An important aspect of treating an alcoholism is understanding the underlying causes. Alcoholism is most commonly known in the medical community by the formal diagnosis, alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines it as problem drinking that has become severe. They estimate that in the United States alone, 15 million people suffer from alcohol use disorder. Individuals with this condition not only suffer from significant harms and consequences as a result of their alcohol abuse, but they are unable to stop or control their alcohol abuse even when they recognize a need to do so. Alcohol addiction can devastate a person’s life and can make them feel helpless. Individual willpower is not sufficient for managing alcohol use disorder, since the patterns of substance abuse actually alter the areas of the brain responsible for making decisions. In order to recover from this debilitating condition, a person must seek outside help.
However, many young people with a history of alcoholism in their families wonder if they are somehow predestined for alcoholism. Medical professionals and addiction experts often advise children of alcoholics to avoid alcohol consumption. Why is this? Is alcoholism hereditary?
Causes of Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use is an integral part of most cultures. In many parts of the world, drinking cultures even encourage alcohol abuse and dangerous drinking behaviors. Binge drinking, for instance, is a common expectation on most college campuses. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people are able to curb their dangerous drinking patterns when they deem it necessary. Individuals who are unable to manage their own alcohol consumption despite negative consequences can be said to suffer from alcohol use disorder. Why can some people drink alcohol normally and others can’t? The answer to this is complicated, since there is no one single causal factor for alcoholism. However, the single most powerful predictor of whether a person will develop alcohol use disorder is a history of alcoholism in the family. Individuals with a family history of alcoholism face a significantly higher likelihood that they will develop alcohol use disorder themselves due to a number of factors, ranging from environmental factors to genetic factors.
Individuals who are raised by parents with alcoholism, or in environments characterized by the presence of regular alcohol abuse, often develop problems with alcohol themselves. The ubiquitous presence of alcohol increases the likelihood that a person will begin drinking at an earlier age. Research shows that young people who begin drinking at an earlier age tend to struggle to control their alcohol consumption. When the brain is younger, it is more malleable, and it is easier for people to pick up habits — including dangerous habits like alcohol abuse. Children also tend to see their parents and family members as role models, often emulating their behaviors. Being around family members who model dangerous behaviors like alcohol abuse can negatively influence children, making it more likely that they will deem the behavior acceptable. Combined, these factors make young people more likely to drink.
Moreover, being raised in an environment characterized by regular alcohol abuse can make childhood difficult. Parents who are struggling, unpredictable, or violent can create an inhospitable environment for children. It is common for children of alcoholics to suffer significant trauma during their early years. Individuals who suffer from trauma, particularly early childhood trauma, are significantly more likely to develop substance use disorders. They are also more likely to develop other mental health disorders, such as major depression and anxiety disorder. Mental illness and alcohol use disorder go hand in hand, since a large number of people begin abusing alcohol as a means of treating symptoms of mental and emotional distress. This practice of drinking as a way of managing an undiagnosed mental health condition, known as self-medication, tends to worsen alcohol use disorder over time.
The Genetic Component
Research also shows that alcoholism is passed down from generation to generation via genes. The presence of certain genes can influence how a person metabolizes alcohol. While not everyone with these genes will necessarily develop the condition, those with a family history of alcoholism are at a high risk and should exercise caution. Some of the genes that influence alcoholism include:
- GABRB1 – This gene causes people to produce less gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in their brain, one of the main chemicals from which the sedating effects of alcohol are derived. Individuals with this gene may drink more to compensate for the reduction of GABA.
- ADH1B – This gene, which is common among people of East Asian descent, has a low prevalence among Europeans. Individuals with the ADH1B gene suffer feelings of discomfort when they drink, and as such as deterred from abusive drinking. Populations that lack this gene are more likely to have problems with alcohol.
- Beta-Klotho – This gene, which is also associated with having a sweet tooth, makes it easier for people to control and manage their drinking. Individuals who do not have this gene may struggle with alcoholism.
If your family has a history of alcohol use disorder, you are not destined to become an alcoholic. Nonetheless, as a high-risk person, it is highly recommended that you exercise caution by avoiding alcohol. For individuals who are already suffering from alcohol addiction, it is essential to seek the help of a licensed treatment center. Outpatient treatment facilities can help you withdraw from alcohol and develop the tools and coping strategies you need to avoid relapse over the long-term. While the notion that alcohol is hereditary may be disheartening, by learning to treat and manage your condition, you can begin to alter the family cycle. Treating your alcoholism not only helps you live your own life more joyfully, it can help pave the way for future generations.