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Article Summary

How Does Someone Become An Alcoholic?

What is an alcohol use disorder or alcoholism? How does someone become an alcoholic? These are questions that you need to answer before you decide whether you need a professional diagnosis and addiction treatment to overcome your dependency on alcohol.

Understanding Alcoholism

Essentially, alcoholism is known by many different terms - including but not limited to alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse. In addiction treatment circles, it is commonly referred to as an alcohol use disorder.

This condition tends to occur when you consume too much alcohol to such an extent that you become dependent on alcohol or even addicted to it. When you get to this point, alcohol could potentially take center stage in your life - over and above everything else.

Additionally, once you develop an alcohol use disorder, you might find that you continue drinking even when the habit has been causing negative consequences in your life - like destroying your relationships with loved ones and colleagues as well as leading you to lose your job. You might also know that your continued consumption has been affecting your life in negative ways even though this won't be enough to make you stop drinking.

Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, refers to drinking alcohol to a point where it starts causing problems in your life even if you are not yet physically dependent on it.

Causes Of Alcoholism

A good way to get answers to the "how does someone become an alcoholic?" question is to understand the causes of alcoholism. Essentially, the main cause of this substance use disorder is not yet known. What is known, however, is that you might develop an alcohol use disorder when you consume so much that it causes chemical changes to occur in your brain.

In many cases, these changes will involve an increase in the pleasurable effects of drinking alcohol - effects that could potentially make you want to continue drinking in larger quantities and more regularly than you did before, even if the habit starts causing harm.

With time, these pleasurable effects might start dissipating. This means that you may be forced to continue drinking in a bid to prevent or reduce any withdrawal symptoms that arise. This is because these symptoms tend to be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and - in some cases - dangerous.

That said, alcohol use disorder tends to develop gradually over time. Specialists in the field of the treatment of alcoholism also know that the condition can run in your family and you might be genetically predisposed to it.

Risk Factors For Alcoholism

Even though the exact cause of alcoholism isn't yet known, there are some factors that might increase your risk. These factors include, but are not always limited to:

  • Being a young adult who has been experiencing pressure from your peers to drink
  • Consuming more than 12 alcohol drinks a week (for females)
  • Experiencing high levels of stress
  • Having 15 or more drinks a week (for males)
  • Having a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety, or depression
  • Having a parent who has an alcohol use disorder
  • Having close relatives who are alcoholics
  • Having over 5 drinks a day at least once weekly, or engaging in binge drinking
  • Having relatively low self-esteem
  • Living in a culture or family in which the consumption of alcohol is common, accepted, and allowed

Symptoms Of Alcoholism

If you have been asking the "how does someone become an alcoholic?" question, it is highly likely that you might have the condition. However, the best way to find out is to check if you display some of the symptoms that arise among alcoholics.

These symptoms are based on the physical outcomes and behaviors that might occur when you are dependent on and addicted to alcohol. These symptoms include:

a) Behavioral Symptoms

  • Becoming angry or violent when confronted about your drinking habits
  • Continuing to consume alcohol even when it causes you to suffer economic, social, and legal problems
  • Drinking alone
  • Drinking more alcohol to feel its effects as a result of developing tolerance to it
  • Eating poorly
  • Finding that you are unable to control your consumption of alcohol
  • Giving up on important recreational, social, and occupational activities due to your need to continue drinking
  • Making excuses so that you can drink
  • Missing school or work because you have been drinking
  • Neglecting your personal hygiene
  • Not eating

b) Physical Symptoms

If you have an alcohol use disorder, you might also experience a couple of physical symptoms, including:

  • Contracting illnesses like cirrhosis and alcoholic ketoacidosis (that comes with dehydration-type symptoms)
  • Experiencing intense cravings for alcohol
  • Experiencing tremors (or involuntary shaking) the next morning after you have been drinking
  • Suffering memory lapses (or blacking out) after an intense night of deep drinking
  • Undergoing withdrawal when you are not drinking, including symptoms like vomiting, nausea, and shaking

Self-Testing For Alcohol Abuse

At times, it might be hard for you to differentiate between the safe consumption of alcohol and its abuse. According to Mayo Clinic, you might have an alcohol use disorder if your answers to some of the questions listed below are "yes":

  • Do you feel like the time has come for you to cut back on how much you drink?
  • Do you find that you need to drink more alcohol to feel its effects?
  • Have you been feeling guilty about your consumption of alcohol?
  • Have you ever become violent or irritable while drinking?
  • Have you experienced problems at work, home, or school as a result of your alcohol consumption?

You can also check the website maintained by the NCADD (or the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as well as AlcoholScreening.org for more comprehensive and accurate self-tests to help you determine if you have been abusing alcohol.

