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Is Alcoholism Genetic?

5 minute read

If you have a parent or close family member who struggles with alcoholism, you’re much more likely to have a problem with alcohol abuse than your counterparts. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that genes account for about half of your risk for developing an alcohol addiction. However, developing an alcohol use disorder typically involves a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. A family history of alcoholism does put you at higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become addicted to alcohol or that you can’t break the cycle of addiction.

Why Is Alcoholism Hereditary?

Scientists are still trying to determine exactly how the genetics of alcoholism work. Twin studies and parent-child studies suggest that people with a family history of addiction are at 40-60% higher risk than others for substance use disorders, but the specific how’s and why’s of these gene expressions are still being studied.

While researchers don’t believe there is one “alcoholism gene,” recent studies suggest the way some proteins bind to genes in family members with addiction are different from the way they bind in people who don’t abuse alcohol and drugs. One group of researchers pinpointed 11 genes that were linked to alcoholism. Studies like these are providing clues to how alcohol addiction and genetics work.

Scientists behind addiction gene studies note the importance of understanding that genetic factors act in the context of your environment, they’re not “causal.” For example, if you have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism but you also have protective factors against drug and alcohol abuse like a strong, supportive family, sober peers, positive self-esteem, and a sense of belonging to a community, your risk of addiction may go down.

Other Causes of Alcoholism

There are usually several factors influencing alcoholism, not just one. In addition to the genetics of alcohol abuse and addiction, common contributors to substance use disorders include:

Co-Occurring Disorders

Studies estimate about half of people with mental illness struggle with substance abuse. This is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. Similar parts of the brain are involved in both addiction and mental health disorders such as the components that influence reward processing, mood regulation, and impulsivity. Alcoholism and mental health disorders also share many of the same environmental influences.

Alcohol abusers may drink to cope with symptoms of psychiatric conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and others. On the flip side, regular alcohol and drug abuse can cause side effects that mimic mental health disorders. You can also experience anxiety and depression after detoxing from alcohol as your central nervous system tries to rebalance chemicals tied to mood and emotional regulation.


There’s a well-established relationship between trauma and alcohol and drug abuse. Many people try to self-medicate the emotional aftermath of trauma with substances. Types of traumas that often co-occur with substance abuse include:

  • Military combat
  • Natural disasters
  • Rape
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Assault
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ex. alcoholic parent, incarcerated parent, household dysfunction)

Early Relationships

People with maladaptive family dynamics are more likely to abuse substances. Parents and caregivers are your first relationships. They’re the people you depend on for survival and your sense of self when you’re a young child. When those relationships are unhealthy, the impact can be profound and lead to behaviors like substance abuse, eating disorders, and other negative coping mechanisms.

Types of dysfunctional attachment styles include:

  • An overly enmeshed parent who doesn’t create appropriate boundaries in the parent-child relationship and is codependent on the child.
  • Emotional or physically neglectful parents who don’t meet their child’s basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) or who invalidate their child’s emotions.
  • Over-controlling or inflexible parents, who don’t instill a sense of autonomy in their child.

Underage Drinking

Peer pressure to drink alcohol is one of the top predictors of underage drinking. Combine peer pressure with other adverse childhood experiences and you’re primed for a substance use disorder.

Your prefrontal cortex is less formed in youth, meaning you have less impulse control and ability to fully process potential consequences. Underage drinking can stunt parts of your developing brain and increase your risk for substance abuse as an adult by two or three times.

Parental Attitudes Toward Alcohol

Children of alcoholics are around alcohol growing up. The alcoholic parent is constantly drinking and may have a lax attitude about substance use in general. Even if your parents aren’t textbook alcoholics, but drink regularly and have permissive attitudes about alcohol, research shows you’re more likely to abuse alcohol.

Is Drug Addiction Genetic?

Though much of the research on substance use disorders and genetics has centered around alcohol dependency, studies suggest a genetic factor in addiction across the board. Researchers have found genetic components in addictions to heroin, prescription opioids, tobacco use, sedatives, cocaine, stimulants, cannabis, and other substances. Just like alcohol addictions, all substance use disorders have environmental influencers as well.

Get Help for Addiction

You can break the cycle of addiction with the right treatment, motivation, and support. Footprints to Recovery provides evidence-based addiction treatment that addresses the issues underlying substance abuse. We’ll help you detox in a safe, comfortable environment at our treatment center. Medical staff will give you research-backed medications to ease alcohol withdrawal symptoms and monitor you around the clock. After detox, you’ll get help from treatment providers who are experts in addiction and behavioral health, and you’ll attend group therapy and activities with peers who understand what you’re going through.

Types of treatment we offer includes:

Life is better in recovery. Call us today for a free, confidential consultation.


Sarah Schapmann
Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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