Alcoholism Causes and Risk Factors: Help from Long Island Treatment Center
Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism, occurs when a person develops a physical dependence on alcohol. The condition affects 14.5 million Americans over the age of 12. This isn’t surprising, considering drinking is socially acceptable in cultures all around the world. Nonetheless, plenty of people are able to drink without losing control over their lives. What’s the difference between someone who can enjoy alcohol in a healthy way and someone who develops alcoholism?
Table of Contents
- The Biology of Alcohol Use Disorder: What Happens to the Brain?
- Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder: Why Does it Happen to Some and Not Others?
- Help for Substance Use Disorder: It’s Never too Late to Change Course
The Biology of Alcohol Use Disorder: What Happens to the Brain?
Although drinking too much is always unhealthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean the drinker is an alcoholic. Alcohol use disorder occurs when heavy drinking over a long period changes the wiring of the brain.
A healthy brain is always seeking equilibrium. It does this through maintaining a delicate balance of neurotransmitters. Alcohol use disrupts these neurotransmitters, which leads to a temporary state of intoxication.
If it only happens once in a while, this disruption is harmless. When someone drinks heavily on a regular basis, however, the brain will begin to adapt around this disruption. Heavy alcohol use messes with the brain’s reward system.
In the early stages of alcohol use disorder, this adaptation can lead to heightened alcohol tolerance. The person then needs to drink more to experience their desired level of intoxication, and the downward spiral continues. If left unchecked, alcohol use disorder will result in the person needing to drink every day, often starting first thing in the morning.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder: Why Does it Happen to Some and Not Others?
Substance use disorders are complex. They involve biological, genetic, social, and personality factors.
Family History and Genetics
A child who grows up with one or more alcoholic parent is more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse. This could result from learned behaviors as well as a genetic tendency. It’s natural that children learn from their parents. If they see their parents indulging in alcohol on a regular basis, they’ll be more likely to consider its use a normal aspect of everyday life. This is especially true if the parental alcohol use was happening throughout the child’s formative younger years.
Of course, this could also have the opposite effect. A child grows up seeing their parent struggling with alcohol and therefore never wants to drink. A child’s personality traits affect the way they respond to their parent’s alcohol use disorder.
Along with the drinking behaviors people learn, there’s also a genetic factor that can increase one’s likelihood of developing alcoholism. A study from NIAAA, published in 2008, found that around 50% of a person’s tendency toward alcoholism is genetic.
Genetics can affect the risk of alcohol use disorder in the following ways:
The Ability to Enjoy Alcohol
To become an alcoholic, a person needs to get something positive out of alcohol use, at least in the early stages. Certain people may not respond well to alcohol for genetic reasons.
For example, maybe drinking tends to make a person feel depressed or sick rather than happy. Certain genes, such as the ALDH2 and ADH1B genes, affect the way the body metabolizes alcohol. These genes are more common in Asian populations. People with these genes may experience flushing, overheating, nausea, and rapid heart rate when they drink. It’s also possible to be allergic to alcohol, making drinking highly unpleasant.
A Natural Lack of Endorphins
Endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter, are part of the brain’s reward system. They make us feel good when we do certain things, such as exercising or enjoying a tasty meal. Some people have a genetic tendency for lowered endorphin activity. This makes it more difficult for them to experience feelings of happiness. People with this brain wiring might be more likely to seek out activities that create that euphoric endorphin rush, including thrill seeking, promiscuous sex, or substance abuse.
GABA and Other Neurotransmitter Functionality
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps regulate the nervous system. A dysregulated nervous system can lead to overreactive feelings or responses to situations. Excessive alcohol use harms the body’s ability to produce GABA, which is why people often feel sad or anxious while hungover. People with GABRA2, a gene that affects the function of GABA receptors, may be at a higher risk of alcoholism.
The CHRM2 gene, which is involved in the brain’s ability to learn, remember, and pay attention, has also been linked to alcohol use disorder.
Some traits, such as the degree of risk aversion, can make a person more or less likely to develop alcoholism. A shy person may drink to come out of their shell in social situations. Someone who is susceptible to influence could find it harder to resist peer pressure. Conversely, someone who is headstrong and comfortable with who they are might have an easier time saying no.
People who’ve endured trauma are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. This is often due to the person attempting to self-medicate rather than seek professional help. Trauma recovery isn’t for the faint of heart, and many people would rather escape than face the pain.
Unfortunately, this often creates a downward spiral. Out-of-control behaviors with alcohol increase the risk of more traumatic situations. This creates even more pain the person will need to deal with. Not only must they face the original traumas, but they’ll also have guilt over the mistakes they made while drunk.
Even if a person doesn’t have a history of trauma, they still might be dealing with psychological conditions that cause a great deal of pain. People with social anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder are all at higher risk of developing alcoholism. The person may self-medicate through alcohol. The symptoms of the disorder may affect their ability to assess risk or gauge how their drinking affects themselves or others.
Research has shown people who had bariatric surgery are at greater risk for developing alcoholism. The risk was higher for those who drank at least two drinks per week prior to the surgery. The surgery alters the way the body metabolizes alcohol. A smaller amount will have a more powerful effect, and the person will remain intoxicated for a longer period of time.
Age When Alcohol Consumption Began
People who begin drinking as children or young teens will have a harder time quitting and a higher likelihood of developing a physical dependency.
Society and Culture
Alcohol is one of the only physically addictive substances that’s considered acceptable in most cultures. A person struggling with alcohol use disorder will encounter their substance of choice every time they go to a restaurant, concert, or social gathering. Even a trip to the grocery store comes with temptation.
Not only is the prevalence of drinking hard on alcoholics, but it also normalizes drinking in general. This leads to the false belief that it’s a safe and reasonable way to unwind.
People in high-stress jobs are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder. Unsurprisingly, bartenders have a higher risk. As do some blue-collar workers, such as landscapers and construction workers. A variety of factors influence this, including the aforementioned stress levels and the prevalence of drinking culture in the job itself.
Help for Substance Use Disorder: It’s Never too Late to Change Course
When you arrive at Long Island Treatment Center, you’ll meet a team of compassionate professionals who are ready to help you achieve wellness. With a world-class facility conveniently located in Long Island, we make it easy to get the help you need. It takes strength to face your addiction and believe that a healthier and happier future is possible. We are here to support you every step of the way.
If you or someone you love is exhibiting symptoms of alcohol use disorder, please contact us now. Our team is waiting to guide you through the next steps of the recovery process.