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Causes Of Alcoholism

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There is no one cause for alcoholism. Rather, genetic and environmental influences, and the way these two factors interact with each other, influence a person’s risk for alcohol addiction.

In addition to biological factors that influence alcoholism, additional risk factors exist, and could include a person’s mental, emotional and physical health; upbringing and social experiences. Engaging in harmful patterns of alcohol consumption, such as binge or heavy drinking, may also increase the odds that person develop alcohol addiction.

Alcoholism often runs in families, however, having a close family member who is an alcoholic does not necessarily mean that a person will become addicted. If this is the case, though, a person should be conscientious about how and when they drink, as they may be more vulnerable to alcohol’s addictive properties.

Alcohol addiction can take time to develop, but when it does, a person’s life can be radically changed from the effects of drinking. Research has found that roughly 10 to 15 percent of people who are exposed to alcohol go on to experience alcohol-related problems. Alcohol dependence can cause severe withdrawal, overdose (alcohol poisoning), serious physical and mental health problems, a declining quality of life and problems within the job or home.

Fortunately, evidence-based treatments for alcohol addiction exist. This comprehensive care addresses the underlying social, behavioral, biological and psychological factors that contribute to and result from addiction. Through a combination of treatments, such as medications and behavioral therapies, a person could regain a sober, healthier life.

Family History: Genetic Causes Of Alcoholism

Research has found that a person’s genes are responsible for roughly half of the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Even then, while inherited genes can influence the likelihood of an alcohol use disorder, other factors do influence a person’s risk.

Alcoholism frequently runs in families, and because of this, the genetic disposition for alcoholism is sometimes referred to as an “alcoholism gene.” However, research has found that there is no one gene responsible for alcohol addiction.


Instead, scientists believe it’s a combination of genes that cause this risk. Individuals with a genetic risk factor for addiction may be more apt to develop an alcohol use disorder if they also struggle with social, environmental or psychological influences that are tied to addiction.

How Alcohol Changes A Person’s Brain: The Neurobiology Of Addiction

Alcoholism is a disease. This chronic disease affects the way a person’s brain reward, motivation and memory function. These changes can alter the way a person interacts with alcohol, leading to compulsive patterns of alcohol seeking and using that continue despite harm the alcohol is causing to a person’s life and health.

The way addiction changes a person’s brain could affect a person’s impulse control, judgment and their sense of reward. Some people will continue to pursue the sense of reward and pleasure alcohol creates even when they know it’s hurting their brain, body or relationships.

A recent Science study found that a signaling problem in the amygdala, a region of the brain, may disrupt a person’s motivational control. It’s believed this problem affects the brain’s ability to clear away GABA, a neurotransmitter. Scientists theorize that this causes a person to have a high motivation to drink alcohol, even in the face of harm.

Alcohol Use Can Lead To Alcoholism

Harmful patterns of alcohol use, such as binge and heavy drinking, can accelerate into alcohol addiction. As a person uses alcohol in these quantities and ways, they may begin to crave the pleasurable effect they encounter when drinking, leading them to drink again. Eventually these feelings could become compulsive as use becomes addiction.

Some people who drink in these ways can begin to develop a tolerance. When this happens, they may find that the amount they once consumed doesn’t create the feelings they desire. To overcome this, a person may increase the amount they drink, a behavior which ups the potential for addiction.


The greater the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption, the greater the risk for addiction. The following patterns of alcohol use can lead to addiction:

Binge Drinking And Alcohol Addiction

One of the greatest dangers of binge drinking is the fact that it is an acceptable behavior in many social circles, especially on college campuses. Despite this, binge drinking is very dangerous and could place a person closer to addiction.

Binge drinking occurs when a:

  • woman drinks four or more drinks in approximately two hours.
  • man drinks five or more drinks in approximately two hours.

Heavy Or “At-Risk” Drinking And Alcohol Addiction

Heavy alcohol use occurs when a person binge drinks five or more days in one month. Additionally, heavy or “at-risk” drinking happens when a:

  • woman drinks three or more drinks in one day or seven or more over the course of a week.
  • man drinks four or more drinks in one day or 14 or more over the course of a week.

Approximately 25 percent of people who surpass these guidelines currently have an alcohol use disorder. Further, in people who have:

  • one heavy drinking day a month, two out of 10 have an alcohol use disorder.
  • one heavy drinking day per week, three out of 10 have have an alcohol use disorder.
  • two or more heavy drinking days per week, five out of 10 have an alcohol use disorder.

In addition to a heightened risk for alcohol addiction, these destructive patterns of drinking can increase the odds of other serious health problems, including overdose, mental illness, cardiac complications and organ damage.

