Is Alcoholism a Genetic Disease

is-alcoholism-a-genetic-diseaseGenetics play a major role in the people we become. While not everyone who has at least one alcoholic parent will develop Alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly referred to as alcoholism in most cases, it is certainly a factor. How big a role our genetic composition plays in the disease of alcoholism is debatable. Here we lay out the most commonly accepted theories on the role genetics play in developing the disease of alcoholism. We also explore environmental components.

General Idea of Genetics

Most people have heard people say that genetics plays about a 50% role in who we are as people. This can be most readily observed by looking at the people within a family. In most cases, children look similar to at least one of their parents. They can also look like other members. For example, I am the spitting image of my Grandma and a female cousin. I was once asked if she was my mom, and you’d have a hard time denying that my cousin could be my sister.

Genes are essentially instructions that affect our physical prowess, our temperament, and our personality before we begin to interact with our environments. A specific problem with one gene can put us at a greater risk of certain ailments or diseases. This is not to say that we cannot shape ourselves the way we want, it just may be more difficult to overcome certain restrictions.

Alcoholism is also thought to be about 50% genetic. Although there is argument as to the efficacy of this theory, it is hard to deny based on the evidence.

Alcoholism Correlation – Genetics

Alcoholism definitely seems to run in families. For those who know this, it is best to never have that first drink.  If we never start drinking, we have nothing to stop later in life.  Even in the case that both parents do not drink, or have stopped drinking at some point, can pass this genetic component to their children. This puts them at a higher risk in developing alcohol abuse disorder.

What Indicators Are There?

Even if the immediate family does not drink, looking at the history of the family is a good place to start. If many members of the family seem to have problems with drugs and alcohol, that is a good indication that you may end up having a hard time controlling your drinking.

A very good indicator is the experience of euphoria greater than that of the non-alcoholic. It has been shown that those who become alcoholics experience greater pleasure from drinking than other people.  The connections in the brain fire harder, so to speak.  This usually occurs with the first drink. Most alcoholics can remember one of their first experiences with drinking and the way it made them feel.

They may describe it as what they have been missing, or as a solution to their problems. They may state that they never felt they fit in anywhere (this is true even when all the evidence points to the contrary), but felt like they were finally comfortable with who they were after a few drinks.  We seek out a way to reduce anxiety or relieve stress.

Related: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living – A summary 

To solidify this point, some people of Asian descent experience immediate negative affects when they consume alcohol. These include flushing, nausea, or a rapid heartbeat. This genetic component causes them to avoid alcohol. If genes can cause adverse reactions to alcohol, it stands to reason that others inherit genes that cause an increased pleasurable experience than “normal” people.

Another indicator is the desire for another drink immediately after the first. I know that this has been my experience. I still find it weird, as I do not have problems controlling things like food consumption. I don’t immediately want to eat another cupcake, for example. With alcohol, I remember having one of my first drinks during new years as a ten year old. I liked it so much that I wanted another NOW. While I didn’t develop any problems as a ten-year old, the seed was planted.

The Flip Side of Alcoholism as a Family Disease

Alcoholism or AUD can still run in families even when there is no genetic component whatsoever. It is important to make this distinction, as sometimes it is purely environmental. However, this doesn’t lower the validity of classifying it as a family disease.

A person in a family where members drink heavily will obviously be a greater risk for alcohol abuse that may lead to dependence than, let’s say, a Mormon family. It may simply be the norm to start drinking at an early age, which has been shown to dramatically increase the likelihood that problems will develop later in life.

Just as lifestyle choices can cause type II diabetes, drinking heavily can cause alcoholism. If you are surrounded by people where constant drinking is the norm, it is a good idea to be vigilant in your drinking. While I think I was an alcoholic as soon as I had my first drink, this isn’t the norm, as most people develop AUD over a period of time.  I avoid other mind altering drugs for this reason. An alcoholic is also an addict. Replacing one drug for another leads down the same depressing path.

