What Causes Alcohol Addiction? Risk Factors to Look Out For


Alcohol addiction can impact anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, or health status. It all comes down to personal risk factors, which include genetic makeup, mental health, and propensity to make certain choices.

Let’s explore the different causes of alcohol addiction and how you can protect yourself and your loved ones.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction is a condition that occurs when you can’t control how much alcohol you drink. People who suffer from alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), continue drinking despite the negative impact it has on their physical, mental, and emotional health.

When they try to stop, they experience unpleasant alcohol withdrawal symptoms that make it hard to stay sober. This is one of the reasons many recovering alcoholics relapse shortly after they stop drinking.

The Science of Alcohol Addiction

The reason humans can become easily addicted to alcohol is that it affects different centers and systems in their brains. Alcohol activates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers while simultaneously dulling the negative emotion centers.

In other words, it reduces your feelings of anxiety, stress, and emotional turmoil while increasing your sense of pleasure and happiness.

When you drink excessively or repeatedly, your brain becomes addicted to these feelings.

Binge Drinking and Heavy Drinking

Most people who are addicted to alcohol either binge drink or drink heavily. Here’s the difference between the two types of excessive alcohol consumption:

  • Binge Drinking: This is when you have 5 or more drinks within 2 hours for men and 4 or more drinks within 2 hours for women.
  • Heavy Drinking: This is when you have 15 or more drinks per week for men and 8 or more drinks per week for women.

Causes of Alcohol Addiction

There’s no single cause for alcohol use disorder, but rather multiple risk factors that make you more likely to become addicted. Each of these factors affects people differently, meaning some might be affected while others might be immune.

It’s extremely difficult to predict how likely you are to develop alcohol addiction. It’s also quite difficult to pinpoint the exact cause for those who are already addicted.

That’s why it’s always better to be wary of these risk factors when possible so you can avoid alcoholism. Here are the most important ones to keep in mind:

Psychological Factors

People who suffer from certain mental health conditions are more likely to develop alcohol addiction.

For example, people who have social anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, or bipolar disorder, have a much greater chance of becoming addicted to alcohol.

More specifically, about 43% of people with bipolar disorder and about one in every three people with depression have alcohol dependence to some degree.

In most cases, people resort to alcohol as a means of self-medication for their condition. Many people with depression have reported that alcohol can improve their mood.

Another theory claims that other mental health conditions can reduce your ability to gauge how much alcohol you drink and make you less cautious when drinking.

Personal Choices

Your drinking habits can affect your chances of developing alcoholism. People who only drink on occasion are less likely to become addicted than those who drink regularly.

Likewise, those who avoid places or gatherings where heavy drinking is encouraged are less likely to develop alcohol use disorder.

History of Drinking or Substance Abuse

How long you’ve been drinking and the amount of alcohol you’ve consumed to date can affect your likelihood of becoming addicted.

Recent studies show that adults who started drinking before the age of 15 are almost four times more likely to develop alcohol use disorder compared to those who started after 20.

People with a history of substance abuse or alcohol problems are also more likely to drink heavily. However, if you’ve gone through alcohol treatment programs at some point, your risk significantly decreases.

Genetic Factors

Scientists have been searching for an “alcoholism gene” for a long time. Although they’ve yet to isolate a gene, studies have shown that there may be a genetic side to alcoholism or alcohol abuse.

According to recent research, your genes aren’t the sole reason behind your alcohol addiction, but they do account for about 50% of your addiction risk. Environmental influence, personal choices, and other factors account for the other 50%.

Some genes can increase your risk, while others might decrease it.

For instance, many people of Asian descent have a gene that affects their ability to metabolize alcohol. This causes them to experience unpleasant symptoms, like flushing, fast heartbeats, and nausea whenever they drink alcohol.

They tend to avoid drinking alcohol because of these symptoms, which makes it less likely for them to develop alcohol dependence.

Family-related Factors

In addition to genetics, a family history of alcoholism can greatly affect how likely you are to become addicted to alcohol.

Those who grew up in a household where heavy drinking is common or even encouraged are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder.

Stress Levels

Studies have shown that the higher your stress levels are, the more likely you are to drink alcohol. This is especially common for people in high-stress professions, like lawyers and healthcare professionals.

