People may abuse alcohol and develop alcoholism for numerous reasons, including chemical cravings, genetic risk factors, family and peer influences, and mental health issues.
When a person develops an alcohol use disorder10, the clinical term1 for an addiction, they will continue to drink even when they experience serious consequences from alcohol abuse. This leads many people to wonder, “Why do alcoholics drink?” The answer to this question is multifaceted, as there are numerous reasons a person may continue to consume alcohol despite negative side effects.
Physical Causes of Alcoholism
When a person repeatedly abuses alcohol, they can become dependent upon the substance, leading1 to the development of alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. Dependence is one of the physical causes2 of alcoholism. When a person becomes dependent upon a substance like alcohol, the body adapts to the substance and does not function the same without it.
Drinking To Avoid Withdrawal Symptoms
Once the body becomes dependent on alcohol, a person will likely continue to drink in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms. When someone with an alcohol use disorder stops drinking, they can experience3 some or all of these alcohol withdrawal symptoms:
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
Continuously drinking prevents someone with alcoholism from experiencing these unpleasant symptoms. In some cases, it may be dangerous for someone to abruptly stop drinking, as withdrawal can lead to seizures and a potentially fatal condition called delirium tremens.
Strong alcohol cravings can lead a person to drink when they have an alcohol use disorder. Neuroscience research5 suggests that people experience alcohol cravings because alcohol increases levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which has a pleasurable effect. Because of dopamine, the brain remembers the intense pleasure associated with alcohol, leading a person to crave it.
Chemical Causes of Alcoholism
Since dopamine is associated6 with pleasure, it is one of the chemical causes of alcohol use disorder. When a person experiences a rush of pleasure from drinking, they will continue to drink in order to achieve that same pleasurable effect. Over time, as a tolerance develops, a person will need larger quantities of alcohol to experience the same rewarding effects from dopamine.
Dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter or brain chemical linked to alcohol abuse. Neuroscientists have found6 that several neurotransmitters play a role in alcohol addiction, such as:
- Serotonin: This neurotransmitter is linked to mood and sleep.
- GABA: The body’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter has a calming effect on the body. When a person consumes alcohol, GABA levels are increased, leading them to repeatedly drink to receive the same calming effects.
- Glutamate: alcohol blocks6 the activity of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. The reduction in glutamate serves as a positive reinforcement for drinking. When a person dependent on alcohol stops drinking, glutamate activity increases, which is thought to cause unpleasant alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Emotional Causes of Alcoholism
In addition to chemical processes that lead to alcoholism, a person may develop an alcohol addiction for emotional reasons.
Drinking as a Coping Mechanism
Some people may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with sadness or other unpleasant emotions. If they do not have other healthy coping mechanisms, they may develop an alcohol addiction after repeated alcohol use. Keep in mind that the dopamine rush6 that occurs with alcohol use makes drinking very pleasurable, so people having trouble coping with painful emotions may be especially vulnerable to alcoholism.
Self-Medication for Underlying Mental Health Issues
When a person has both an addiction and a mental health disorder, it is referred to7 as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse7 explains, about half of people who have an addiction will also have a mental health condition at some point during their lives.
Research8 has shown that depression is the most common mental health diagnosis among those with an alcohol use disorder, and people with an alcohol addiction are over two times more likely to have depression. Alcohol can serve as a method of self-medication for people who have depression or symptoms of another mental health disorder.
Self-Medication for Stress
Since alcohol increases levels6 of the neurotransmitter GABA, which has a calming effect on the body, it can provide a form of stress relief. Those who have high-stress lifestyles or repeatedly use alcohol to cope with stress are at risk of addiction because, with repeated alcohol abuse, they are more likely to develop a dependence.
Social and Environmental Causes of Alcoholism
The environment surrounding a person during childhood and at other times of life can increase the risk of an alcohol use disorder.
Easy Access to Alcohol
People who have easy access to alcohol, such as from parents or older friends, are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Experts report1 that adolescents who begin drinking prior to age 15 are at a significantly greater risk of developing an alcohol addiction when compared to those who do not drink until age 21. Teens who can easily access alcohol are more likely to drink at a young age, and therefore, at a greater risk of becoming addicted.
