Alcoholism may not be the preventable and self-inflicted disease we believe it to be–at least, not entirely. Evidence of the hereditary connection to alcoholism is mounting. One finding is that the children of alcoholics are four times more likely to be alcoholics themselves. Numerous adoption studies have shown that rates of alcoholism are more closely tied to their biological parents, rather than the environment of their adoptive families. So is alcoholism genetic? An addiction that can be programmed into our DNA and impossible to override? Not entirely, but behavior and the personal choices individuals make aren’t the sole cause of alcoholism as one might believe.
Can Alcohol Alter DNA?
Shockingly, yes. Addiction is usually looked at through the lens of ‘nature versus nurture’. However, epigenetics is an emerging field of research that is turning that old debate on its head. This relatively new field of study recognizes that environmental factors can cause genes to express themselves abnormally as they would with hereditary disease. These factors include age, environment, stress level, diet, drug use, or exposure to certain chemicals. Other types of alcohol-related epigenetic diseases include fetal alcohol syndrome, liver disease, and liver cancer.
The repercussion of excessive alcohol consumption does more than change your DNA, however. These gene modifications can cause you to crave alcohol even more, significantly increasing the risk of developing alcoholism (though it’s important to note that addiction is a psychological affliction, one that genes may influence, but cannot cause outright). Further, these changes can be permanent and even passed down to offspring. To a certain extent, alcoholism can be a genetic condition, and individuals who inherit these genes can find themselves predisposed to chronic alcohol abuse.
Genes Related to Alcoholism
Alcoholism is a complex and multifaceted disease, that involves hundreds of genes, all of which can be influenced by social and environmental factors. As such, there is no singular “alcoholism gene”. Research is still fairly young in this area, however, scientists have identified several genes that can contribute to the development of this chronic condition.
Alcohol dehydrogenase 1B (ADH1B) and aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) are the genes with the strongest ties to alcoholism. These are the genes responsible for the enzymes produced in the liver for alcohol metabolization, and some of their variants are better at processing alcohol than others. The more efficient these enzymes are, the quicker alcohol can be processed out of the body, the lower the chances of systemic toxic buildup and thus, and the lower the risk of developing alcohol use disorder.
Other genes related to alcoholism include:
GABRA2 & CHRM2 – Associated with the increased EEG-β an inheritable trait and an indication of a parent with excessive alcohol exposure; believed to contribute to increased risk of developing alcohol dependence.
KCNJ6 – Helps to regulate the effects of opioid effects and pain management, as well as addiction.
AUTS2 – Deals with alcohol sensitivity and preference in the brain.
IPO11 & HTR1a – Increased susceptibility to addiction in general.
POMC – Integral part of regulating hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA), the dysfunction of which has a strong correlation with addictive behavior, particularly with alcohol cravings.
PER2 – Affects the body’s biological clock (circadian rhythms); disruptions of this gene are associated with increased alcohol consumption.
Genes Aren’t Everything
Scientists have long debated the relationship between alcoholism and our genes; whether it’s an inheritable part of our DNA or simply a behavior that we unconsciously learn. The truth is that it’s a bit of both. Although alcoholic parents can pass on a genetic predisposition to develop alcohol use disorder, behavior modifications can help us avoid triggering those metaphorical landmines in the first place. Moderation is key, as it is binge or chronic drinking that seems to detonate those detrimental gene expressions. For those already deep in addiction’s grasp, behavioral therapy at an alcohol addiction center can help individuals learn to override their genetic impulses. There is still much hope for an alcoholic even when alcoholism runs in the family.