Is alcoholism a genetic disease? What other factors can increase the risk of developing alcohol dependence?
Read on to find out – and to learn more about addiction to alcohol. On this page, we are also going to include information about treatment for alcoholism – specifically rehab.
Alcohol Use Disorder and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol use disorder is a term used to describe a range of alcohol problems – for example, alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, and addiction.
Often shortened to AUD, alcohol use disorders can vary in severity, with dependence and addiction being the more severe form.
Medical professionals tend to avoid terms such as ‘alcoholic’, ‘alcoholism’, ‘alcohol addiction’, and ‘alcohol abuse’ – but instead, use the term ‘alcohol use disorder’ to describe these conditions.
Alcohol use disorder is a widely recognised physical and mental illness that is characterised by the urge to continue drinking alcohol, despite the negative impact it can have on your life.
It can affect all areas of your life, from your work and finances to your relationships. Of course, alcoholism can also affect your mental health and your physical health – and has been found to be a causal factor in over 60 medical conditions. [i]
AUD involves the lack of control over your drinking – this can include when you start drinking or stop drinking, how often you drink, and the amount you drink.
It is both a chronic and relapsing brain disorder that affects millions of adults around the world. In fact, in 2019, over 14 million adults were reported to have AUD. [ii]
In England, there are over 700,000 dependent drinkers – this includes roughly one in 30 women and one in 12 men. [iii]
Alcohol abuse is a dangerous drinking pattern that can result in many negative consequences, some more severe than others.
Binge drinking is a form of alcohol abuse – the act of drinking an excessive amount of alcohol to the extent that it causes physical damage.
This is why alcohol should be enjoyed in moderation – and there are recommended guidelines in place.
The NHS recommends that you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week – spread across three or more days. 14 units equate to roughly six medium glasses of wine or six pints of 4% beer. [iv]
Although there is no level of drinking that is considered safe, drinking less than 14 units per week may lower a person’s risk of developing alcohol-related health problems and an AUD.
Alcohol abuse can have many negative consequences on your life – for example, relationship problems, financial issues, or alcohol-related legal issues (e.g driving while under the influence).
People who abuse alcohol are not always addicted to alcohol – put those addicted to alcohol will usually abuse alcohol.
If you abuse alcohol, you may only drink a couple of times a week, but drink a dangerous amount of alcohol during this window, to the point that it causes physical harm.
Is Alcoholism Genetic?
If you have parents who have problems with alcohol, or there is a family history of alcoholism, you may be wondering: ‘is alcoholism hereditary?’.
Well, if alcohol problems run in your family (e.g if you have an alcoholic parent or close relative), then the risk of you developing alcohol problems yourself increases.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), genes are responsible for around half of the risk for AUD.
There is much evidence that suggests genes are a factor in alcoholism – and that some people have a genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder.
There are variations in multiple genes that can impact the risk factor. To be more specific, some of the genes that have been identified that increase the risk of alcoholism and other substances are ADH1B and ALDH2. [v]
That being said, there are more factors that can impact the chances of you developing an addiction to alcohol and other substances. Read the next section to learn more about other risk factors for alcoholism.
Other Risk Factors for Alcoholism
Genetics isn’t the only risk factor for addiction. Although anybody can develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, there are certain factors that can increase the risk of addiction.
Read on to learn more about other factors for alcoholism, including environmental factors, history of substance abuse, stress and mental health, and more.
As well as genetic factors, there are certain environmental influences that can increase the risk of developing an alcohol problem.
For example, peer pressure – if your friends drink too much, then you may also begin drinking too much to the point that it becomes a problem.
Peer pressure is thought to increase engagement in risky drinking practices such as binge drinking/ alcohol abuse. [vi]
Family history with alcohol can not only be a genetic factor but an environmental factor too. If you grew up in a household where there was lots of alcohol being consumed or your caregivers abused alcohol, you may have grown up thinking that this is ‘normal’ behaviour. [vii]
History of Substance Abuse
Having a history of addiction is another risk factor to consider in regard to alcoholism.
If you’ve previously dealt with addiction to drugs, whether it be legal drugs/ prescription drugs or illicit substances such as cocaine, marijuana, or heroin, you may be more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol.