Professional Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider or doctor can also diagnose the condition. In many cases, they will conduct a physical examination as well as ask you some questions about how you drink, including:

  • If you drink and drive
  • If you have experienced any blackouts after drinking
  • If you have lost a job or missed work due to your drinking
  • If you need to drink more alcohol to feel its effects
  • If you tried cutting back on how much you drink but were unable to

They may also use questionnaires to check if you have an alcohol use disorder. The answers you provide could help them diagnose the condition and refer you to an appropriate treatment and rehabilitation program.

In many cases, however, diagnosis of alcohol use disorders does not require other types of diagnostic tests. Still, your doctor might conduct blood tests to check how your liver has been functioning - especially if you display any signs and symptoms of liver disease.

This is because alcohol abuse tends to cause serious damage to the liver - damage that is sometimes lasting. The liver works to remove toxins - such as those from alcohol - from the blood. Therefore, drinking too much means that it might have a harder time getting rid of alcohol (and other toxins) from the bloodstream. This could potentially cause liver disease as well as other complications.

The Brain And Alcoholism

Another way to answer the "how does someone become an alcoholic?" question is to check and understand how the brain works. According to recent research on alcohol abuse and addiction, the focus has mostly been on alcohol use and its rewarding effects.

In particular, when you drink, you might experience a mood boost (especially if you have been feeling depressed), euphoria, and a soothing of your fear in case you were feeling anxious.

Additional research also uncovered an important component of substance abuse - the innate inability to learn when you suffer the adverse consequences of excessive alcohol consumption.

For instance, one study that was published in PLUS One focused on examinations of the lateral habenula - a region in your brain. From previous research, it was found that this section is responsible for learning about and from punishments as well as making decisions.

The neurons in this region of the brain are also highly responsive to negative outcomes like painful stimulus and outcomes that were worse than you had anticipated. As such, the habenula associates actions and outcomes - or lack of outcomes. This teaches you how to avoid some actions in the future.

According to the study, scientists destroyed the habenula in rats before measuring their behavioral changes. During the first experiment, they provided every rate with two bottles of water. One of the bottles had clean water while the second one contained water mixed with 20% alcohol (the same as 40 proof drink). They also allowed the rats to drink as much water (from both bottles) as they wanted.

The study findings showed that the rats with damaged lateral habenulae tended to escalate their consumption of alcohol more rapidly. At the end of the study, they had also consumed greater volumes of alcohol.

In a separate experiment, they allowed the rates to drink sugar water (which is highly desirable for rats) before injecting them with strong doses of alcohol to induce sickness. The alcohol content made the rates uncoordinated, nauseated, and sleepy - effects that are also similar for humans.

The normal rats tended to dislike the sensation - which caused them to start avoiding the sugary mixture. The lesioned lateral habenula rates, on the other hand, continued drinking the mixture.

According to the study, therefore, the habenula has been found to be linked to the ability to learn from previous lessons - such as if you experienced a bad drinking session that causes you to reduce how much you drink in your next session. This means that damaged lateral habenula might cause you to never learn from your drinking.

The Balance Of Alcohol Addiction

According to this new theory, addiction is measured by a careful balance. To this end, if you find that alcohol is too rewarding and that overusing it does not cause too many adverse effects, this knowledge might incentivize you to continue drinking. It could also remove any reasons you previously had to stop drinking.

To this end, there is more than just the pleasurable and rewarding effects of drinking alcohol that could determine your motivation to consume alcohol. In fact, the fact could be linked to whether you have experienced any adverse effects from your drinking. This might play a major role in - over time - whether you continue drinking a little or escalate your consumption.

Still, in case there are some differences in the functioning of the lateral habenula in people, it is also important to discover the basis for these differences. They could, for instance, be genetic. If the answers to these questions were discovered, they might prove useful in providing predictive diagnostic testing as well as conceivably predicting who might respond to various forms of addiction treatment.

Social And Genetic Factors For Addiction

Apart from the above study, additional research shows that over 50% of the risk for alcoholism could be linked to a genetic predisposition. This is because genetic factors govern some of the regions of the brain - as well as their growth - including the lateral habenula as well as the parts that are linked with reward.

Even so, alcohol addiction is usually linked to alternative reinforces - referring to the positive things that you can do with your time instead of resorting to drugs of abuse like alcohol.

The alternative reinforces could also determine whether you are going to choose to use drugs or do something else. As such, if your life isn't too pleasant and you don't have anything else to do, then there is a high likelihood that you might start drinking.

On the other hand, if you are in a highly enriched environment where you can have sex, socialize, groom yourself, and do other pleasurable things, then it might be more difficult for you to start self-administering drugs like alcohol.

Additional Risk Factors

More risk factors could be linked to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Consider the following:

a) The Brain

The wiring of your brain, for instance, could partially determine your vulnerability to an alcohol use disorder.

