The Role of Gene Variations and Environment in Regard to Alcohol Abuse

July 21, 2018


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Since alcoholism seems to run in families, people often wonder whether the cause is environmental or hereditary. They wonder whether they could learn about their risk of becoming an alcoholic by having genetic testing done through a company such as one founded by Jim Plante. If they have a gene variation indicating an increased risk, they could monitor their alcohol use carefully or even choose not to drink alcohol at all.

Genetic Factors and Environment

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that there are indeed genetic factors involved in chemical dependency on this substance. However, much of the risk is also due to environment. The gene variation is not definitive; many people with this particular genetic structure do not become dependent on alcohol, even if they drink.

And of course, it’s also quite possible to become an alcoholic without relevant genetic factors. Researchers have found that children growing up in a stressful family environment are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder, the medical term for chemical dependency on alcohol. In addition, the longer one waits to start drinking, the lower the probability that chemical dependency will occur. People who started indulging in their teen years are at greater risk than those who wait until their 20s.

Gene Variations and Alcohol’s Effects

Gene variations can determine the types of effects people experience when they drink alcoholic beverages. For instance, one individual may experience flushing, a feeling of heat and a more rapid heartbeat. Another doesn’t have any of those physical sensations.


Identifying the genetic risk for alcohol use disorder is difficult because hundreds of genes are related to this problem. It’s different than identifying increased risk for specific physical diseases. Testing can identify groups of gene variations that, in combination, significantly raise the risk of addiction.

Family attitudes toward drinking do not appear to have a genetic component. Yet growing up in a family where the adults drink heavily is just as much of a risk factor for alcoholism as certain gene variations are. The problem of addiction is complex, including societal and cultural aspects as well as physical ones.

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