This is because the reasons for turning to the addictive substance often remain the same.
Your drinking history and alcohol tolerance can also influence the chances of developing AUD. You’re much more likely to become an alcoholic if you’ve been drinking for a long time, but less likely if you haven’t been drinking very long. Likewise, the more you drink, the more likely you are to become addicted to alcohol.
Stress can affect alcohol consumption and alcohol misuse. [viii] Both cumulative life stressors and early life stressors can have an impact on drinking.
If you experience high anxiety levels, then you may be more likely to turn to alcohol to deal with or ‘treat’ the negative feelings. That being said, stress alone doesn’t always cause addiction.
Stress isn’t just a risk factor for alcoholism – it’s a common risk factor for a variety of both physical health problems and psychological health problems/ mental disorders.
This can involve work-related stress or stress caused by financial or relationship problems. Many people may turn to alcohol to de-stress after a hard day or week at work – but drinking too much increases the risk of addiction.
It’s important to be mindful when drinking alcohol as it is a habit-forming substance that can lead to dependence.
Mental Health Problems
If you have existing mental health issues – for example, depression or anxiety – you may have an increased chance of developing an alcohol problem. Those who experience low mood and depression may use alcohol as a form of self-treatment.
However, this is not effective and although it may feel like it’s helping in the short term, it is not a feasible or healthy option in the long term.
Women are more than two times as likely to abuse alcohol if they have experienced depression in the past. Moreover, excessive drinking can increase the chances of developing depression.[ix]
Some mental health issues that have been linked to alcoholism include depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), anxiety disorders, panic disorder, eating disorders such as anorexia, and trauma.
If you have a mental health problem and an alcohol problem, this is known as dual diagnosis – and you should receive treatment tailored to dual diagnosis. Read on to learn more about dual diagnosis.
Dual diagnosis is a term that describes a substance abuse problem (e.g alcoholism) and a mental health problem that occurs simultaneously.
Alcohol may temporarily relieve negative symptoms associated with mental illnesses – for example, irritability or insomnia – but this can cause further damage in both the short term and the long term.
Although there currently haven’t been many studies conducted that compare the drinking habits of those with depression, a study conducted in Sweden found that alcohol problems and binge drinking were higher in people that were receiving treatment for depression.
This study looked into alcohol use alongside treatment for depression and compared the drinking habits of those in primary care with the general population.
This study found that adults aged between 28-50 and 51-81 showed much higher rates of alcohol issues than those in the younger group. [x]
Getting Help for Alcoholism
You don’t have to deal with alcohol addiction alone – there is help out there for you. It can be difficult quitting alcohol without support from medical professionals – and if your alcohol use disorder is severe, then it can even be dangerous.
This is why many people choose to receive addiction treatment, whether it be inpatient rehab/ residential rehab, or outpatient rehab. Some people prefer private rehab, but others may not be able to afford it – so will choose NHS-operated rehab.
At Help4Addiction, we can guide you through the process. We are in contact with rehab clinics all around England and Wales – and by listening to your situation, preferences, and requirements, we can find the right treatment plan and rehab facility for you.
The rehab treatment process can vary from clinic to clinic, but typically, the process begins with detoxification.
Detoxification aims at dealing with the physical aspect of addiction. After you’ve successfully detoxed from alcohol and the alcohol withdrawal symptoms have peaked and are under control, you may move onto the next stage of treatment – therapy.
Therapy in rehab aims at dealing with the psychological and behavioural aspects of addiction. The goal of rehab in therapy is to build your confidence and improve your well-being.
Therapy such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can help you to learn more about your addiction – the root causes and addiction triggers.
After you’ve completed rehab, your recovery will continue. It may feel daunting leaving rehab and return to your old life – however, there is additional support available.
This is known as aftercare or secondary treatment. Some examples of this include group therapy and support groups (e.g Alcoholics Anonymous).
Contact us today to discuss your options, and to get the ball rolling on the admissions process in the rehab facility of your choice.
We can also help you if you have a substance use disorder – for example, drug abuse problems and drug addiction, as well as nicotine addiction.