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alcohol addiction

Is Alcohol Addiction a Disease? What Role Do Genes Play?

Table of Contents

With an alcohol use disorder, people often have a couple of primary questions:

  • Is alcohol addiction a disease?
  • Is alcohol addiction genetic?
  • Are some people predisposed to develop alcoholism because of heredity?

We’ll go over this topic below and delve into why alcoholism is a disease and genetics’ role in a substance use disorder. 


Is Alcohol Addiction a Disease?

When researchers first started looking at heavy drinking, and the underlying scientific elements, they believed it was a moral failing or a lack of willpower. 

  • Up to the 1930s, this was the underlying thought process. 
  • As a result, “treatment” for alcohol addiction or heavy alcohol consumption was primarily about punishment.
  • It wasn’t until the 1930s that we started to understand what alcoholism is and how it can affect someone.

Now, alcoholism is also known as an alcohol use disorder. 

  • When an alcoholic drinks, they have a hard time stopping and have uncontrollable cravings.
  • Someone with an addiction knows there are adverse effects of alcohol, but there is a loss of control over their excessive drinking because of the chronic disease element. 
  • Struggling with alcohol addiction means your life can center around drinking. 

You may wonder if someone voluntarily drinks for the first time, how is alcohol use disorder a disease that’s out of their control?

  • However, addictive drugs change the brain’s function and structure. 
  • The disease of addiction or addiction affects thinking, behaviors and emotions.

Along with being a chronic disorder, alcoholism is also progressive and sometimes deadly.


Alcoholism Is a Chronic Disease

Alcoholism, more precisely than being a disease, is a chronic disease. A chronic disease lasts three months or longer. Chronic diseases don’t just go away, and doctors can’t just cure them, but they can be treated and managed. 

Some behaviors contribute to chronic illness. For example, diet and exercise impact whether or not someone develops a chronic cardiovascular disease.

Chronic conditions benefit from different types of therapy in many cases, medications, or lifestyle changes.

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic, progressive disease. Much like heart disease, there may be lifestyle elements or choices that initially play a role. Then, however, this disorder becomes out of your control and requires treatment, similar to cardiovascular disease.


The Effects of Alcoholism on the Brain

When you’re addicted to drugs, it affects different parts of your brain. These brain areas are the circuits involved in learning, pleasure, stress, decision-making, and self-control.

When you drink or take drugs such as opioids, it creates a surge of dopamine in the brain. In particular, dopamine is in the brain areas that control reward and your ability to learn based on those rewards. Dopamine creates feelings of euphoria and pleasure.

As you continue to use drugs, the nerve cells in the basal ganglia become less sensitive to dopamine. Then, doesn’t create that same pleasurable feeling of intoxication when one drinks alcohol. You may find yourself drinking more to try and achieve the same pleasant feelings, known as developing a tolerance.


Is Alcohol Addiction Genetic?

Diabetes is another chronic disease comparable to alcoholism. Diabetes is complex. There is a genetic influence, and environmental factors play a role. Whether or not you develop diabetes depends on your family genetics and personal lifestyle choices.

  • With addiction and genetics, you may be genetically predisposed to developing the disorder if your family has a history of addiction. 
  • If you grow up in an environment where alcohol use or easy access to drinking, it can contribute to your risk.
  • Genetics and environmental factors converge to determine how the course of the disease could look, according to the American Psychiatric Society.

There isn’t one single alcoholic gene determining the risk for alcoholism. We have hundreds of genes that are part of our DNA, increasing our risk of developing a substance use disorder. 

  • Along with genetics that could have a solid relationship to drinking, behavioral genes can influence the likelihood of developing a disorder. 
  • For example, someone with a history of psychiatric disorders like depression may be more likely to use substances as a coping mechanism, raising the risk of addiction.
  • The behaviors and characteristics you inherit can interact with the environment around you, leading to your decisions. For example, Your genes could genetically predispose you to feel sensitive to stress. 
  • Then, if you go through something traumatic like physical or sexual abuse, when that predisposal pairs with the trigger event, there may be misuse as a way to self-medicate.
  • These effects, including environmental influences and genetic predisposition, could come together, leading to alcohol dependence. 

A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism looked at the body of research on use disorders years ago. 

  • Researchers found genetic factors might account for anywhere from 40 to 60% of the variance among individuals who struggle with alcoholism, with environmental risk factors making up another significant percentage. 
  • Since then, researchers have honed in on more specific genetic elements that might influence outcomes.
  • For example, in some studies, people with a family history of alcohol abuse and use disorders have a smaller than average amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a role in the emotions linked to cravings.
  • Another factor is abnormalities in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. Serotonin is closely associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental disorders. Someone with unusual serotonin levels may be more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder AUD.

As you can see, there are highly complicated relationships between addiction and risk factors like genetics.


Treatment Options for Alcoholism 

Is alcohol addiction a disease? Yes.

Is alcohol addiction genetic? Partially, the answer to this question is also yes.

When treating a chronic disease, the goal is to get it under control. In a situation like diabetes, we might call that being in remission. When you’re in remission, it improves your quality of life, and your withdrawal symptoms may not be present at all short term after you stop drinking. Long-term remission stems from multiple medical treatment approaches for most people.

With alcohol addiction, your treatment plan may include behavioral treatments like counseling as well as medication. You might also participate in support groups like a 12-step program and make lifestyle changes by incorporating exercise into your routine if you have an underlying mental health disorder that will need to be treated. 

As is always the case with chronic diseases, relapse is possible. When that happens, it’s not a treatment failure; instead, it indicates you need a change in your treatment plan.

We encourage you to contact The Right Time Recovery team to learn more about our flexible and convenient treatment facility for complex diseases such as drug and alcohol addiction.