Alcoholism – Genetics and environment

I recently shared that I was given up for adoption, as a baby. When I was much older, I found out that I came from a long line of alcoholics and addicts. Does that mean that any problems I had with drugs, alcohol and mental disorders are not my fault?

The risk of alcoholism is part hereditary and part environmental. I am surprised to learn that 17.6 million people in the US suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. That is 1 out of every 12 adults. So, how does the heredity risk translate to my children’s risk? 25% of children born from an alcoholic parent, will become drink dependent. Twins – if one twin is an alcoholic the chance the other twin will become an alcoholic is 76% (identical) and 36% (fraternal). Scientists have determined the gene related to alcoholism is the Gabra2 gene.

However, multiple genes play a role in a person’s risk for developing alcoholism. There are genes that increase a person’s risk, as well as those that may decrease that risk, directly or indirectly. For instance, some people of Asian descent carry a gene variant that alters their rate of alcohol metabolism, causing them to have symptoms like flushing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat when they drink. Many people who experience these effects avoid alcohol, which helps protect them from developing alcoholism.

Some of you might know an addict or alcoholic that is the only one in their family affected by the disease. That is because there are plenty of non-genetic causes of alcoholism. They are: abuse, depression, social and parental attitudes. Another huge influence on drinking (and drugs) is society and peer pressure.

There are a lot of references to alcohol and drugs in popular music, shows, magazine and movies. Many of the references, you might not even notice because of the ever-changing slang.

drug slang
More slang language for popular drugs

Marijuana: blunt dope, ganja, grass, verb, joint, bud, Mary Jane, pot reefer, green, trees, smoke, sinsemilla, skunk, weed, hash, tea, chronic and 420.

Ecstasy: XTC, X, E, Adam, Eve, clarity, hug, beans, love drug, lover’s speed, peace, uppers and Molly.
Heroin: smack, horse, brown sugar, dope, H, junk, skag, skunk, white horse, China white, Mexican black tar.

Cocaine: blow, bump, C, candy, Charlie, coke and snow.

Popular Culture

Kids from the age 8-18 listen to popular music about 104 minutes a day. When you take the top songs, identified by billboard, 93 out of 279 songs reference substance abuse. That is 33%. The references are split between alcohol, marijuana, tobacco and other substances. It sounds strange, but that translates into young adults hearing about 35 references to drugs and alcohol per day. That is just by listening to music.

TV also shows a lot of drugs and alcohol. Some top offenders for this age group are MTV’s “The Real World” “Gossip Girl” and “Skins”. I feel a bit uncool, but I have never heard of the show Skins. It often shows teens drinking, smoking pot, using large amounts of drugs, being violent, and having sex not only with one another but also with teachers and other adults. How could I have missed that one?

American Culture

So, if you want to decrease the likelihood that your child will have a substance abuse problem, all you need to do is monitor their music and tv habits – right? Wrong, because 46% of kids under age 18 live in a home where an adult smokes, drinks too much, abuses prescription drugs or uses substances they should not use.

Can our genes affect alcohol treatment?

Scientists are also exploring how genes may influence the effectiveness of treatments for alcoholism. For instance, the drug naltrexone has been shown to help some, but not all, alcohol-dependent patients to reduce their drinking. Research has shown that alcoholic patients with variations in a specific gene respond positively to treatment with the drug, while those without the specific gene do not. A fuller understanding of how genes influence treatment outcomes will help doctors prescribe the treatment that is most likely to help each patient.


Should people with bad genetics like me, not have children? Not really. Just as people who have inherited a predisposition for heart disease or diabetes, can take precautions, those at risk of developing alcoholism can change their drinking behavior too. So, simply knowing about the risk helps children to avoid the problem. I have to wonder, if I was told about my genetics, would that have been enough for me to monitor my drinking at an early age? I will never know.

Researchers are working toward the day when simple screening tests will show which people are predisposed to alcoholism. Meanwhile, for children like mine, they recommend the following:

-If you are a male whose father suffered from severe alcoholism, you would be wise to avoid alcohol entirely.

-If your mother, father or any grandparent was an alcoholic, consider yourself at risk of alcohol abuse. If you choose to drink at all, limit your intake to one or two drinks per occasion and avoid drinking every day and when you are depressed or alone.

-If you find yourself drinking to excess (drinking more than five drinks per occasion, drinking to get drunk or being unable to remember what happened after you were drinking), get help right away, before your alcohol abuse gets out of control.

If you have crossed the line, and have the disease of alcoholism or addiction, you can never go back. There is a very old phrase, many of you might have heard – “if a cucumber becomes a pickle, than that pickle will never be able to be a cucumber again”.  Are you pickled and need help? Check out the resource page.
Our 800RecoveryHub site offers free and confidential help

4 thoughts on “Alcoholism – Genetics and environment

  1. It is fascinating to me to learn about neuroscience and how the brain works, especially relating to addiction and adoption. I am also adopted, and have read much about the neurological effects (trauma) of being taken away from my mother at birth and being raised by a non-related family. I also have always been drawn to alcoholics and addicts, which (thankfully) has led me to Al-Anon, to work through my people-pleasing, co-dependent tendencies (MY addiction). Though my adoptive parents or my birthmother are not alcoholics, I’m curious to understand from a scientific point of view why I am the way I am. My ears always perk up when I hear folks in AA and Al-Anon mention that they are adopted. Anyways, thanks for this post! Here’s to a serenity-filled 2015 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I don’t know what to do with the information though. Even with 25 years of sobriety, I don’t understand what makes me an addict/alcoholic. It’s not like I can see what are my genetics or what makes me tick. I just know where using took me. Awareness is probably the best defense, so reading this and thinking about all these issues was definitely useful for me. Thanks and best wishes!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s