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What Are The Causes And Risk Factors Of Alcohol Use Disorders?

The legality and accessibility of alcohol have made it the most popular mind-altering substance in nearly every modern society. However, overconsumption of alcohol can lead to serious consequences, including alcohol use disorders (AUD). The development of alcoholism in any individual is the result of a complex interaction between many causes and risk factors.

What Is An Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcoholism, is a chronic, neurobiological disease. If drinking disrupts major areas of someone’s life, or if they’ve tried to quit, but failed, they may be suffering from an AUD. Depending on differences in body type or tolerance, two people could drink completely different amounts of alcohol and react similarly.

As with other diseases, there are risk factors associated with the development of alcohol use disorders or other addictions. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Genetic predispositions to addiction.
  • Certain brain characteristics that can make someone more vulnerable to addictive substances than the average person.
  • Psychological factors, such as stress, personality traits (such as high impulsivity or sensation seeking, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, personality and other psychiatric disorders).
  • Environmental influences (e.g., exposure to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or trauma, substance use or addiction in the family or among peers, access to an addictive substance; exposure to popular culture references that encourage substance use).
  • Beginning to use alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs at an early age.
  • Poverty and lack of parental guidance.

There is no single set of causes and risk factors that definitively lead to the development of an AUD in every person. However, there are circumstances and behaviors that predispose people to this disorder. Only strict abstinence from alcohol rules out any risks, but 86.3% of people above the age of 18 in the US have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives.

Genetic Makeup

When drinking alcohol, the body tries to break it down through metabolization. That process requires enzymes that interact with the alcohol to reduce it to components that the body can process. During metabolization, the toxic chemical acetaldehyde is created. This chemical causes nausea, flushed face, heart palpitations, and difficulty breathing effectively. In many cases, another set of enzymes breaks down acetaldehyde into acetate and then into carbon dioxide and water, but some people lack the second set of necessary enzymes.

The lack of this enzyme is most common among individuals of East Asian and Jewish descent, and can lead to more acute, unpleasant consequences from drinking. People with these genes are less likely to develop an AUD than people who more quickly metabolize acetaldehyde.

For those people with sufficient enzymes, especially those with an abundance of the enzyme, the effects of alcohol consumption may be less pronounced. This often enables them to drink more alcohol with fewer obvious consequences. However, behavioral scientists are in agreement that the nature of a person’s environment contributes as much, if not more, to their risk of alcoholism.


Research by developmental psychologists continues to uncover the long-lasting effects of circumstances during the formative years of someone’s life. Parental behavior has a large impact on children. If one or both parents suffers from an AUD or another substance use disorder (SUD), the child is put at greater risk for developing their own AUD as they age.

People who have experienced violence, emotional abuse, or other traumas are often profoundly affected. These issues, if serious enough, can leave lasting psychological effects. Often, mood disorders like depression and anxiety can form under these types of pressure, and research shows that people dealing with mental health issues have a significantly increased chance to develop an alcohol use disorder.

A 2011 study found that the likelihood of developing depression or alcoholism doubles when the other condition is present. This relationship could explain why children growing up in traumatic situations often turn to alcohol. Leaning on substances like alcohol as a means of escaping issues can form risky drinking behaviors that lead to an AUD if unchecked.

Risky Drinking Patterns

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established guidelines for what a “drink” is defined as.

  • Beer: 12-ounces, 1 can of beer (5% alcohol content)
  • Malt Liquor: 8-ounces (7% alcohol content)
  • Wine: 5-ounces, 1 glass (12% alcohol content)
  • Distilled Spirits: 1.5-ounces, 1 shot (40% alcohol content)

Excessive Drinking

Excessive drinking refers to a type of drinking that may lead to health consequences if it becomes habitual. If someone drinks to excess by these standards, it doesn’t automatically qualify them for an AUD, it just indicates a risky behavior. The CDC uses adult men and women of drinking age as the defining groups for these types of excessive drinking. They consider any underage or pre-natal drinking to be excessive no matter the volume.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking refers to consuming a high volume of alcohol in one sitting rather than long-term consumption habits. The tendency to consume large amounts of alcohol at once is most popular between the ages 18-34. This age coincides with many people entering into college, where alcohol availability and drinking culture usually change drastically. This type of drinking is more common among men.  On average, male bodies are larger than female bodies, allowing for a larger total volume of alcohol to be consumed.

For men, binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in under two hours.  For women, binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks in under two hours.

Heavy Drinking

While binge drinking focuses on the amount of alcohol drank at one time, heavy drinking takes place over a larger time period. The CDC defines this type of drinking in the scale of a week. These numbers can be multiplied by four to understand a month’s worth or by 52 for a year.

For men, heavy drinking is defined as having 15 drinks in a week. For women, heavy drinking is defined as having 8 drinks in one week.

Reaching Out

There are risky behaviors and situations that predispose people to abusing alcohol. If you or a loved one are using alcohol as a means to escape trauma, cope with mental illness, or feel normal, seek help today. The first step is often the hardest, but with the proper care and support you can leave alcohol behind. Contact a treatment provider today to find out more about available treatment options.

  • Author: Krystina Murray | Last Updated: September 30, 2021

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    Krystina Murray

    Digital Content Writer

    Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University. She has over 7 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 17 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, cooking, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.

  • Medical Reviewer: Theresa Parisi

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