For example, if you lack self-control during your formative years - when you are at a young age - then this might predict your proclivity to abuse substances and have other problems later in your life. This lack can be evaluated - such as by check your response after being asked whether you want one candy in the present or two later one. Similarly, if you have a mental health disorder, you might be more vulnerable to drinking and developing other problems with alcohol.

In particular, poor mental health is an essential risk factor. This is because you might start abusing alcohol while trying to relieve some of the negative symptoms that arise as a result of your poor mental state. For instance, if you have a history of PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder) or trauma, you might resort to drugs like alcohol to avoid your adverse symptoms.

b) Physical Factors

Additionally, physical factors could also play a role in your risk of developing alcoholism. For instance, differences in the enzymes in the liver cause men to have a higher tolerance for alcohol in comparison to women. This means that they are at higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder than women.

c) Racial Background

Your race might also determine your risk for alcoholism. In particular, Asians tend to lack the alcohol digestive enzymes that are common in many Europeans. This causes them to experience more the undesirable side effects of drinking - like flushing and nausea. As a result, they have a lesser likelihood of developing alcoholism.

On the other hand, Native Americans tend to metabolize alcohol slower than people of European descent. This means that they can drink more before they start feeling the adverse effects - which increase their risk of becoming alcoholics.

d) Environment

The rest of the risk factors are linked to the environment - particularly in terms of the relationships you have with others. This means that if you have more risk factors and lesser protective factors, you are highly likely to start abusing alcohol and eventually develop an addiction to it.

Additional environmental factors that could affect your risk of becoming an alcoholic include:

  • Being brought up by parents who were inattentive
  • Feeling social and peer pressure to abuse alcohol
  • Growing up in relative or abject poverty
  • Having weaker ties to your community and family
  • Living in a household rife with violent

The Development Of Alcoholism

But how do you become an alcoholic? Is the problem linked to genetics? Mainly, there are many ways you can develop this substance use disorders. Even though genetics has a role to play in your risk of becoming an alcoholic, this disorder often takes years to build and might usually start when you drink to achieve the pleasurable effects that alcohol is known for.

Some of the signs that you might already be an alcoholic include:

  • Blacking out
  • Drinking alone
  • Drinking to forget your stress and problems
  • Feeling irritable and unhappy when you are not drinking
  • Losing memories when you are drinking
  • Lying about your drinking

On the other hand, alcohol affects the brain in different ways. In particular, when you drink, it will change the release and balance of certain neurological chemicals - such as dopamine - inside your brain.

As a depressant drug, alcohol might seem attractive especially if you are suffering from some psychological and mental health problems like depression, low self-esteem, and stress.

For instance, you might start drinking so that you can feel less anxiety and become more confident. This is because alcohol will depress the segment of your brain linked to inhibitions.

Over time, you might start craving more alcohol as you try to restore your pleasurable feelings while avoiding any negative ones. These cravings could cause you to develop an alcohol use disorder.

Other factors that could cause you to become an alcoholic include:

a) Genetics

Your genetic makeup could trigger the development of an alcohol use disorder - although it is by no means the only factor. According to recent research, children who have alcoholic parents are four times as likely as those with sober parents to eventually develop the condition.

However, researchers are yet to pinpoint the exact genes that could increase your predisposition to drinking and develop alcoholism. However, they have found that this could be due - in part - to some environmental factors like growing up in a violent home or one where substance abuse is prevalent.

b) Environmental Factors

The environmental factors that could increase your risk of becoming an alcoholic include the general marketing and advertisement of alcohol, the seemingly acceptable depiction of drinking in the mass media, the availability of and access to alcohol, as well as social influences.

Consider the following:

i) Availability

Alcohol is largely available in American society - from gas stations and supermarkets and at small stores. This ease of access makes it more likely that more people will drink - while simultaneously making it even harder for an alcoholic to overcome their problem.

This is why it is highly recommended that recovering alcoholics check into an inpatient addiction treatment center where their access to alcohol will be heavily curtailed so that they can focus on overcoming their addiction.

ii) Advertisements and Marketing

This is almost the same as marketing. In particular, ads tend to make alcohol seem socially significant and cool. They also use famous faces and role models that most people look up to.

iii) Media Acceptance

The mass media often depicts the consumption of alcohol on TV shows and movies - with the drinkers enjoying their experiences. This supposed social acceptance of alcohol use makes the act even more desirable and tends to have a strong influence - particularly on the young.

iv) Social Influences

Last but not least, many young people start drinking because their friends and peers are also drinking. They eventually learn that the consumption of alcohol is an acceptable habit - before they find that they have developed an alcohol use disorder.

