Reviewed By: Barbara Rexer, DSW, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, ICCS, DRCC
A family history of alcoholism doesn't mean you too will struggle with addiction, but catching early signs of a substance use disorder can help you find the resources you need to avoid a problem.
Table Of Contents
- Studies suggest that genetics contribute between 45% and 65% of a person’s tendency toward alcoholism
- Adoption studies show that alcoholism correlates more strongly with biological parents than adoptive parents
- There is no single “alcoholism gene.” A recent study found up to 18 genes associated with heavy drinking
If you are among the millions of people worldwide who have a parent, grandparent, sibling or other close relative with alcoholism, you may have wondered what your family’s history of alcoholism means for you. You might have even asked, “Am I an alcoholic?”
You might wonder if problems with alcohol are a part of your future, or if your risk for becoming an alcoholic is greater than for people with no family history of alcoholism. Alcoholism and drug dependence, like many diseases, are genetically complex and involve variations in a number of different genes.
Many scientific studies, including research conducted among twins and children of alcoholics, have shown that genetic factors influence alcohol abuse. These findings show that children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems and find themselves in treatment for alcohol abuse. Children of alcoholics also have a higher risk for many other behavioral and emotional problems.
However, alcoholism is not determined only by the genes you inherit from your parents. Encouragingly, the fact that alcoholism tends to run in families does not necessarily imply that a child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic, too, even if the risk is higher. Here’s a look at the factors that affect alcoholism and what researchers say about the existence of an alcoholism gene.
Alcoholism: Inherited or Learned?
Genes are not the only things children inherit from their parents. Behaviors can also be inherited.
Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcoholism. Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will become an alcoholic. Environmental factors, as well as genetic and environmental interactions, account for the remainder of the risk.
Growing up with an alcoholic parent is one example of environmental risk. A house hold where both parents abuse alcohol or other drugs raises the risk even further. In families where with severe parental drug abuse, aggression or violence, you might expect to see a second generation of substance abuse. But that doesn’t mean genes are to blame.
Understanding alcohol addiction is important in order to determine the role of genetics. An increasingly heavy drinker often says he could stop whenever he chooses; he just never “chooses” to do so. Alcoholism is not a destination, but a progression, and the contributing factors are complex. Even admitting a problem with alcohol can be difficult. This is perhaps why genetics are so intriguing. Because the line between harmless vice and problem drinking can be fuzzy, recognizing additional risk factors can help people apply the breaks when needed.
So, Is the Alcoholism Gene Real?
Even though alcoholism often seems to run in families, there is no single “alcoholism gene.” Genetics certainly influence our likelihood of developing alcoholism, but the story isn’t so simple.
Some behaviors, for example, lead to the development of alcoholism more quickly than genetics. Binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a row for a man, or four drinks for a woman) is one such behavior. Mental health issues, such as depression or PTSD, can also increase the risk of alcoholism. Trauma can play a significant role, as can peer behaviors.
Genes also contribute, but it’s much more than just a single gene. A recent study shows that as many as 18 genes contribute to a propensity for heavy drinking. There are also genes that may decrease a person’s risk of addiction.
As we have learned more about the role genes play in our health, researchers have discovered that different factors can alter the expression of our genes.
The following link explains why some people become addicted to alcohol and drugs while others do not: https://ncadd.org/about-addiction/family-history-and-genetics.
Whether a person decides to use alcohol or drugs is a personal choice, influenced by multiple biological, familial, psychological and sociocultural factors. But, once a person uses alcohol or drugs, the risk of developing alcoholism or drug dependence is greatly influenced by genetics.
Hope for Alcohol Addiction
While genetics make up between 45% and 65% of the risk for alcohol dependence, it’s not a clear predictor of alcohol abuse. In fact, more than half of all children of alcoholics do not become alcoholics themselves.
Ultimately, addiction is influenced by many factors. Environment, parental guidance, education and preferences for alcohol all play a part. Notably, family history can also contribute to environmental risk, particularly for children with alcoholic parents.
Likewise, a child who receives enough outside support from educators, friends, counselors or other caring adults, will be less likely to develop the disease.
If you have concerns about alcoholism and genetics, to a healthcare professional. Also consider speaking with a mental health professional or guidance counselor. These specialists can help you become better educated about how to avoid addictive behaviors. For example, they can teach you healthy coping mechanisms for stress. It’s also worth speaking to other members of your family. An open dialogue can help you understand all the factors at play and build support.
The Impact of Environment
Of course, environmental factors also heavily impact someone’s chances of developing a substance use disorder. As the impact of COVID-19 lingers, for example, alcohol consumption is on the rise.