Propensity for Addiction

People who are addicted to any mood or mind altering drug do not have the luxury of switching it up. A heroin addict, for example, cannot begin drinking as a substitute. Although they may not immediately go out and cop heroin, there will come a time, when alcohol just isn’t good enough.

This is also true with alcoholics. There number one choice when trying to alter their mental state is alcohol. So, smoking weed every day is not a valid way to keep them off the booze. It may work for a while, but we always return to our drug of choice. Because we are predisposed to addictive behaviors at this point, a drug is a drug is a drug.

The way it might work is as follows.

  1. Having made the decision to quit alcohol, we may accept a puff off a joint.
  2. Marijuana works on the same part of the brain’s reward centers as alcohol.
  3. Our inhibitions are lowered, so when the bottle comes around and we take a swig from that as well.
  4. We do what we always do; we get blackout drunk.

Stop the Madness

When we engage in the series of behavior just described, we are declaring that we really have no desire to develop new coping skills that will help us quit all mind altering drugs for good. If you wanted to quit, and are in the early stages of recovery, you would not have put yourself in that situation.  Obviously, you haven’t accepted the step one spiritual principle.

While recovery takes some work, it is not impossible to overcome this genetic propensity to use. Millions have done it using varying methods. These include AA, SMART recovery, therapy for underlying problems, etc.

Please leave any thoughts or comments in the comment section below.

Please share this post if it has helped or will help others close to you.



  1. I found this article really interesting and am astounded that it is thought that alcoholism is 50% genetic.
    I cannot personally relate to a sense of euphoria from my first drink of alcohol, infact I do not remember it at all.
    However I can relate the experience to my first cigarette, another addiction. I spent the years from 16 to 51 totally addicted. I still am, but now I vape instead. I know deep down I am still addicted to nicotine but I cannot stand the taste of a cigarette now.

    • Whether we want to believe it or not, we all seem to be addicted to something.  Whether it is alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or chocolate matters not.  It still activates the same area of the brain’s pleasure center that controls reward behavior.

      Unfortunately, this “reward” ends up being a curse.  As we consume or use whatever we are addicted to, we require more of it next time to get the same effect.  

      I’m glad you found a less dangerous alternative, which I understand vaping to be.  Thank you for the comment.

  2. Hi Ernest, interesting article you have here. I always thought that alcoholism is an addiction that you picked up, or the choices you make and not something inherited. But reading your article proves that it is plausible that genetics could play a role in increasing the chances of a person being an alcoholic. Thanks for sharing this!

    • I’m sure you’ve heard the saying you are 50% nature and 50% nurture.  While I skew heavily to our environment being more important than our genetics, I think it is generally accurate.  

      For example, intelligence can be improved greatly even for those that inherited average intelligence.  If someone is gifted with exceptionally high IQ, they can still be surpassed by people who work harder.  Genetics should not be an excuse for our poor behavior is what I am saying.

  3. Hi Ernest,

    Great article!

    I didn’t know that alcoholism can be genetic. The only thing I was addicted to for years were cigarettes. I do know a friend of my high school that started to drink alcohol only when she had to meet individuals or groups after the death of her husband. Alcohol made her feel better in front other people, but she wasn’t an alcoholic. In fact, she hated drinking. I don’t know what I happened to her, but I am pretty sure she overcame the problem. Anyway, I wish her the best because she is such fantastic girl!

    Thank you for this excellent post!

    • Cigarettes are very addictive but they usually don’t destroy families.  Alcoholism is one of those addicts that affects everyone else that loves the person as well.  I can tell you that she may have developed alcoholism later in life based on what you said.  If she was drinking for the effect or to make her feel normal around other people, that is a bad sign.  I hope she is OK as you said.  

      People can hate the taste of a drink; that is not why they do it.  People actually delude themselves into thinking that alcohol tastes good.  I always advise them to drink pure alcohol and see if they hold this to be true.  People drink for the effect, and some drink to make them feel normal.  Thanks for the comment.

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