Are you concerned that you or a loved one may be suffering with alcohol abuse? Alcohol addiction is an extremely difficult condition to live with, deeply impacting everyone involved. While you should always get an official diagnosis from a certified health practitioner, it’s important to thoroughly educate yourself on alcohol addiction, its causes, and how the condition can be managed.
Not everyone who drinks has an addiction problem. Women who consume no more than one drink a day (or seven drinks a week) and men who consume no more than two drinks a day (or 14 drinks a week) are functioning within an acceptable drinking range. It’s when individuals exceed these quantities that there is cause for concern, especially when consumption occurs over a short period of time. Women who drink more than four alcoholic beverages and men who drink more than five alcoholic beverages in approximately two hours are considered to be binge drinking, which is particularly dangerous and life-threatening.
If you or someone you know regularly demonstrates drinking habits that exceed acceptable daily or weekly intake ranges, participates in binge drinking, or has found alcohol to be the cause of distress and damage in life, addiction may be a contributing factor.
What is Addiction/AUD?
Alcohol use disorder, often referred to as AUD, is a medically diagnosed, chronic relapsing brain disease that causes those impacted to compulsively crave and consume alcohol. It often negatively impacts daily life and makes participation in unsafe activities and behaviors far more likely. The condition also frequently results in an inability to control alcohol intake, which eventually leads to emotional and physical dependencies. Every case is different, symptom classifications ranging from mild, moderate, to severe and including the following:
Because AUD is an indiscriminant disease that can impact anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, body type, and personal beliefs, it should be taken very seriously. In fact, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH) reports that approximately 16 million people in the United States suffer from some level of AUD and estimate that there are 88,000 alcohol-related deaths annually. This makes inappropriate alcohol consumption the third leading cause of preventable death in the nation. While accidental death (car accidents, falls, drownings, suicide, etc.) constitutes a large percentage of these fatalities, there are several other alcohol-related contributors as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol consumption also causes higher susceptibility to:
Mental and physical symptoms develop differently for everyone. Some may notice the impacts of alcohol almost immediately, while others may not show signs of dependency for years.
Despite the large number of cases, the specific cause of AUD has yet to be identified. There are a number of factors that affect the development of alcohol addiction, but none are solely responsible for it. Here are three of the most common influences associated with AUD:
Genetics and heredity play a significant role in addiction and account for 40 to 60 percent of a person’s risk of developing alcohol abuse problems.2
Social – Social interactions, especially those that occur early in life and with family, can greatly influence a person’s outlook on drinking, as well as their predisposition to alcohol addiction.
Psychological – Past trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can make individuals more susceptible to alcohol addiction due to an “escapism” mentality; people may become dependent overtime because the body relies on alcohol to curb emotional suffering.
What Does the Research Say?
While AUD can develop due to social and psychological influences, this article focuses primarily on the impact of genetics and heredity. The biology of alcohol addiction is complex and incomplete, resulting in a lot of debate over the role genes play in AUD. Dr. George Koob, the director of NIH, states that, “As with heart disease or diabetes, there’s no one gene that makes you vulnerable” to alcoholism.4 It’s generally accepted, however, that genetic factors do influence the development of AUD.3 This means that if you have family members who struggle with inappropriate alcohol use, you may be at a higher risk of alcohol addiction as well.
Research shows that children of alcoholics are at an increased risk of future alcohol abuse.3 In fact, studies conducted on twins and children of alcoholics show they are up to four times more susceptible to AUD than children with parents who don’t suffer from alcohol addiction.3 This finding carries significant weight, as there are millions of individuals in the United States alone who have a history of alcoholism in their families.3
It’s important to note, however, that having one or multiple family members with AUD doesn’t mean you, or your children, are going to struggle with alcohol use and abuse as well. While having alcoholic parents may increase the risk of alcoholism, over half of children of alcoholics never develop AUD.3 This may be due to genetics playing only a partial role in alcoholism, as environmental factors influence the condition as well.
The first concrete evidence that genes impact alcohol abuse was discovered by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a division of the United State Department of Energy, in October of 2010.1 Their study also found “that the effects of chronic alcohol consumption on brain chemistry are critically influenced by an individual’s pre-existing genetic makeup.”1 Panayotis Thanos, one of the leading neuroscientists involved in the research, explains that their “findings may help explain how someone’s genetic profile can interact with the environment…to produce these changes only in some individuals, but not in others.”1 This accounts for why influences outside of genetics can have such a significant impact on addiction. Some genetic profiles are simply more apt to respond to chronic drinking, whereas other profiles result in decreased vulnerability to AUD.
