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What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

By  Marta Manning
Learn what factors can make you more likely to develop a severe drinking problem.

What is the root cause of alcohol addiction? There is no easy answer. But certain factors can raise your risk.

Like other addictions, alcoholism—also called alcohol use disorder (AUD)—appeals to the pleasure centers of the brain. When you drink alcohol regularly, your brain begins to associate the drinks with sensations like euphoria, relaxation, and loss of inhibitions. This results in cravings and, in some cases, dependency.

What Causes Alcoholism?

Alcohol triggers your brain to release the reward-system chemical dopamine. This leads your brain to link positive feelings with drinking and motivates you to crave more. It also affects serotonin, which plays a role in things like mood and sleep, says a 2020 study in the Journal of Neuroscience.

As you drink more and addiction takes hold, you will experience less pleasure (develop tolerance), and you may have withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop drinking. Heavy drinkers will begin to drink even more in an attempt to keep withdrawal at bay. 

“Early signs of problem drinking or alcohol misuse can be subtle,” Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research medical director Harshal Kirane, MD, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “For example, starting to prioritize activities that involve alcohol steadily leads to a shift in daily routines and relationships.”

“As drinking becomes more routine, changes in sleep patterns, mood, energy, and interests can signal the onset of early alcohol use disorder,” says Kirane. “For some, this is a critical tipping point, because alcohol intake increases in an attempt to alleviate the very challenges it is creating.”

Who Is at Higher Risk for Alcoholism?

These risk factors can make you more likely become addicted to alcohol:

Genetics and family history. If you have a parent or a close relative with alcohol addiction, your risk goes up. Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Underage drinking. If you start drinking before you’re 15 years old, you may be four times likelier to develop alcohol dependance later in life, the NIAAA says.

Frequent drinking. The Mayo Clinic says drinking alcohol too often or binge drinking can lead to addiction.

Mental health conditions. According to a 2019 review in Lancet Psychiatry, illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder can predispose you to alcohol addiction, especially if you use alcohol to self-medicate.

Trauma history. Traumatic experiences in the past, including childhood abuse, are strongly linked to developing alcoholism later in life, the NIAAA says.

Male gender. Men are more likely than women to become addicted to alcohol. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 9.2 million men and 5.3 million women in the U.S. had an alcohol use disorder.

Social factors. Social and family customs, culture, poor parental support, and peer pressure can play roles in alcohol addiction, the Mayo Clinic says.

Getting Help

Treatments for alcohol dependency can include a combination of: 

Your primary care doctor is your best starting point. They can refer you to a specialist for treatment.

“The best treatment for alcoholism depends on the individual—there is no one right way to achieve and maintain recovery,” says clinical psychologist Aaron Weiner, PhD. “Generally, success involves a mix of professional treatment (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based approaches) and peer-support groups (such as 12-step fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery).”

“The best treatment for alcoholism includes medical detoxification first and foremost if warranted,” says clinical psychologist Lina Haji, PsyD. “Inpatient rehabilitation, including 12-step programming, a support system, structured group and individual treatment, and relapse prevention psychoeducation is very effective.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.