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The “Alcoholic Gene” – Who’s at Risk??

June 01
17:11 2019

By: Dr. Abigail Joseph

Genes are responsible for our traits – they dictate our physical and behavioral characteristics. We do not control our genetic make up for our parents pass it on to us. Like many chronic non-communicable diseases, we can cause our children to be predisposed to alcohol and substance abuse due to their genetic make-up. Research shows that genes are responsible for approximately half the risk in alcohol use disorder (AUD). With this in mind, it is important to understand that genes alone do not determine if you will develop AUD. In fact, it accounts for half of the equation but relies on social and environmental factors to complete the formula and produce an addict. For this reason, it is possible for a person who is susceptible to becoming an alcoholic to not consume a drop of alcohol in his entire lifetime andit is possible for a person to be a responsible drinker despite family history and background.

You may be reading and wondering, but Doc, what is the gene? There are hundreds of genes and combinations that make up the human DNA and to be honest, there is no single or isolated gene that produces alcoholism. However, studies have shown that there are strong combinations that form a link to alcoholism. Studies also reveal that there are certain behavioral genes passed down that may increase the propensity of alcoholism as a patient’s way of coping with these inherited diseases and illnesses. Hereditary behaviors network with our environmental factors such as work, stress, relationships,etc. and unbelievably form the basis of our decisions. Some people are unable to cope with a fast-paced job, deal with the stress of an upcoming exam, maybe being in an unhealthy relationship, going through a nasty divorce or probably had a traumatic experience in their life such as a near death experience and as a result they turned to alcohol as self-medication. Some Belizeans would say, “ah need a stiff drink pan dat one.” According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) – even persons with high genetic risks must be exposed to nonhereditary factors, which in most cases refer to environmental factors such as stress that pushes them to substance abuse. The higher the risk factors a person has the greater their chances are in developing a disorder.

This is NOT an excuse. Just because someone has a high predisposition and susceptibility, does not determine their fate. While no one can control their genetic make-up, everyone is responsible for taking proper measures of precaution and prevention. Drinking is a choice. Taking that first drink is not dictated by one’s gene. However, social situations, friends, other environmental factors as well as alcohol availability influence it. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive and potentially lethal disorder, pronounced by excessive and compulsive consumption of alcohol that leads to psychological and physical dependence. Addiction is a disease. Consider heart disease for a minute. Heart disease affects patients that are genetically predisposed but not all predisposed persons go on to develop heart disease. It is also associated with a poor lifestyle, bad choices, lack of exercise and smoking. The same is true for other non-communicable diseases such as adult onset diabetes and hypertension. If your doctor told you that you had any of these, you would not consider yourself a bad person, but rather you would express concern as to how to improve your odds. This is the right approach to addiction. People who don’t understand addiction often comment to persons that they should “be stronger” or “try harder” to control their use, these statements disregard your genetic predisposition and implies that only the weak are addicts. If this were true then only unsuccessful and unmotivated people would be addicts. Studies reveal that 10% of executives have an alcohol addiction.

We live in a society that prides itself in socializing but is incapable of doing so sober. Many are of the impression that the party was not good if nobody got “turnt up.” This concept makes it harder for predisposed alcoholics to be out in public and not relapse. Society creates addicts and then loathes them for not being able to recover. Alcohol is the answer to everything! You lost your job – booze, your partner left you – booze, you failed an exam – booze, you got a promotion – booze, you’re getting married – booze, someone died – booze, a hurricane is coming – booze! It is very unlikely to be a social event if alcohol was not involved. Imagine being genetically predisposed and society dictates how to resolve your problems? Environmental factors, alcohol availability…..all the fertilizer we needed to create the perfect addict! One drink does not define you as an alcoholic. Substance abuse creeps up and alcoholics are not just the people we see on the side of the street covered in dirt and their own urine. You might think that because you aren’t “one of those people” you’re not an alcoholic, but you can be well put together, productive, have a family, be a person of power and authority even – experts called these persons ” high functioning alcoholics” and at times their success and productivity cause people to overlook this addiction.

Recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse and acknowledging your predisposition is very important. Failure to do so places yourself and others at risk as you attempt to drink and drive, engage in risky sexual behavior or endanger yourself by blacking out. Being a high functioning alcoholic can also lead to physical consequences such as liver disease, pancreatitis, certain types of cancer, premature death, domestic violence, child abuse or neglect and even fetal alcohol syndrome for women who do not know they are pregnant or continue drinking anyways. Binge drinking and alcoholism are two separate entities defined By the NIAAA but over time, the effects on the body are of the same. Work on seeking help, then surround yourself with people that will hold you accountable. This way you greatly reduce your environmental and social factors.

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