Alcoholism & Heredity: What You Need to Know
One question that comes up quite frequently during alcoholism treatment is whether a person’s children are at risk for this disease. Answering this question is not simply a matter of noting whether the person is an alcoholic and assuming alcoholism is a genetic disease. There are several other factors that play into determining if and when a person will develop an addiction to alcohol, including:
- Social Factors: Social factors are those aspects of a person’s lifestyle and class, such as their religious upbringing, family life, friends, and financial status.
- Economic Factors: Economic factors have to do with how well the economy is performing. For individuals, this factor normally relates to their job, rate of pay and ability to provide support for their children.
- Cultural Factors: These factors are influenced from a person’s heritage and can include marital traditions, specific religious beliefs, and other such traditions, values, and laws of a particular race, society, or nation.
- Family History: Family history can refer to the nature of relationships between family members, such as parents to children or siblings to siblings. It also refers to the types of illnesses and diseases that have affected previous generations. From a medical perspective, family history is determining the risks factors for illnesses and diseases are whether they are inherited through genetics.
Statistics on Heredity Risks
According to research data presented by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems.”1 Even though the risk is greater in children of alcoholics, one should not assume their child will become an alcoholic.
The same studies also found “more than one-half of all children of alcoholics do not become alcoholic.”1 This demonstrates that there are indeed many factors beyond hereditary that determine what risks children of alcoholics face.
Based on research from PLOS Genetics, “There is no single gene responsible for alcoholism.”2 Rather, this study determined that there were as many as “930 genes associated with alcohol preference.”2 The identification of the genes helps researchers determine how alcoholism and the risks for the disease can vary from one individual to another.
In some people, certain genes might be active while, in others, a different set of genes could be active. This study also discovered external factors did play a role in certain neurological responses. Some of these genes were identified as those that are “linked to memory formation and reward behavior.”2
As seen in other types of addictions, the brain simulates rewards with the release of endorphins when various substances are abused, including alcohol. As such, this response reinforces the abusive behavior. Just because one person’s brain chemistry is altered from their addiction, it does not suggest this altered state is passed down from parent to child.
According to Alcoholism Statistics, “there are an estimated 28 million children who have alcoholic parents.”3 This means these children are exposed to alcohol during their formative years. This exposure would be considered primarily a social factor, which could also have economic influences.
As you can see, while there is, indeed, research to support that children of alcoholics are at a greater risk of alcohol abuse, it is not just the hereditary factor that drives and determines alcoholism.
Common Characteristics of Alcoholism
There are many different definitions of alcoholism and what it means to be an alcoholic. A good general accepted definition is that alcoholism is a medical condition that describes a person who suffers from the inability to control and regulate his or her consumption of alcohol. In addition, most alcoholics will typically exhibit at least two of the following characteristics of alcoholism:
- Loss of Control
According to The Alcoholism Guide, all sense of control is lost for alcoholics after that first drink passes their lips.4 They cannot stop drinking. One drink turns into two, three, or more. As their addiction worsens, this loss of control can start to overflow into other areas of their lives and affect their jobs, friends, families, and other social and economic aspects.
As people drink alcohol, they will build up a tolerance to the effects. This means they will have to drink even more alcohol to achieve the desired effects. For instance, an alcoholic used to achieve the desired effects after six drinks. Over time, this increased to nine drinks, then twelve. Eventually, their tolerance could become so high they are consuming 24, 30, or more units of alcohol per day.
- Physical Dependence
- As people’s tolerance increases, so do their bodies’ physical dependence on it. Alcoholics will start to experience withdrawal symptoms once the alcohol has left their bodies, which ranges between 12 to 24 hours. When these symptoms start, the only way to deal with them is to drink more alcohol.
- Overcoming physical dependence on alcohol requires assistance from qualified drug and alcohol rehab facilities. Simply stopping and going through withdrawal cold turkey and alone is dangerous, and never guaranteed to be successful. Aside from the headaches, nausea, vomiting, shakes, and perceived pain people can experience, they could also experience hallucinations, as well as have reactions requiring medical care and treatment.
Cravings for alcohol are not the same as those experienced during pregnancy or when you are on diet and get a craving for your favorite snack. Alcoholism cravings refer to the constant need to drink alcohol. Alcoholics will think about drinking from the time they awaken to the time they go to sleep. In their minds, drinking will make everything that is wrong in their lives better.
Another way to illustrate the effects of alcohol cravings is it is often similar to those feelings a person experiences when they first fall in love. New lovers tend to think constantly about each other while apart. They have an empty feeling in their guts that can only be satisfied by being able to spend time with their beloveds. For alcoholics, their beloved is being able to drink.
What to Do When You Are Worried You Are at Risk as the Child of an Alcoholic
There are several different things children of alcoholics can do to help avoid alcohol abuse themselves.
- Alcoholism Education: Educating yourself about what risks you face from potential factors, not just hereditary ones, is important. You need to know the potential triggers that might result in your taking a drink. Some of the more common triggers include stress and anxiety, as well as physical, mental, and sexual abuse.
- Avoid Drinking: The best course of action when you are growing up in or have grown up in a home where alcoholism was a problem is to not drink. If you do not drink alcohol, then you will not have to worry about becoming an alcoholic. You can find support from friends who also want to avoid drinking.
However, children in alcoholic homes tend to have easy access to alcohol and are likely to try it at some point. The thing to remember is, even if you do try alcohol once or twice, you do not automatically become an alcoholic. It takes time for alcoholism to develop. You still have time to take other preventative actions.
- Drink in Moderation: Once you reach the legal age to drink, you may be more likely to be encouraged to drink socially with friends. If you do decide to drink, remember moderation goes a long way. You should slowly sip on the drink and make it last for hours. Once it is gone, then switch to water, soda, or some other non-alcoholic beverage.
- Find a Support Group or Attend Counselling: There are support groups for children of alcoholics as well as counseling services you can utilize when you need support and someone to talk to about your parents, your struggles with alcohol, and other concerns about addiction.
- Talk to an Adult You Trust: As a child or teen of an alcoholic parent or parents, having an adult to turn to can make a world of difference. In cases where the child or teen turned to an adult they trusted, they were able to get the support the needed to not become an alcoholic themselves.
A few good examples of adults that children and teens can turn to include their doctor, school counselor, alcohol rehab facilities, and Alcoholics Anonymous support groups. There are also toll-free support lines and other resources that may be available in one’s community.
Other Risk Factors
Aside from hereditary concerns, there are other risk factors which can influence whether someone becomes addicted to alcohol. These can include:
- Peer Pressure: Giving in to peer pressure by others who drink or who have a problem with alcohol can contribute to your becoming an alcoholic.
- Access: In homes where there is easy access to alcohol, children and teens can be more tempted to start drinking.
- Age: The age people first try alcohol and start drinking on a regular basis can influence if they will develop alcoholism.
- The Metabolic Rate of Alcohol: How fast people’s bodies process and metabolize alcohol can be a risk factor when they have higher metabolic rates. This can lead to excessive drinking and potentially alcoholism.
- Level of Stress: The number of stress factors at home from friends and family, as well as at school or work, can influence drinking behaviors.
- Self-Esteem: When people have low self-esteem, they may decide to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
As stated earlier, even though hereditary factors can play a role in determining whether children or teens will become an alcoholic like their parents, these are not the only factors. The contributing factors can and do vary from one alcoholic to another.
If you have concerns about becoming an alcoholic like one or both of your parents, remember there are types of help and support available. Please feel free to contact Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers at (855) 859-8808 for help maintaining a sober lifestyle and overcoming alcohol abuse.