Born to Drink: Alcoholism and Genetics

The links between alcoholism, genetics and family history are not easy to understand. What we know for sure, though, is that there is a connection. This does not mean that if you had an alcoholic parent, or if both of your parents suffered from alcoholism, that you are destined to become one as well. It does mean that you may be more predisposed to drink and abuse alcohol than others. If you have a family history of alcoholism, learn more about what it means for you and your life.

Drinking Is a Choice

The first thing to understand about abusing alcohol is that it all starts with a first drink and that taking that first sip is a choice. Your genes are not driving that first decision to have a drink. The decision to drink is influenced by such things as your environment, your social situation, friends and peers, family members and the availability of and access to alcohol. Once you have taken that first drink, whether you become a problem drinker becomes less of a choice and is much more influenced by your genetics and family history. If you do have a family history of alcoholism, you can easily choose to never try alcohol. This would take your risk of becoming an alcoholic down to zero.

Family History of Problem Drinking

There is no single cause of alcoholism. Like other chronic and complex diseases, it is often caused by a variety of factors that include the age at which you started drinking, your mental health and social or cultural factors, like having a spouse who drinks a lot. The most important risk factor, however, which most reliably predicts alcoholism, is family history. Even without looking at the genes involved, research clearly shows us that this disease runs in families.

Genetics of Alcoholism

To better understand the strong connection between problem drinking and family history, researchers have undertaken to tease out the genes that might be involved in being an alcoholic. Some diseases are caused by a single genetic defect: one gene has been deleted or changed or a gene is present that should not be. Unfortunately, alcoholism is more complicated and there is no single gene that causes it. One gene has been discovered that seems to make people get drunk more quickly. This gene is found in 10 to 20 percent of the population. Another gene discovery indicates that a gene we all share may have variations in some people that lead to alcoholism. The gene is related to impulsive behaviors, which are characteristic of people who lose control when drinking. Other genes have been found that help prevent alcoholism. For instance, people of Asian heritage often have a gene that produces a bad reaction to alcohol. Other studies have targeted the heredity of alcoholism without finding specific genes. Studies with identical twins, who share the exact same genes, demonstrate that if one twin becomes an alcoholic, the other is very likely to have the disease as well. The same is not seen in fraternal twins as they have their own unique sets of genes. How our genes impact our likelihood of becoming addicted to alcohol is complex, but the connection is definite. While outside factors can lead to alcoholism, nearly half the risk comes from our genes. If you have a family history of alcoholism, you are not destined to follow in those footsteps. You should, however, take care with alcohol. Abstaining altogether is the safest choice for anyone with a genetic predisposition for problem drinking.

Scroll to Top