Additionally, many studies have found that different genes affect different components of alcoholism. Dr. Boris Tabakoff of the University of Colorado-Denver conducted substantial research on genetic pathways utilizing both human and rat test subjects.2 He and his team assert that, “The genetic factors that contribute to the full range of alcohol consumption versus alcohol dependence in humans are distinct.”2
A tendency for higher alcohol consumption often correlates with alcohol dependency but, biologically, these two facets of the disease are controlled by different gene sets. In even simpler terms, some genes influence the amount of alcohol a person is likely to consume, while other genes influence the likelihood that a dependency will develop. In theory, a person can have AUD even if they possess genes that predispose them to drink moderately as long as they also possess genes that predispose them to lose control of alcohol consumption easily. This accounts for at least some of the extreme variance between people and their individual responses to alcohol and dependence tendencies, regardless of a history of alcoholism in their family.
While information regarding genetics and heredity is often easily confused, there are important distinctions between the two you should be aware of. These factors are indeed closely linked, as children obviously receive genes passed down from their parents. For the purposes of alcohol addiction research, however, it’s best to approach genetics and heredity as two separate areas of study. There is still significant debate over whether AUD is a result of sets of genes that carry a predisposition to consumption and dependency or if it’s a hereditary disease stemming from mutations some inherited genes are more prone to.
How Do Genes Contribute to Alcoholism?
Genes are passed from parent to child and several genes have already been identified as having an association with alcohol dependency. As stated previously, genetics account for approximately 50 percent of a person’s inclination to develop AUD.2 This is why children of addicts are significantly more likely to develop alcohol abuse problems.
It isn’t only genes that dictate drinking tendencies and control that impact susceptibility, however. Research has shown that drinking behavior is also linked to genes involved in neuronal pathway development. These genes deal with the behavior control, stress-resistance, pleasure, and reward aspects of alcohol consumption, which are often the culprits for addiction and withdrawal.2
While some people are genetically predisposed to experience the negative aspects of drinking (nausea, vomiting, overheating, mood swings, etc.) more prominently, others have genetic makeups that result in consumption being more pleasurable. Those who fall in the second group are far more likely to develop AUD because their genes are tricking their brains into believing drinking alcohol makes them “feel good.” This often leads to higher alcohol tolerance and, consequently, the need for more alcohol overtime to continue producing the same sense of pleasure. Letting this cycle progress unattended will ultimately result in the development of mental and physical withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is no longer regularly consumed.
Heredity and Alcoholism
The link between heredity and alcoholism is complex and requires significantly more research. Unlike genetic diseases that are a result of specific gene sets passed from parent to child, heredity diseases are mutations that impact certain genes that have been passed down through the generations. Scientists are still assessing the impact this has on alcoholism and addiction.
Whether AUD is a result of a genetic mutation or not, it’s obvious that children of alcoholics are more prone to developing unsafe drinking tendencies in the future. The risk of alcohol abuse increases exponentially when paired with other environmental influences. These influences include, but are not limited to:
It’s important to realize, however, that a history of AUD in your family doesn’t guarantee you or your children will become alcoholics. While you and your loved ones may be at greater risk, it’s also possible you never struggle with addiction at all. If you know that there’s a history of alcohol abuse in your family, being aware of your alcohol consumption is important. Genetics and heredity don’t guarantee that you’ll develop the condition, but there are a couple precautionary measures you may want to take.
Avoid drinking at an early age. Not only is consuming alcohol before the age of 21 illegal, it also increases the risk of AUD. Research has found a direct correlation between underage drinking and alcohol abuse in the future.3
Practice drinking in moderation. If you plan to consume alcohol, make sure you do so responsibly. This means up to a single drink a day for women or up to two drinks a day for men. Drinking more than this on a regular basis will put you at greater risk of developing AUD in the future.
Help Managing AUD
Do you think you or a loved one may already have AUD? Answer these questions as an informal assessment. In the past year, have you:
Don’t waste time speculating. If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may have AUD and you should seek assistance from a primary healthcare specialist as soon as possible. He or she will assess your risk for alcohol addiction and design an individualized plan for treatment. The earlier this process begins, the sooner you or your loved one can start down the road to recovery.
Regardless of the duration or severity of AUD, research shows that receiving treatment increases the potential for recovery. It’s important to note, however, that no two recovery plans are ever the same. After an official diagnosis is made, your healthcare practitioner will likely prescribe a combination of therapy, medicine, and mutual-support group sessions to curb the urge to consume and alter inappropriate drinking behaviors.
Living with AUD isn’t easy but finding help is. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, reach out to an addiction helpline or treatment specialist today.