Alcohol dependence develops when you drink so much that your brain starts relying on alcohol to produce pleasurable chemicals. This can make you want to drink more often, even if there are negative consequences. At first, alcohol can cause the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy. Over time, chronic drinking depletes the amount of dopamine in the brain, making the pleasurable feelings associated with alcohol fade. But at this stage, alcohol has taken over your routine and you no longer drink for pleasure. You are aware of the harmful effects, but you have lost control over your alcohol consumption.

While there is no single cause of alcoholism, there are several internal and external factors that can lead to its development. These factors affect every individual differently, which is why some people develop alcohol use disorder and others do not.

  • Environmental Factors: Environment can strongly impact your attitude and behavior around drinking. If you have easy access to alcohol and friends or partners who engage in frequent drinking, the more likely you are to partake in these activities.
  • Social Factors: Your social surroundings can also play a large role in how much you drink. Growing up in a household where heavy drinking is acceptable or encouraged can make you more susceptible to an alcohol use disorder. In fact, children of those with alcohol addiction are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than children who have no close relatives with drinking problems. Frequent and aggressive consumption of alcohol at social events like parties or happy hours can also increase your risk of falling into dangerous drinking behaviors that will require alcohol treatment.
  • Psychological Factors: Alcohol abuse can give rise to mental health issues and vice versa. Individuals with depression, anxiety (see sobriety and anxiety), bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. This is because these individuals often turn to alcohol to cope with a mental illness, which in turn exacerbates symptoms of their condition. When treating alcohol use disorder, it is best to take an integrated approach to care, ensuring any underlying behavioral health issues impacting the substance use are addressed during the alcohol treatment.
  • Biological Factors: Genetics can impact how quickly your body metabolizes alcohol, how it makes you feel, and how likely you are to stop or keep drinking. Some people have no problem limiting their alcohol consumption while others feel a strong urge to drink. Some people get pleasure from drinking while others dislike it. These variations can be attributed to our genetic makeup. Scientists have discovered 51 genes that impact alcohol dependence. As genes are inherited through generations, family members are more vulnerable to developing an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol treatment is the first step towards managing triggers of alcohol dependence. If you or someone you know struggles with alcohol addiction, call a CleanSlate center near you to make an appointment or use the chatbox on our website to get help.

James Meacham MD

James E. Meacham MD, FACE, is the Center Medical Director for the Indianapolis North center of CleanSlate. CleanSlate is a leading national medical group that provides office-based outpatient medication treatment for the chronic disease of addiction, primarily alcohol and opioid use disorders.