Many people who have been afflicted with the disease of alcoholism (now commonly referred to as an “Alcohol Use Disorder”) struggle tremendously with accepting they have an illness. In fact, most problems drinkers will try (and fail) for years to control their drinking before they finally reach out for help. This is largely because they have a misperception about the causes of alcoholism.
Although we have come a long way in terms of the social stigma that surrounds alcohol addiction, we still have a long way to go. Many people mistakenly believe they have a problem with alcohol because they are weak, morally corrupt, or lacking in character. This is simply not true.
Alcohol addiction results from a disease process in the brain. As explained by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an alcohol use disorder “is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.” Like other illnesses, genetics play a role.
One of the most effective ways to treat an alcoholic’s condition is to offer education about their illness. In fact, many people who attend alcohol addiction treatment are quite relieved to learn that there is a scientific explanation for their behavior.
Quite often, once an alcoholic commits to addiction treatment, they want answers that explain why they have suffered so profoundly because of their drinking. A common question is, “Do genetics cause alcoholism?” To answer the question in a word: yes. There is definitely a genetic link that contributes to alcoholism.
Understanding that genetics contribute to an AUD can greatly help an individual in their recovery by relieving shame and guilt. There is no shame in having an AUD just like there is no shame in having diabetes. It is a sickness of the body largely caused by genetic factors. As is the case with diabetes, applying a clinical approach to treatment is necessary. If left untreated, the disease is chronic, progressive, and fatal.
Multiple research studies have shown there is a genetic link associated with alcoholism. In fact, current scientific data suggests that genes represent at least half of the risk associated with developing an AUD. The other half is centered on environmental factors as well as how genes interact with one another.
It is no secret that alcoholism tends to run in families. If someone has a parent or grandparent who is or was a problem drinker, they are much more likely to develop an alcohol addiction than someone who has no family history of the illness. Although environment factors definitely contribute to this phenomenon, there is no doubt that genetics play a part.
There is still a lot to learn about the role of genetics and alcohol abuse. However; studies have shown that the expression of certain genetic markers greatly influence how a person’s brain and physical body will respond to alcohol.
For example, genetics determine how a person will metabolize (or process) alcohol. Some research suggests that people who are genetically predisposed to alcohol addiction experience a greater increase of the brain’s feel-good chemicals during alcohol consumption than “normal” drinkers. This causes the brain to react with powerful cravings that drive someone to continue to drink alcohol even when it is destroying their life. We also know that alcoholism affects men and women
To be clear, no specific “alcoholism gene” has been identified yet – although scientists around the world are working hard to find it. Also, there is currently no genetic test available to determine if someone is vulnerable to becoming addicted to alcohol. Furthermore, there is no medical test that will reveal whether or not someone is an alcoholic.
There may be a lot we don’t know, but we do know quite a bit about the science behind alcoholism. The fact is that alcoholics simply cannot drink the way non-alcoholics can. To put it simply, their brain is wired differently.
The alcoholic brain responds to alcohol with an obsessive and compulsive cycle that continues even as the drinker experiences complete devastation as a result of their alcohol use. In the face of alcohol-related health complications, legal problems, family difficulties, and problems at work, an alcoholic will continue to drink.
In our estimation, it really doesn’t matter what causes alcohol addiction. At Experience Recovery, we focus on helping people find freedom from the addictive cycle.
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