But why is alcohol such an addictive substance? Essentially, no single factor can cause you to become an alcoholic. Rather, it is a highly specific combination of different factors that could potentially work hand in hand to increase your risk.

As we mentioned above, there are hereditary factors that might lead you to develop alcohol dependence and addiction. However, researchers are yet to isolate any addictive gene and study it further.

Additionally, your upbringing could largely contribute to your risk for alcohol abuse - as well as your involvement with others and the age when you started drinking. The NCADD, in fact, reports that people who first abuse alcohol before they reach the age of 15 have five times as high a likelihood of suffering from these disorders than those who start drinking after they are 21 years old.

Similarly, if your parents and other adults in your life downplay drinking or engage in it, then it is highly likely that you might start drinking too. This could increase your risk of developing alcoholism later on in your life.

c) Stress

Although not everyone will turn to alcohol while trying to relieve their stress, many people do. If you have a stressful time at work, home, or school - for instance - you might start drinking heavily to dissipate this stress.

This is particularly true for people from certain professions like nursing and medicine. This is because their daily life tends to be quite stressful. If you have this proclivity, you might want to try de-stressing using alternative methods like swimming, taking longer naps, exercising, and reading good books.

d) Early Drinking

Mayo Clinic shows that - as we mentioned earlier - people who start drinking from an early age have a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorders when they grow older. This is because they often learn from an early age that alcohol is a comfortable and happy habit. It might also happen because their bodies will develop tolerance earlier than usual.

e) Poor Mental Health

If you have a mental health condition like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, you might also have a higher risk of becoming an alcoholic. This is because you might start turning to alcohol when you are displaying the symptoms of your poor health - especially after you discover that alcohol temporarily eases your discomfort and adverse feelings.

Eventually, you might start drinking more - which will only increase your risk for alcoholism.

f) Mixing Alcohol and Drugs

Some drugs might increase alcohol's toxic effects on your body. Therefore, if you continually combine alcohol and drugs or medications, you might develop an addiction to both substances. This is in spite of the potential for danger and other adverse risks that come with such drug mixing.

g) Family History

As we mentioned earlier, having relatives who are alcoholics might increase your risk of developing the condition later on in your life. Although this could be genetic in part, it might also be related to the environment in which you grew up.

In particular, if you have been spending time with people who abuse alcohol or drink heavily, you might be influenced to start drinking. Eventually, this could cause you to develop the same problem.

Overall, many other factors might increase your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Although the factors listed above might not directly cause your alcoholism, they do play a major role in the development of the condition. This is why you should understand your risk by checking these factors and doing everything possible to lower the risks.

Treatment For Alcoholism

If you think that you are have become an alcoholic, it is essential that you seek treatment. According to NIDA, more than 1.8 million Americans sought professional rehabilitation treatment for a substance use disorder in 2008 while 41.4% did so as a result of their dependence on alcohol.

In particular, you can be sure that if you try to quit alcohol after you have become dependent on it, it is highly likely that you might suffer alcohol withdrawal syndrome - an experience that is not certainly pleasant.

Although the process is usually accompanied by a wide variety of adverse effects like excessive sweating, headaches, depression, trembling, and nausea, it is possible to get it managed and brought under control through the help of medical professionals. This could potentially mitigate any discomfort you are feeling. It is for this reason that you should only try to quit under the medical guidance provided through a professional detoxification program.

During the treatment, you might also receive a prescription for some medications to help lessen some of your alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These drugs could also make the experience a bit more bearable for you. In many cases, doctors use drugs like anticonvulsants and benzodiazepines for alcohol withdrawal

After you have successfully undergone detox, you may continue receiving treatment for your alcohol use disorder. Such treatment will vary widely, but every method will be designed in such a way that you can learn how to stop drinking once and for all and become abstinent.

Different forms of treatment after detox and withdrawal include:

  • Attending support group meetings, such as 12 step programs like AA (or Alcoholics Anonymous)
  • Counseling to effectively address any emotional and psychological problems that might have caused you to start drinking and which could increase your risk of relapse
  • Medical treatment for any of the health problems that are linked to your alcohol use disorder like cirrhosis
  • Medications to control your addiction
  • Rehabilitation to teach you new behaviors and coping skills

Some of these treatment methods might also rely on a variety of medications. These medications are useful in helping with alcohol addiction and abuse. They include but are not limited to:

  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram (or Antabuse)
  • Naltrexone (or ReVia)

Last but not least, you might have to check into an inpatient or residential rehabilitation facility - especially if your alcohol use disorder is particularly severe. This is often the best option because these centers provide 24-hour monitoring, care, and management while trying to ensure that you withdrawal from your alcoholism as well as recover in the long run. After that, you can continue receiving ongoing treatment and rehabilitation from an outpatient facility.

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