Is Alcoholism and Addiction a Genetic Disease?

Alcoholism and addiction can be genetic.

Alcoholism and addiction often runs in families, passed down from generation to generation in an endless cycle of chaos and heartbreak. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, children of alcoholics are between four and ten times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those with no family history of alcohol abuse. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that children of parents who abuse drugs are predisposed to developing an “addictive personality.”

So if you come from a family of alcoholics or addicts, are you destined to become one yourself?

Nature vs. nurture 

Scientists have confirmed that there is indeed a genetic component to alcoholism and addiction. But while studies have identified specific regions in the chromosomes correlating to addiction, they’ve yet to identify a single, specific “addiction gene.” Instead, they’ve discovered that a combination of genetic factors lead to an increased risk of substance abuse. Alcohol tolerance, impulse control, and mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are all hereditary traits that converge to predispose an individual toward addiction.

External risk factors for alcoholism and addiction

But genes are only partially responsible. Studies have attributed 50% of the risk of developing a substance abuse problem to genetics. The other half can be attributed to external factors, such as:

Family life as an external alcoholism risk factor

Addiction runs in families not only because of genetic inheritance, but also because of learned behaviors. Parents who abuse drugs or alcohol in front of their children indirectly teach them that addiction is a normal way of life, and they grow up repeating those patterns.

Binge drinking is an addiction risk factor

People who drink excessively on a regular basis are at a much higher risk of developing alcohol use disorders, especially if they started drinking at a young age or they surround themselves with other people who drink heavily.

Lack of a support network is an external alcoholism risk factor

Having a group of people to lean on is an important factor in staying mentally healthy. Without a strong support network, it’s easy to turn to drugs or alcohol to get through times of distress.

Breaking the cycle of alcoholism and addiction

If you’re genetically predisposed to alcoholism or addiction, it doesn’t mean you’ll become an addict yourself. By being aware of your relationship to drugs and alcohol, you can avoid substance abuse problems in your future. Here are some ways you can help to minimize your risk:

Treat mental illness

If you’re suffering from a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, seek proper treatment from a medical professional to avoid the temptation to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Develop coping skills

Find healthy ways to deal with stress, such as regular exercise, meditation, or artistic expression. Establishing good coping skills lowers your risk of turning to harmful substances during times of tension.

Share your concerns with others

Surround yourself with people who are supportive of your goals and aware of your vulnerabilities. They can help steer you down the right path.

There’s always hope to beat alcoholism and addiction

Having a family history of alcoholism or addiction doesn’t sentence you to a lifetime of substance abuse. But if you or a loved one is struggling to stay sober, help is available. Reach out to your doctor or contact a treatment center. The cycle of addiction can stop with you.