Is Alcohol Use Disorder Genetic?

When a family member experiences alcoholism, we often struggle to find answers as to the cause. Sometimes, we even wonder: is alcohol misuse genetic? The reality is, that there are various factors that contribute to alcoholism and alcohol use disorder (AUD). Some of these factors are easier to control than others, but one that is beyond our control is genetics.

What role do genetics, family history, and environmental factors play in alcohol use disorder? How can you avoid alcoholism if it runs in your family? 

What is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

First, to understand the relationship between genetics and people with alcohol use disorder it is important to understand what alcohol use disorder is and how it affects individuals. 

Alcohol Use Disorder, or AUD, is a medical condition characterized by an inability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse personal consequences. It is considered a brain disorder and those who are affected fall within a spectrum of mild, moderate, or severe.

According to a national survey 14.1 million adults struggled with AUD in 2019. AUD is often associated with or referred to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and alcoholism. 

A person’s risk depends on their consumption habits, such as heavy drinking, binge drinking, and heavy alcohol use. The term binge drinking means an individual has had so much to drink at once that their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level is 0.08% or more. This is typically 5 or more drinks for a man and 4 or more drinks for a woman, within a few hours.

Heavy drinking is marked by an increased risk of developing a host of health conditions including cancers, liver disease, and heart disease. Excessive drinking can also contribute to this, leading to sleep problems, depression, and damage to the brain and other organs. 

Genetics and Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol dependence (alcoholism) is a complex genetic disease. It’s well known that alcoholism may run in families, but that alone isn’t enough to prove the extent that which genetic factors contribute to alcohol dependence. 

Linkage analysis is one approach specialists have used to find a correlation between genetics and alcoholism. It identifies chromosomal regions that indicate an increased risk of alcohol dependence and follow a detailed genetic analysis across linked regions. 

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are another approach to finding a correlation. These studies provide unbiased insight into specific genes that may contribute to phenotypes (observable traits). Genome-wide association studies have, however, actually detected very little overlap in genes associated with alcohol dependence or alcohol-related phenotypes. This is partly because there are so few studies to date. Despite this, one genome-wide association study found 18 genetic variants of significance associated with either heavy alcohol consumption, AUD, or both. 

In family adoption studies, it was found that alcoholism in adoptees was more strongly correlated with their biological parents than it was with their adoptive parents. Similarly, in twin studies, the liability of AUD was found to be due to genetic factors by approximately 45 to 65%.

Genes and the Risk for Alcohol Use Disorders

While there is no “gene for alcoholism” genetics do play a role in one’s risk for alcohol use disorders. The genes found to have the clearest contribution are “alcohol dehydrogenase 1B” (ADH1B) and “aldehyde dehydrogenase 2” (ALDH2; mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase). These two genes are central to the metabolism of alcohol. 

Alcohol is metabolized primarily through the liver and acetaldehyde is the toxic buildup that results in feelings such as dizziness, nausea, and rapid heart rate. Those carrying the ALDH2 gene may display a “flushing reaction” when they consume even small amounts of alcohol. This reaction is common in East Asia where 30 to 40% of Han Chinese and Japanese carry at least one copy of the gene. 

Although ALDH2 and ADH1B illustrate the largest effect on risk for alcoholism of any known genes, there are smaller effects of variants in other alcohol dehydrogenases, such as ADH1C and ADH4. 

Genetics and genetic variants impact not only the risk for alcohol dependence but also alcohol-associated diseases and levels of alcohol consumption.

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Alcohol Use Disorder Symptoms

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) provides criteria to help assess alcohol use disorder symptoms.

A medical professional may ask:

  • Have you wanted a drink so badly within the past year that you couldn’t think of anything else?
  • Have you wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, and couldn’t?
  • Had times when you drank more or longer than you intended?
  • Had to drink more than you once did to get the effect you want?
  • Have you experienced symptoms of withdrawal after drinking or sensed things that were not there? 

The more affirmative responses there are to these questions, the greater the likelihood one is to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. 

Risk factors for Alcohol Use Disorder

There are a number of risk factors to be aware of when it comes to alcohol use disorder.

  • Family history of alcohol use disorder and other substance use disorders
  • Genetics
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Binge drinking
  • History of conduct or mood disorder in childhood 
  • History of child abuse
  • Environmental factors

Treatment of alcohol dependence

Although you cannot control your genetic makeup, there are ways to prevent addiction.

Some of the best ways are by:

  • awareness of a family history of substance abuse 
  • strong and healthy personal relationships 
  • healthy outlets to manage stress
  • awareness of the symptoms of addiction

Seeking Help For Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or a loved one is concerned about the genetic risk of developing alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction and have exhibited some of the signs of this disorder, reach out to a treatment provider today.  Contact a member of our team at Riverside Recovery of Tampa today to discuss your treatment options