It’s hard to believe something as dangerous as alcohol can be purchased at nearly anytime of the day if you’re over 21. A study released by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) says that 85.6 percent of people over the age of 18 reported consuming alcohol at some point in their lives. An estimated 69.5 percent reported they drank in the past year, while 54.9 percent drank in the past month.
The prevalence of binge drinking and heavy alcohol use is also high in our society, causing a significant financial impact relating to healthcare, loss of jobs, and accidents. In 2019, 25.8 percent of people over the age of 18 reported binge drinking in the past month, while another 6.3 percent reported heavy alcohol use in the previous month.
In 2010, alcohol misuse cost the United States a staggering $249 billion, and three-quarters of this cost stem from binge drinking. Alcohol is a serious issue on a global scale and more than ten percent of children in the United States report living with a parent who has alcohol problems.
Addiction and Genetics
Addiction is a chronic brain disease that affects the motivation and reward centers of our brain. For decades, scientists have argued about the hereditary and genetic components of the condition, and they’ve spent their lives trying to answer those questions.
Alcohol use disorder is a medical term for alcohol abuse and alcoholism, and it’s been linked to specific genes, known as the alcoholism gene. For example, a relative like your parent or sibling who struggles with alcohol use disorder will increase the likelihood that a person will also encounter the same addiction.
Heredity and genetics are closely linked because parents will pass their genetics down to children, meaning children inherit the same problems their parents face. However, from a medical perspective, there are differences when discussing hereditary versus genetic diseases. Someone with a genetic disease will have an abnormality in their genome, while someone with a hereditary disease will receive a genetic mutation from their parents’ DNA.
When scientists debate the topic of alcohol use disorder and whether it’s genetic or hereditary, they discuss if the condition stems from a more extensive set of genes passed down or if the disease comes from mutations in specific genes.
Alcoholism is a severe issue facing the United States, and one estimate suggested that nearly 18 million adults throughout the country struggle with alcohol use disorder, translating to one in 12 people. About 100,000 people die each year due to alcoholism, including deaths caused by organ damage and cirrhosis. Chronic heavy drinking increases the risk of diabetes, several types of cancer, and kidney disease.
Alcoholism and Genetics
Genetics is only 50 percent of the underlying reasons for alcohol use disorder. Suppose someone is predisposed to metabolize alcohol in a way that pleasurable effects are more prominent than experiencing mood swings, feeling nauseous, or overheating. In that case, the person is more likely to develop an addiction to the substance.
A study released by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2008 reviewed the research available on alcohol use disorder and how genetics contributed. The study concluded with genetic factors accounting for up to 40 to 60 percent of the variance among those struggling with alcohol use disorder. Since that study, they found specific genes contributing to alcohol use disorder, and they correlate with the development of reward centers in our brain.
The phenotypic expression of these genes is complex. For example, someone might have a parent with blue eyes and another with brown eyes. Although they have genes for both eye colors, only one eye color will be expressed. Only strong genes are the exception to this rule, and genes responsible for the movement of GABA in synapses between neurons appear to be strong genes that are correlated with a higher risk of alcoholism. Today, it’s still unknown how this genetic sequence influences the outcome for someone.
Genes that influence alcoholism are usually expressed in different ways, including:
- Smaller amygdala: Individuals with a family history of alcoholism have been shown to have a smaller than average amygdala, which is the part of the brain that associates emotions and cravings.
- Other warning signs: Those with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism will experience different or fewer warning signals from their bodies or brains when it’s time to stop drinking. For example, if you’ve had too much to drink, someone with an alcohol use disorder will continue drinking despite clear warning signs to stop.
- Unusual serotonin levels: Serotonin is vital for regulating mood and is closely associated with depression. Lower levels of serotonin are associated with alcohol use disorder. A person who is feeling depressed will use alcohol to self-medicate. In other cases, someone with social anxiety might use alcohol to overcome their fears. However, alcohol is a depressant and will eventually cause your serotonin levels to plummet.
Heredity and Alcoholism
Children of alcoholics are more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse later in life, but not all of it is from genes, and their environment can play a crucial role in their future. A family history of alcoholism is linked to an increased risk of genetic predisposition to alcoholism, but it depends on how close the relatives are to one another. Growing up in an environment influenced by alcohol addiction will predispose someone to the condition. The environment will affect how genes are expressed, and these learned behaviors will influence how someone perceives alcohol or drugs.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that men drank twice as much as women, and between 1997 and 2015, twice as many men drank heavily at least one day per month compared to women. Unfortunately, however, women are starting to drink more frequently.
When anyone is exposed to substantial amounts of an addictive substance over a prolonged period, the substance will require their brain to crave the drug. Even without genetic components, someone can inherit a predisposition to alcohol due to their culture.
If you or someone you love has shown signs of a drinking problem, getting help is the only answer. Fortunately, the damage they’ve sustained can be reversed with the proper treatment. However, as you’d find with any disease, the earlier you seek treatment, the more damage they’ll prevent.
Treatment For Alcoholism
Since alcohol use disorder is considered a brain disease, alcohol causes significant changes in the brain that make it challenging to quit. You might be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder if you answer yes to the following:
- You’re unable to control how much you drink
- You feel like you have to have a drink
- You feel bad when you don’t have a drink
When you meet with a doctor, you need to discuss your goals. Are you looking to drink less? Are you trying to abstain from alcohol altogether? Once you establish what you’re looking to do, you can make a treatment plan, and the doctor can refer you to an expert who can help.
The treatment that’s right for you will depend on your goals and current situation. Many people find that treatment works best with both therapies and medications. An addiction expert might recommend an inpatient or residential program, which is where you stay at a treatment center for an extended period. Others are outpatient programs, which is when you stay at home but go to the center for treatment.
If you’ve developed an alcohol use disorder, going to detox is a crucial step toward recovery. The objective is to stop drinking and give your body time to get alcohol out of your system, and that takes a few days to a week. You must go to a treatment center or hospital due to the severe withdrawal symptoms that might occur, including:
- Feeling things or seeing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
- Shaking (tremors)
Addiction specialists and doctors will keep an eye on you and provide the necessary medication to alleviate your symptoms.
If you’re ready to, make sure to get the necessary help. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly and requires help to overcome. By taking the necessary precautions, you can prevent dangerous outcomes and set yourself up for success in the long-term.