What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

handsome and serious looking businessman holding a green glass beer bottle and a white square sign with a black question mark on it against a sky blue background - alcohol addiction

In order to lessen the stigma involving alcohol use disorder and alcohol addiction, it helps to understand the reasons contributing to it. Addiction specialists are more dedicated than ever to address AUD based on an individual’s background, contributing risks, and other factors to ensure better recovery.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines alcohol use disorder (AUD) as a “medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism.” AUD is considered a brain disorder.

In 2013, American Psychiatric Association (APA) determined the need to combine previous classifications of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence into a singular condition—alcohol use disorder—with three stages: mild, moderate, and severe.

This change occurred with the release of the APA’s fifth edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, updated in 2022 as the DM-5-TR. Healthcare professionals and insurers use DM-5-TR to detail and assess thousands of medical conditions. The APA stated at the time that the new classification of AUD will “better match the symptoms that patients experience” and included 11 criteria that define AUD, which we list verbatim:

In the past year, have you:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
  • Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
  • Found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unprotected sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?

NIAAA notes that the severity of AUD “is based on the number of criteria a person meets based on their symptoms—mild (2–3 criteria), moderate (4–5 criteria), or severe (6 or more criteria).” So if you or a loved one identifies with three or more of the above, it’s likely you have AUD and need professional treatment.

Causes for Alcohol Addiction

Before the current advances in addiction science, this brain disease was wrongly considered a moral weakness or evidence of a lack of willpower, which led to numerous myths and stigmas that continually harmed individuals needing help.

Now, the medical community acknowledges numerous risk factors that contribute to AUD, including:

  • Generational factors of alcohol or substance use disorders
  • Environmental influences
  • Co-occurring mental health issues and mood disorders
  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Trauma and PTSD
  • Peer exposure and availability

Here’s the truth: no one sets out to develop an addiction. However, if some of the above risk factors are present and haven’t been healthfully discovered and addressed, certain behaviors contribute to alcohol addiction because of chemical changes in the brain and increased compulsivity. These include:

  • Heavy alcohol use: The NIAAA defines this as “consuming more than four drinks on any day for men or more than three drinks for women.”
  • Binge drinking: As outlined by the NIAAA, this is “a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent—or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter—or higher. For a typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming five or more drinks (male), or four or more drinks (female), in about 2 hours.”
  • Impulsivity: The American Psychological Association states that impulsive behavior “may contribute to initial use or to the transition from recreational use to abuse), to the continuation of use (e.g., drugs may detrimentally affect the neurocognitive systems that control impulses) or to relapse (e.g., suppressing powerful drug urges may be essential for abstinence).”
  • Drinking at an early age: According to the NIAAA, “in a study of adults 26 and older, those who began drinking before age 15 were more than five times as likely to report having AUD in the past year as those who waited until age 21 or later to begin drinking. The risk for females in this group is higher than that of males.”

Alcohol Addiction Treatment for Adults and Teens at Willingway

For 50 years, the board-certified staff at Willingway and our teen center, The Pines at Willingway, have recognized there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to addiction recovery: each person must be seen, heard, and valued with innovative approaches that help them begin life anew.

Ask a member of our admissions staff for help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Considering a Georgia treatment center? To find out more about services offered by Willingway contact us 24 hours a day at 888-979-2140, and let us help you get started on the road to recovery.Willingway - Addiction Treatment Experts