The genetics of alcohol addiction

Knowing your family history can help you

There are many people who drink alcohol and never become addicted. But others, despite the destructive consequences, can't stop.

If you looked at Amy Shields-Olson's family photos, you wouldn't know that addiction nearly destroyed her world.

"I was writing suicide notes to my children; I would have blackouts, where I wouldn't remember if I fed them dinner," said Shields-Olson, a recovering alcoholic.

She became an alcoholic, largely, because she says she couldn't escape her genes. Dr. Marvin Seppala says genetics is the number one risk factor for addiction.

"Over 50% of the likelihood that a person is going to end up with addiction has to do with their genetic history," said Seppala, Chief Medical Officer at the Hazelden Foundation.

If your mom or dad is an alcoholic, then your risk skyrockets then you are "at least six times more likely than the general population", to being an alcoholic yourself, Seppala explained.

Then there's age – studies show people who start drinking before 15 are five times more likely to become addicted than those who begin drinking after they turn 21.

Another risk factor – tolerance— especially when people first use alcohol.

"It's the people who can really tolerate the alcohol that have the genetic predisposition and end up at higher risk," Seppala said.

There are also protective genes that exist mostly in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people who get flushed when they drink.

"And that actually will prevent alcohol use, because they don't like how it feels," Seppala explained.

Shields-Olson is now an Addiction Counselor. She hopes to pass down the knowledge she's learned to her kids, giving them the power to break the cycle.

"Everything I have in life today is a result of making the decision to say I need help," she said.

There are more than 300 genes associated with alcoholism. Variations in the different genes contribute to a person's overall level of risk or resistance.

Additional Information:

Alcoholism is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect (physical dependence), or having withdrawal symptoms when attempts are made to decrease or stop drinking. About 18 million people in the United States abuse alcohol and estimates suggest that more than 70 million Americans have dealt with alcoholism in their family. (Source:;

SYMPTOMS: In order for someone to be diagnosed officially as alcohol dependent (or alcoholic), they must have at least three of the seven following symptoms, including:

  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Episodes of greater use than the person intended
  • Unsuccessful efforts or desire to cut back
  • Large amounts of time spent obtaining the alcohol
  • Reduction of important life activities
  • Use of the alcohol in spite of knowledge that a physical or psychological problem is being made worse by the alcohol
  • (Source:

    What is considered one drink?

    One standard drink is:

    • 12 ounces (355 milliliters) of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
    • 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
    • 1.5 ounces (44 milliliters) of 80-proof hard liquor (about 40 percent alcohol)


    FAMILY HISTORY: The risk of alcoholism is higher for people who have a parent or other close relatives who have problems with alcohol. Research has shown conclusively that family history of alcoholism or drug addiction is in part genetic and not just the result of the family environment. (Source:;

    TREATMENT: Many people with alcoholism hesitate to get treatment because they don't recognize they have a problem. An intervention from loved ones can help some people recognize and accept that they need professional help. There are various types of treatment, including:

    • Oral medication - A drug called disulfiram (Antabuse) may help to prevent drinking. It produces a physical reaction that may include flushing, nausea, vomiting, and headaches, which may discourage drinking.
    • Spiritual practice. People who are involved with some type of regular spiritual practice may find it easier to maintain recovery from alcoholism or other addictions.