Surveys show that almost one in every five lawyers has a drinking problem, whether binge drinking or heavy drinking. Another 2014 study showed that about 15.3% of doctors have struggled with alcohol abuse and alcoholism at some point.

It’s important for these individuals to find other ways to relieve stress than alcohol use.

Peer Pressure

Having a partner, friend, or colleague who drinks frequently makes you more likely to take up drinking. With peer pressure, you may feel obligated to drink even when you don’t want to, which can quickly lead to addiction.

Religious and Cultural Factors

People of any religion can become addicted to alcohol. However, those who strictly adhere to religions that forbid alcohol are much less likely to become addicted to drinking, like people who practice Islam.

It’s worth noting that areas where the majority of the population abstain from alcohol due to religious reasons, like the Middle East and North Africa, also have lower alcohol addiction statistics.

Educational Factor

According to studies by the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), the higher your educational level, the more likely you are to drink alcohol.

About 80% of college students in the United States drink alcohol, compared to only 52% of non-college students.

Your educational level can also affect your choice of beverage. For example, college students in the United States usually prefer wine over beer. Non-college graduates, on the other hand, tend to favor beer over wine.

Related: The best sober colleges in the United States

How To Know If You Have Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction can be very subtle at first. You might have some degree of addiction or alcohol dependence and not realize it.

Medical professionals often use the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) criteria to identify alcohol addiction.

According to the DSM-5, you likely suffer from alcohol use disorder if you have at least 2 of the following criteria during a 12-month period:

  • You drink greater than normal amounts of alcohol or drink for prolonged periods
  • You have strong, persistent alcohol cravings
  • You’re unsuccessful when you try to cut down or control your alcohol intake
  • You spend a lot of time trying to obtain alcohol or recovering from its effects
  • Drinking alcohol affects your work, school, or social life
  • Drinking alcohol has put you in a dangerous or hazardous situation such as driving under the influence
  • With time, you feel the need to increase your alcohol intake to achieve the same level of euphoria

How To Reduce Your Risk of Alcohol Addiction

Lower Your Alcohol Intake

One of the simplest ways to reduce your risk of alcohol addiction is to lower your consumption. This doesn’t necessarily mean to stop abruptly, but you can gradually reduce unhealthy alcohol habits.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends sticking to no more than 2 drinks daily for men and one drink daily for women.

Take A Break

Another excellent way to avoid alcohol addiction is to take regular breaks from drinking. This protects your body from getting used to the presence of alcohol by almost resetting your tolerance levels.

Of course, if you’re already addicted to alcohol or have some degree of alcohol dependence, you should seek alcohol addiction therapy first before stopping alcohol altogether.

You might also need special alcohol addiction medication to help prevent or curb withdrawal symptoms.

Choose Your Drinks

Choosing drinks with a lower alcoholic content can lower your chances of becoming addicted. This is especially useful if you tend to have more than one drink at a time.

What Counts as a Drink?

Most people keep track of how many drinks they’ve had, but very few know how much alcohol is in those drinks.

Here’s the average alcohol content by volume of different beverages according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):

  • Regular Beer: 5% alcohol content
  • Light Beers: 4.2% alcohol content
  • Malt Liquor: 7% alcohol content
  • Wine: 712% alcohol content
  • Distilled Spirits (Vodka, Whiskey, etc..): 40% alcohol content
  • Brandy or Cognac: 40% alcohol content

Once you know how much alcohol is in each type of drink, it’s important to know what counts as one drink.

Here’s the volume of a standard drink according to the NIAAA:

  • Regular Beers: 12 fl.oz
  • Malt Liquor: 8-9 fl.oz
  • Wine: 5 fl.oz
  • Hard Liquor or Distilled Spirits: 1.5 fl.oz

You can also try non-alcoholic drinks such as non-alcoholic wine or non-alcoholic beer.

Wrapping Up

Alcohol addiction results from genetic, environmental, and personal risk factors combining to increase your chances of developing the condition. That said, getting better is only controlled by your decision.

If you’re ready to take the first step towards recovery, Curednation’s telemedicine services can help kickstart your wellness journey.

Book an appointment today and get the help you need and deserve.


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