Peer Pressure From Friends
Peers can influence the way teens feel about alcohol, and studies9 have shown that being around peers who use alcohol leads to a more positive viewpoint of drinking. Peers can therefore influence a person to begin drinking or abusing alcohol.
Peer Pressure From Media
When alcohol is portrayed in a glamorous fashion in movies and on TV, teens may be more compelled to drink. The media frequently shows images of people engaging in binge drinking and even makes light of drinking to the point of intoxication, but this behavior increases the risk10 of alcohol addiction.
Family and Home Life
Several factors9 related to family and home life can lead to alcohol abuse and an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. For example, growing up in a family that condones alcohol abuse can cause a person to develop positive views of alcohol and increase their risk of alcohol addiction. Being raised in a home with parents or siblings who struggle with alcohol addiction can also normalize alcohol abuse and lead to alcoholism. Finally, having parents who are accepting of alcohol consumption or are unlikely to become upset if their child consumes alcohol increases the risk of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Biological Causes of Alcoholism
Some people are at an increased risk of alcoholism because of genetic factors. A review11 of 12 different adoption and twin studies found that genetics explain roughly 50% of alcohol use disorder development, showing a strong link between alcoholism and genetics. This means that the other 50% is up to environmental factors, and many experts believe1 that people develop alcoholism because of the interaction between genetic and environmental risk factors.
Interestingly, genetics can influence the way certain neurotransmitters function in the body, leading to an increased risk of alcoholism. For instance, genetic variations6 associated with dopamine can increase a person’s sensitivity to the rewarding effects of alcohol, which also increases the risk of addiction. Having mutations in genes involved in serotonin processing has also been found6 to increase the risk of alcohol addiction.
Can Alcoholism Be Prevented?
While numerous factors can increase a person’s risk of abusing alcohol and developing an alcohol use disorder, the condition can be prevented, even for people with risk factors. Drinking in moderation, which is defined as10 two drinks or fewer per day for men and one drink or less for women, reduces the risk of an alcohol use disorder.
Alcoholism can also be prevented by managing risk and protective factors. This can mean choosing friends who do not abuse alcohol, becoming involved in productive activities like sports and seeking treatment for mental health issues. Parents can reduce their teens’ risk of alcohol abuse by avoiding drinking in excess, providing appropriate supervision and talking to their children about the risks of alcohol abuse.
Treatment for Alcoholism in New Jersey
If you are living with an alcohol addiction, there is help available. The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper provides comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment, including inpatient and outpatient rehab, in the South Jersey and Philadelphia area.
Our treatment facilities are staffed by credentialed addiction professionals who recognize addiction as a mental illness and believe that anyone can recover with quality, evidence-based treatment. They are prepared to provide you with an individualized treatment plan that meets your unique needs and addresses co-occurring mental health conditions like depression. Contact us today to begin the admissions process.
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- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: […]ide (Third Edition).” December 2, 2020. Accessed October 7, 2022.
- Newman, Richard; Stobart Gallagher, Megan; & Gomez, Anna. “Alcohol withdrawal.” National Library of Medicine, November 13, 2021. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- Addolorato, Giovanni; Leggio, Lorenzo; Ludovico, Abenavoli; & Gasbarrinion, Giovanni.
- “Neurobiochemical and clinical aspects of[…]addiction: A review.” Addictive Behaviors, July 2005. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- Banerjee, Niladri. “Neurotransmitters in alcoholism: A revie[…]and genetic studies.” Indian Journal of Human Genetics, 2014. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and[…]Illnesses DrugFacts.” August 1, 2018. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- McHugh, R. Kathryn & Weiss, Roger D. “Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders.” Alcohol Research, 2019. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- Smit, Koen; Voogt, Carmen; Hiemstra, Marieke; Kleinjan, Marloes; Otten, Roy; & Kuntsche, Emmanuel. “Development of alcohol expectancies and […] A systematic review.” Clinical Psychology Review, March 2018. Accessed May 28, 2022.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” Accessed May 28, 2022.
- Verhulst, B; Neale, MC; &Kendler, KS. “The heritability of alcohol use disorder[…]nd adoption studies.” Psychological Medicine, August 29, 2014. Accessed May 28, 2022.
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