What do family and medical histories mean for how drinking affects you?

Your family and medical histories can have a real impact on how drinking affects you, versus other people. Here are five things to keep in mind.

Photograph of a man looking out of a window

Some people inherit genetic traits that can make them more susceptible to the effects of drinking alcohol (1, 2)

If you’ve inherited these genes, you may be less able to eliminate the toxic molecules that are produced when your body breaks down the alcohol you drink (3). As these toxic substances build up, your face may become flushed and you may feel ill and dizzy. If your drinking is excessive, having these genes may also increase your chance of developing other health issues over time. This genetic variant is most common among people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean origin (4).

Your medical history influences how alcohol affects you

Your medical history and health status play an important role in how drinking affects you. Some health conditions, including high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat (5) and liver disease (6) can be made worse by drinking alcohol. Drinking heavily over long periods of time can also increase your chances of developing some of these conditions.

People who suffer from anxiety or mood disorders may increase their likelihood of developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) if they drink excessively (7, 8). And drinking too much on a regular basis may weaken your immune system (9).

A family history of alcohol abuse may increase your own risk

In some families, AUD, which includes dependence, is passed down from generation to generation (10-12). But developing ‘alcoholism’ involves more than just family history: it’s a complex interaction between genes and environment (1, 13). This relationship is different for each person.

If you believe someone in your family has AUD, or you’re concerned that your own drinking may be problematic, the best approach is to consult a health professional who can help assess your risk.

Family relationships may increase your risk of drinking problems

People who grow up in families with a history of alcohol abuse, domestic violence or child neglect, and/or where interpersonal relationships are difficult, may be at greater risk of abusing alcohol (14, 15). Drinking heavily and frequently can be a coping strategy and may turn into a problem.

But family relationships are also one of the strongest protective factors against problem drinking

A supportive and involved family with open communication, particularly between parents and children (16), can help prevent problem drinking and instill healthy lifestyle choices and behaviours.

Are you concerned about the effects of drinking on your body?