Addiction has long been defined as a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain that affects individuals and families as a whole. The effect of alcohol addiction on the reward and motivation centers of the brain have further proven the genetic and hereditary components of addiction. Alcohol use disorder is no exception. Although this disorder affects people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, alcoholism has been linked to specific genes. While alcoholism runs in families, the real question is why does it run in families?
While there is a genetic component to the presence of this disorder, the disease of alcoholism is far more complex than genetic predisposition. In fact, both genetics and environmental factors are responsible for alcoholism being prevalent amongst families and passed down from one generation to the next.
What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that about 16 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorder. Due to the prevalence of this disorder, medical researchers continue to work hard in understanding the potential factors associated with alcoholism. One of these factors is that alcoholism runs in families.
Generally, substance use disorder is considered to involve several complex risk factors such as:
- Current environment
- Family history
- Childhood trauma
- Mental health condition
Stress at home, work, or school is also a major contributing factor to substance use disorder. For example, when an individual is feeling stressed they may consume a few alcoholic beverages and instantly feel relaxed and relieved. This calming effect often reinforces the desire to consume alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress. More specifically, individuals suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are likely to struggle with co-occurring alcohol use disorder.
Alcoholism and Genetics
As mentioned previously, scientists have examined genetics in family lineages to identify potential hereditary factors contributing to addiction and alcoholism. In 2012, some of the first research on the genetics of alcohol use disorder and addiction was published. This study reported that 11 pairs of genes were associated with the risk of individuals drinking too much and developing compulsive behaviors around alcohol. Signs of the genetic factors of alcohol use disorder include:
- Having a higher tolerance for large amounts of alcohol
- Experiencing a different reaction to alcohol than others, which generally sets off cravings
- Repeat periods of binge drinking
- Having a compulsion to drink once an individual has consumed even the smallest amount of alcohol (unable to just have one drink)
All of these genetic factors help explain how alcoholism runs in families.
Family and Environmental Influences on Developing Alcoholism
Family dynamics, family history, and environmental factors directly contribute to the likelihood of an individual developing alcoholism. Choosing to self medicate with alcohol is often a learned trait from different members of the family unit. Family members may encourage one another to drink and may even be offered to children or teenagers who aren’t able to legally drink outside of the home. Furthermore, children and teens who are exposed to alcoholic parents may be more susceptible to adopt this unhealthy mental illness. When an individual begins drinking at an early age, they are at a much higher risk of developing alcoholism.
Even if a child does not partake in alcohol consumption if they are exposed to their parents drinking in excess the message may be communicated that daily drinking is normal. Children, in their early developmental years, watch and learn how to conduct themselves based on how their parents interact with others, substances, and the world. Other environmental factors that may contribute to developing alcoholism that runs in families include:
- Emotional/physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Child maltreatment
- Easy access to alcohol
- Absent parents
- Relationship conflicts
When one or more parent abuses alcohol, the parent is likely to have few or no coping skills. Often times, these individuals find reprieve in alcohol and continue drinking in order to escape uncomfortable emotions. This type of environment prevents children from adopting the healthy coping skills that they need to deal with in everyday life. Furthermore, lack of coping skills and exposure to trauma can lead to the development of mental illness.
Mental Health Disorders and Alcoholism
Mood and anxiety disorders are not only commonly tied to alcohol use disorder but are also commonly passed down through families as well. When left untreated, symptoms of mental illness may often lead an individual to turn to alcohol or other substances to self medicate. While any mental illness could expose an individual to alcoholism, the following mental illnesses have been known to have genetic links, as well as an, increased for alcoholism:
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder
When an individual has a mental health disorder and co-occurring alcohol use disorder, their treatment needs to be more comprehensive. Furthermore, a dual diagnosis treatment center is most appropriate for these individuals. Though treatment may be more intensive, recovery from a co-occurring disorder is possible.
Watching Out for Signs of Alcoholism if it Runs in the Family
While genetics, environmental, and family influence may increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, all children are not necessarily destined to become alcoholics. Having a genetic predisposition for developing alcoholism does not mean the individual is doomed to this disheartening disease. In fact, many families where several children have the same genes and upbringing, not all of the children become alcoholics.
Having a close family member suffering from alcoholism does not mean that you or your loved one will also suffer from substance use disorder. However, it is a good idea to be educated on the signs of alcoholism, especially since it runs in families:
- Being unable to resist the urge to drink
- Unable to stop drinking once beginning to drink
- Feeling an intense craving for alcohol
- Consuming alcohol to avoid stress, anxiety, depression, or other uncomfortable feelings
- The need to consume higher amounts of alcohol in order to achieve the desired effect
- Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms when drinking is stopped, such as shaking, mood swings, nausea, insomnia, or anxiety
If you are at high risk of developing alcohol use disorder or have concerns about your alcohol consumption, you should talk to your doctor, an addiction professional, or an alcohol rehab facility. These professionals will help you determine whether or not you have developed a problem with alcohol and suggest what actions you should take to deal with the problems you are experiencing.
Moreover, if you know that alcoholism runs in your family and you’re having a hard time putting the bottle down, it might be time to get help. If this sounds like you, contact us today to learn more about or drug and alcohol treatment programs in Fort Lauderdale.