alcohol addiction is genetic. For example, research suggests the child of an alcoholic is 4 times more likely to drink alcohol than the children of non-alcoholic parents.
But research shows that your genes contribute only 50% to the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Social and environmental factors cover the other 50%.
Genetic predisposition refers to a person developing a disease, trait, or behavior more easily because of their genetic makeup.
If you are genetically predisposed to AUD — meaning you have family members who struggled with the condition — and you start drinking alcohol regularly, you will likely develop AUD much more easily than others.
The triggers for regular alcohol consumption are usually linked to environmental and mental health factors. For instance, growing up in an environment where alcohol abuse is prevalent or having easy access to alcohol can contribute to the likelihood of developing alcohol addiction later in life.
Similarly, experiencing excessive stress, trauma, and mental health disorders like depression can turn alcohol consumption into a coping mechanism.
Keep in mind that some people have a higher alcohol tolerance than others; a phenomenon where a person needs more alcohol to experience the euphoric effects of drinking.
That said, tolerance can’t be transmitted through genes. It results from consuming large amounts of alcohol for over 12 months or more, so you have to make the choice of drinking.
Does the Alcohol Gene Exist?
No, the alcohol gene does not exist. Several genes may contribute to your genetic predisposition to AUD but it’s almost impossible to isolate one gene that is solely responsible for the disorder.
The best researchers can do is find common genetic sequences among people with AUD that signal similar alcohol metabolism patterns.
And as of 2024, researchers have found just that; two genes that are most strongly linked to alcohol metabolism — ADH1B and ALDH2. Here’s how they affect the likelihood of developing alcohol addiction:
Alcohol Dehydrogenase (ADH1B)
The ADH1B gene encodes an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which is responsible for breaking down alcohol into acetaldehyde. Certain variants of the ADH1B gene are associated with faster conversion of alcohol into acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is a waste product of alcohol metabolism, so people with these variants may experience unpleasant effects when it accumulates in their blood. These include:
- Facial flushing
- Rapid heartbeat
These physical symptoms act as a deterrent to alcohol overconsumption and reduce the chances of addiction.
Aldehyde Dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2)
The ALDH2 gene produces an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase that converts acetaldehyde into acetic acid, the acid found in vinegar, which is a much less toxic substance.
Variants of this gene can reduce enzyme activity, which leads to a buildup of acetaldehyde when consuming alcohol.
This accumulation causes intense discomfort that might result in acute alcohol toxicity when ignored, keeping the people who have it from developing an addiction.
Typically, people of East Asian descent have these ALDH2 variants and experience this adverse reaction, also called the “Alcohol flush” because of intense facial redness that develops after drinking.
Can Someone Be Born With Alcohol Addiction?
No, a person can’t be born with alcohol addiction. But people can be born with a genetic makeup that makes them more sensitive to the effects of alcohol or more prone to developing addictive behaviors like drug abuse.
Factors like genetic differences related to alcohol metabolism (such as ADH1B and ALDH2) or a family history of alcoholism can definitely increase the risk of developing AUD, provided that the environment promotes addictive behavior.
What Are the Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction?
Besides genetic predisposition, there are two risk factors for alcohol addiction — environmental and psychological factors.
The main environmental aspect influencing alcohol addiction is exposure to alcohol during one’s childhood and formative years. If a child witnesses their parents indulge in excessive drinking, they are likely to adopt the same behavior because that’s what was modeled to them.
Alcohol is accessible and normalized in such cases, which is likely to encourage the child to drink from an early age.
The child may also learn to associate drinking with a stimulus — for example, consuming large amounts of alcohol after an argument or an unpleasant life event.
Social circles and peer pressure also play a role. According to a McLaughlin & Associates survey, 61% of school-age students stated that they personally knew classmates or friends who started drinking alcohol.
Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health disorders can increase vulnerability to alcohol addiction. Patients may use alcohol as a way to cope with these conditions, which leads to alcohol dependence.
This is a common occurrence among Veterans who come back after deployment with undiagnosed mental health issues and turn to alcohol for self-medication.
Do Genes Affect Alcohol Addiction Treatment?
Yes, genetic factors can influence how individuals respond to alcohol addiction treatment. Knowing how your genes would respond to certain medications can help providers recommend the right ones and make the treatment strategy more effective. For instance, naltrexone — the first-line drug used to treat AUD — is not effective in all patients.
Genes also determine how medications are processed by the body and may cause some patients to experience uncommon side effects.
That said, a more comprehensive understanding of how genes affect alcohol addiction treatment is needed. Research on the topic is ongoing and until we know more, genes do not currently play a major role when coming up with a treatment plan for AUD.
Is It Possible to Stop Genetic Alcohol Addiction?
Yes, it’s possible to stop “genetic” alcohol addiction. That’s because while genes do play a role in alcohol addiction, it’s largely a behavioral problem that can be treated with a combination of drugs and behavioral therapy.
But it’s important to go to a reliable and specialized treatment center where professionals can analyze your situation quickly and propose a treatment plan that helps address your AUD as soon as possible.
For people struggling with moderate or severe alcohol use disorder, healthcare providers along with a personal support network can positively impact your chances of recovery. This network may include your family, friends, or relatives.
You can also join a support group, like AA, to connect with others going through the same struggle. This helps create a supportive and cooperative environment to address AUD and makes medical treatment more effective.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Percentage of Alcoholism Is Genetic?
People with a family history of alcohol abuse are 50% more likely to develop alcohol addiction. However, experts also say that there’s always an active role of a social or environmental factor to trigger such alcoholic tendencies.
Is There an Alcoholism Genetic Test?
No, there isn’t a widely accepted genetic test for alcoholism. But researchers, like those at Indiana University, are exploring the possibilities. They’ve conducted successful experiments and found 11 genes that might predict alcoholism risk. But this hasn’t been validated in humans yet, so a definitive test is still in the works.
What Is the Gene for Addiction?
There isn’t a single gene for addiction. Addiction is the output of a complex interaction between multiple genes related to neurotransmitter pathways, reward systems, and stress responses. A few examples of such genes are ALDH2*2, Mpdz, DRD2, PSD-95, and CHRNA5.
Is There a Gene That Makes You Hate Alcohol?
Yes, certain variants of the ADH1B and ALDH2 genes make people experience extreme adverse reactions to alcohol, deterring them from drinking.
Environmental factors, alongside genetics, are major contributors to developing alcohol use disorder. This means someone with a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction needs a specific set of environmental factors to develop an addiction. These may include easy access to alcohol in childhood, an abusive family, or mental health conditions, like depression.
That said, just because genes play a role in alcohol addiction doesn’t make it untreatable. With a combination of medical and psychological therapy at Curednation, a person struggling with AUD can overcome it. If you, or someone you love, need help with substance use disorder, book an appointment today.