According to a survey by data company Morning Consult, 16% of Americans report higher rates of drinking. Maryland researchers found that parents of school-age children, in particular, are drinking more than they did pre-pandemic.
With kids facing another school year at home, the financial stress of a slow job market, and a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the future, more and more people are coping with “quarantinis” and at-home happy hours. A growing reliance on alcohol is prompting some to ask, “Am I an alcoholic?”
Although alcohol use can certainly become problematic, an additional nightly glass of wine probably isn’t, says Dr. Andrew Mendonsa, a clinical psychologist and addiction specialist who treats clients at Sprout’s California treatment centers.
“Not everyone who binge drinks or consumes alcohol heavily during certain periods will become an alcoholic,” he says. A number of factors contribute to alcohol abuse, including genetics, maturity, and even previous exposure to someone drinking. When the right factors combine, you may be susceptible to addiction, he explains.
Knowing the red flags for abuse can help you avoid a future issue. Here’s how to tell when you’ve crossed the line.
Recognizing Problem Drinking
One guidepost for determining if any behavior has become a problem is to look at how it affects other areas of your life, says Dr. Mendonsa.
“Ask yourself, has your drinking affected your finances, health, job, relationships, friendships, or school? Are you having to skip work? Is your marriage or relationship on the rocks? Are you tuning out school or failing a course?”
All of these areas might be strained during a pandemic, but if alcohol is driving you to tune out, that is an early warning sign that your drinking has crossed a line. A second warning sign is feeling forced to choose between drinking and more meaningful or fulfilling activities, such as spending time with family.
After months of virtual communication, most people have Zoom and phone fatigue, so if you’re screening the occasional call to give yourself a break (even if it’s to have a glass of wine), that may not be a problem. But if you’re regularly ignoring calls or isolating yourself from family members to drink, this is a prompt to step back and reexamine your behavior.
“When you start to feel the pull of drinking, for example, over not drinking, that is a major warning flag that drinking is getting to a concerning level,” says Dr. Mendonsa.
A third warning sign is needing to feel buzzed to take on regular responsibilities. If you can’t face a call from your boss or have an important conversation with your spouse without a drink, you have likely crossed the line into problem drinking.
Am I an Alcoholic? Take This Quiz
Mental health professionals and doctors use the mnemonic CAGE to assess whether a person’s drinking has reached the point of physical or psychological dependence, Dr. Mendonsa says. You can take the “quiz” yourself by asking:
Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
Do people Annoy you by criticizing your drinking?
Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
If you answer ‘yes’ to two or more of these questions, you have likely crossed the line from problem drinking to a substance use disorder. At this point, you may need professional treatment to start the recovery journey.
Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse
Recognizing that you need help is an important first step when you start to feel your drinking habits become a problem. Fortunately, help can take many forms.
“Some folks find talking with friends and having an ‘accountability buddy’ is helpful to curb use and access to alcohol,” Dr. Mendonsa says. “Others find taking some deliberate time off from drinking helps them reset their behavior.”
If you can’t seem to cut back even after intentional effort, it’s time to reach out for more structured help.
A professional treatment program not only addresses physical dependence on alcohol, but also the psychological factors that led to use. Treatment can also help to identify underlying issues such as depression, anxiety or trauma, which can make relapse more likely if left untreated.
At Sprout, we personalize the treatment of every client to consider their unique histories, needs and goals. Some clients thrive with practical coping mechanisms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy; others find their path with more alternative methods, such as learning to reconnect mind and body through yoga.
Although many people find success with flexible outpatient programs, the presence of withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking, sweating or nausea, often indicates a need for inpatient care. “Stopping alcohol use when it’s more extreme requires medically-informed interventions to ensure a safe outcome,” says Dr. Mendonsa.
It is also important to nurture your recovery once you complete treatment. Attend local AA or SMART Recovery meetings. Explore private forums that allow connections and celebrations with others in recovery. Ask your treatment facility about their alumni programs. Sprout, for example, hosts regular events to celebrate and uplift alumni, including virtual programming.
In times of stress, alcohol can become an easy crutch. Sometimes, that extra nightly glass of wine doesn’t become a problem — but when drinking starts to interfere with work, relationships, hobbies and self-care, it’s time to reassess. Help can take many forms, from enlisting social support to entering formal treatment. The best approach for you depends on how severely alcohol has impacted your life, as well as your health history, needs, and personal goals. At Sprout, we consider all of these factors to help you start your path toward long-term, sustained recovery.
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