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What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

There are many different causes of alcohol addiction (also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder). Much like mental illnesses, it can be rather difficult to pinpoint precisely what it is that instigates the onset; is it a personality disposition issue? Is it the environment in which one is raised? Is it simply genetic and thus, in many situations, unavoidable? Research has shown that all of the above are true; alcohol addiction has root causes in genetic, psychological, social, and environmental factors.

What Is The Relationship Between Genetics And Alcohol Addiction?

Many studies have shown a correlation between genetic predisposition and alcoholism. In 2011, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that children born to parents suffering from alcoholism are 4 times as likely to develop the disorder at some point in their lives. However, it is difficult to ascertain if it was solely the genetic component or if environmental factors played a role, too.

In research done on twins and adopted children, scientists have learned that genetics are certainly notable, but not entirely conclusive. Adopted children are more likely to be predisposed to alcoholism if their biological parents struggled with alcohol versus their adoptive guardians and in the case of twins, it varies slightly between monozygotic (identical, sharing all the same genes) and dizygotic (fraternal, sharing only half of their DNA). A study in the mid-1990s found that approximately 2/3s of the risk for alcoholism is genetic based on research collected from both male and female twins.

The other piece, the one that slightly complicates the research and its feasibility, is the environment in which one is raised; thus, nature vs. nurture, or, more accurately, nature and nurture.

The study of the cross-section between these two factors is called “epigenetics” and essentially seeks to examine how behaviors, environmental conditions, and other external forces can cause changes to genetic functioning. Though epigenetic changes are not permanent, they can be passed down to children; research suggests that while traits might not be coded in the genetic structure of DNA, some gene expression can still be inherited.

Are There Specific Genes That Cause Alcohol Addiction?

Considering the human body is made up of 20,000 genes, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which ones directly cause addiction. There are, however, two genes (ALDH2 and ADH1B) that scientists believe contribute to the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Both alcohol dehydrogenase 1B (ADH1B) and aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) help the body metabolize alcohol. Broadly, these enzymes convert the ethanol to acetaldehyde; a compound more easily broken down and digested by the body. However, there are numerous mutations to these genes that can alter the way the body responds to the substance, but because only certain populations carry these variations, the research is significantly understudied.

What Are Other Causes Of Alcohol Addiction?

Genetics, environment, and social groups all play into the likelihood of whether or not someone will develop a dependance or eventual addiction. The following list (though not exclusive or exhaustive) provides several risk factors for an alcohol use disorder:

  • Family history: Due to the genetic factor, the risk of addiction is greater in those with relatives who have a complicated relationship with alcohol.
  • Starting to drink at a young age: Individuals who begin consuming alcohol at a young age, particularly if it is in high quantities such as binge drinking have a greater likelihood of becoming addicted down the line.
  • Steady drinking over extended periods of time: Consuming large amounts of alcohol over time can eventually lead to an alcohol use disorder.
  • Personal history of mental illness: Those with already established mental conditions suffer a greater risk of self-medicating and becoming dependent on various substances like alcohol.
  • History of hardship or trauma: The risk of addiction is higher in those who have experienced any sort of traumatic event.
  • Social/Cultural components: The cultural and social setting as well as the general environment in which one lives also plays a huge role in the likelihood of developing an addiction.

My Parent Suffers From Alcoholism; What Can I Do?

Just because it “runs in the family” does not mean you are staring down a life sentence of doom. There are countless support groups like Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA) who aim to address the trauma of early years or Al-Anon, an organization dedicated to assisting and supporting family members of those suffering from addiction. Therapy is another great tool, especially if you are starting to worry about your own alcohol consumption or would simply like advice and guidance on ways to avoid walking the same path. Contact a treatment provider today and they will assist you in finding your next move.

If you wish to speak with a parent, guardian or other loved one about their alcohol use, but don’t know where to start, try centering yourself in the conversation and explain to them your concerns without assigning blame. Read more about how to handle a parent’s alcohol addiction here.

Get Help Today

It is all too easy to feel alone and alienated when lost in the depths of the mind. It’s important to remember that no one is beyond hope; you must simply look around, find your support system, and take the first step. Whether you or someone you love suffers from an alcohol addiction or you know you have a family history, recovery is possible. Reach out to a treatment provider today to learn more.

  • Author: Hannah Zwemer | Last Updated: July 27, 2022

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    Hannah Zwemer

    Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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