Drinking At Young Ages Can Increase The Risk Of Alcoholism

While drinking at any age can be dangerous and lead a person to addiction, drinking at younger ages places a person at a greater risk of struggling with an alcohol use disorder down the road.

The younger a person drinks, the higher the likelihood they will have an alcohol use disorder as they age. This is especially true if an adolescents or teens binge drink.

Drinking To Cope Can Cause Alcohol Addiction

Certain people may begin and continue to drink as a means of coping with negative or dysfunctional psychological states, such as:

  • anger
  • guilt
  • grief
  • impulsiveness
  • loneliness
  • low self-esteem
  • a need for approval

By using alcohol to overcome emotional distress and to produce a positive mood, a person may be at risk for addiction. In certain cases these psychological traits or feelings may be symptoms of a more serious mental health problem.

Mental Health Problems And Their Link To Alcoholism

Mood and anxiety disorders are frequently tied to alcohol addiction. Quite often, as symptoms of a mental illness remain untreated or become unbearable, a person turns to alcohol to reduce these states.


Self-medicating with alcohol can actually aggravate or cause certain symptoms of mental illness. In turn, a person may continue to drink, forming a vicious cycle that can cause addiction.

While any mental health problem could dispose a person to addiction, the following mental illnesses have been linked to an increased risk for alcohol addiction:

  • antisocial personality disorder
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • panic disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • schizophrenia
  • social anxiety disorder (social phobia)

When a person has both a mental health and alcohol use disorder (a co-occurring disorder) their treatment needs generally become more complicated. Though treatment may be more intensive, recovery from a co-occurring disorder is possible. Dual diagnosis treatment treats both conditions so that a person has the greatest possibility for a strong and stable recovery.

Traumatic Experiences Can Be Linked To Addiction

Past or present traumatic experiences, as either a child or adult, can be risk factors for alcohol use, including:

  • child maltreatment
  • child neglect
  • emotional use
  • physical use
  • sexual abuse

As a person tries to cope with mental and emotional pain and/or mental illness caused by these situations, alcohol use may become tempting. Without addressing the these traumatic circumstances, alcohol use could accelerate into chronic drinking patterns.

Social, Environmental And Cultural Factors

A person’s environment and the way they experience social and cultural influences can alter the way they perceive alcohol use. These elements could contribute to more frequent episodes of drinking and may include:

  • easy access to alcohol
  • friends or partners drink
  • the desire to fit in
  • peer pressure
  • poverty
  • how alcohol use is glamorized in the media
  • watching parents, peers or other role models drink

Additional Risk Factors For Alcoholism

Circumstances and relationships within a person’s day-to-day life can also act as risk factors for addiction, including:

Job Or Career Struggles

Difficulties within a job or loss of a job are major reasons why many people drink. After a rough day at work, a person may get in the habit of having a drink. As time goes on, this habit can become hard to break, setting the stage for what may develop into addictive behaviors.


Relationship Conflicts

Marriage troubles, divorce or other problems with a significant other or partner can trigger alcohol use and continued patterns of heavy drinking. Without help, these unresolved problems and dysfunctional relationships can continue to trigger alcohol use.


Stress frequently leads to addiction. In addition to this, stress is a major trigger for relapse.

Individuals who don’t have healthy coping methods to manage stress may turn to alcohol to relieve stress or to deal with stressful situations. Overtime, this can lead to increasingly frequent bouts of drinking, patterns that can then foster addiction.

Difficulty Asking For Help

Many people who struggle with an existing alcohol use disorder may feel ashamed of their drinking. This may lead them to hide their problem, become embarrassed or avoid conversations about it.

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In doing so, they may put up a wall between themselves and the people who care about them, people who could assist them in getting help. This, and denial, may also make it difficult for them to discuss their problem with a professional who could guide them towards treatment options.

Getting Treatment For Alcohol Addiction

No matter the path to addiction, help exists.

The best treatments for alcoholism address each person’s unique needs and history. This individualized treatment adapts therapies to address the specific ways that addiction has changed a person’s life. Some people may need to go through a medical detox to treat alcohol withdrawal prior to addressing the psychological elements of addiction.

During rehab, a combination of individual, group and family therapies may be used to teach a person how to take better care of themselves and relate to other people in a healthier way. These sessions also work to uproot any negative thoughts, emotions or behaviors that may have caused or resulted from addiction. Inpatient drug rehab is often the better choice for people working to overcome moderate to severe alcohol addiction.

Contact Vertava Health for more information on the causes and treatment of alcohol addiction.