For decades, scientists have wondered if alcohol addiction is genetic or not; the answer is more complex than one may think.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is “…a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.” These individuals will keep abusing alcohol and drugs, even when it impacts their personal and professional lives. If addiction is so damaging, why do people choose to keep taking drugs? Unfortunately, once a person becomes addicted to an illicit substance, it is not just a matter of quitting overnight.
In today’s blog, we will discuss the genetic factors that can cause addiction.
The Relationship Between Alcohol Addiction and Genetics
Unfortunately, alcoholism seems to run in some families. Is someone more susceptible to becoming addicted to alcohol if their parents or grandparents are alcoholics? Although there is a hereditary connection between addiction and genetics, genetics is not the only factor, and experts do not quite know the full effect it has on addiction.
A person’s genetic structure determines all of their traits. For instance, one’s DNA dictates their physical characteristics, such as hair and eye color, as well as their behavioral characteristics, such as aggression. Everyone inherits said genes from their parents. However, people who are genetically predisposed to alcoholism have a heightened risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It is crucial to note that even though people can inherit alcoholic tendencies, the development of an addiction is also dependent on environmental and social factors.
For example, a person who has inherited genes that make them prone to addiction may be a responsible drinker who only enjoys alcohol in moderation, or they may have never had an alcoholic beverage in their life.
Keep reading to learn more about how a combination of one’s environment and DNA can result in addiction.
The Myth About the “Alcohol Gene”
Contrary to popular belief, there is not a single gene responsible for drug addiction. For one, there are hundreds of genes in everyone’s DNA that can increase their risk of developing AUD. Identifying these genes is challenging because they each play a minor role in a much bigger picture. Moreover, certain combinations of genes have a strong relationship to addiction.
Additionally, there are also behavioral genes passed down from generation to generation that can influence a propensity for alcohol addiction. For instance, certain mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, to name a few, are more rampant in people with a family history of these disorders. Sadly, individuals who struggle with mental illness are more likely to depend on illicit substances as a way of coping with their conditions. Mental health disorders can be both hereditary and environmental, which highlights the intricate link between addiction and genetics.
Environmental Factors vs. DNA
A person’s hereditary behaviors intercept with their environment to form the basis of their decisions. For example, some people are more likely to experience an averse reaction to stress compared to others with healthy stress management skills; this makes it hard for them to take on a fast-paced job. These people may turn to drugs and alcohol after a traumatic event to self-medicate, which is only a temporary solution.
It is important to note that even people with a high genetic risk to substance abuse must be driven by a non-hereditary factor to start drinking. Most of the time, the catalyst that results in alcohol abuse is often an environmental factor, such as work-related stress or strained relationships. Generally, the more risk factors a person grapples with, the more likely they will develop a dependence on alcohol or other substances.
On the other hand, there are also protective factors that reduce a person’s risk. Both risk and protective factors can be either biological or environmental.
A few risk factors include:
- Lack of parental care
- Destructive behavior during childhood
- Poor social skills
- Alcohol and drug experimentation
- Having alcohol readily available
Conversely, protective factors include:
- Outstanding grades and a desire to have a successful career
- Parental monitoring and support
- Good self-control and healthy habits
- Abiding by anti-alcohol policies
- Access to neighborhood resources
A few environmental factors that are risky for individuals who are genetically inclined toward alcoholism include:
- Exposure and easy access to drugs
- Physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Peer pressure
Just because someone is more likely to develop AUD does not mean they cannot fight it. In fact, taking preemptive measures can help them live a healthy life.
How Can a Person Who is More Vulnerable to Alcohol Addiction Combat It?
The more family members (related by birth) a person has with alcohol dependence, the more at risk they become. Remember, just because someone is more likely to become addicted to alcohol does not mean they will experience that fate. Although no one can control their genetic makeup, everyone can take measures to keep addiction at bay.
Here are some of the best ways to curb a genetic predisposition to alcohol dependency:
- Discussing a potential family history of alcohol abuse with family members
- Maintaining healthy friendships or a romantic relationship
- Valuing family bonds
- Seeking relationship or marital counseling if necessary
- Reducing stress and not fixating on situations outside of one’s control
- Researching the symptoms of addiction
Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder
Healthcare professionals, including physicians, psychologists, and other behavioral health practitioners may diagnose someone with AUD based on the factors below. If a person meets two of the following diagnostic criteria within a 12-month period, they might have AUD:
- Craving alcohol
- Drinking more alcohol than they originally intended and drinking it more frequently
- Experiencing symptoms of physical withdrawal after a short period of sobriety
- Giving up hobbies that they previously enjoyed to make more time for alcohol consumption
- Inability to fulfill responsibilities at work, school, or home due to alcohol consumption
- Unsuccessful attempts to scale back on alcohol use
- Relying on alcohol to treat mental or physical problems, even if it makes them worse
- Consuming alcohol when it is dangerous or even life-threatening to do so, such as while driving
A person who suspects that they have AUD may feel ashamed, but there is no reason to feel this way. It is best for them to seek professional treatment so that they can get back to living the life they want to live.
Why Seeking Treatment is Beneficial
For most people battling addiction, detox is the first step in treating this disorder. People who experience significant levels of physiological alcohol dependence may experience serious health complications, such as seizures if they abruptly stop drinking without supervision. A monitored detox period may be essential to keep a person safe and comfortable when they experience withdrawal.
Ardu Recovery Center Cares
At Ardu Recovery Center, we understand that everyone experiences alcohol addiction differently due to various factors. For this reason and more, we pride ourselves in offering comprehensive addiction treatment that provides residents with a detox period and mindfulness-based therapies and outdoor activities.
Our goal is to treat both the addiction and mental health of our residents. Reach out to us today with any questions you may have. We are located in scenic Provo, Utah.