What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder (Addiction)?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcohol addiction, is a growing problem in the United States and around the world. Alcohol addiction occurs when a person drinks heavily on a regular basis and cannot stop drinking, even if they want to or have tried to stop. People with an AUD also develop withdrawal symptoms after they stop drinking for a certain amount of time. 

Some people become addicted to alcohol over time, while others do not. The cause of alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be attributed to a variety of different factors, including biological and environmental factors, among others. 

14.1 million people ages 18 and over battle with an alcohol use disorder (addiction).

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report from 2017 

The Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of Addiction

When it comes to alcohol addiction, every person is different. There isn’t one single cause, but potential causes fall into three basic categories. These include:


Biological Causes of Alcohol Addiction

Genetic factors can contribute to your risk of developing an alcohol-related disorder. There are multiple genes that contribute to a person’s risk of developing AUD, including the “alcoholism gene.” In the same sense, there are certain gene variations that can decrease your risk of developing AUD. 

Genes are responsible for about half of the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).


Psychological Causes of Alcohol Addiction

Many different psychological factors can contribute to the risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD). For example, a person’s poor coping skills when it comes to stress, negative feelings, and even boredom can make them vulnerable to alcohol addiction. If they are unable to handle stressors, alcohol may make coping easier for them.

AUD often co-occurs with a mental health condition (dual diagnosis), such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, and schizophrenia. People who have received a dual diagnosis often drink alcohol to relieve unpleasant symptoms. Some people also believe alcohol controls their symptoms better than medications, and without the negative side effects.


Socio-Cultural Causes of Alcohol Addiction

There are many cultural and social factors that increase the risk of alcohol addiction. In social situations, the encouragement and acceptance of regular drinking, such as on college campuses, can contribute to binge drinking and alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking alcohol in college can also increase a person’s risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

In addition to this, families that encourage drinking increase the risk of alcohol abuse among family members.

Potential Risk Factors for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

While these are the four main causes that contribute to alcohol addiction, there are other factors that contribute to your risk. These can include:

  • Early Drinking – The younger you are when you begin drinking, the greater risk you have of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life.
  • Peer Pressure – Pressure from friends and family, as well as social media influences, can contribute to excessive drinking and addiction. Today’s media pushes the fact that drinking can be a way to wind down or deal with stress. These influences can increase your risk.
  • High Levels of Stress – High stress levels increase your risk of addiction. Whether your stress comes from your job, financial stress, or relationship stress, finding a coping mechanism is essential to reduce the risk of turning to alcohol.
  • Family History – While genetics do play a role, learning factors also contribute to AUD.
  • Other Mental Health Disorders – Alcohol is often a method of self-medication for those with other mental health conditions and can lead to alcohol addiction.
  • Gender – alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects men more than women.
  • Regular Drinking Over a Long Period – When you drink more alcohol, your body develops a tolerance and alcohol dependence forms over time. Because of this tolerance, your body needs more alcohol to feel the same effects. Drinking alcohol in moderation can be harmless, but over time can develop into abuse or addiction.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or a substance use disorder (SUD), there is help available. Common addiction treatments include support groups, alcoholics anonymous (AA), and professional detoxification (e.g., inpatient or outpatient treatment). 


“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 6 Dec. 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

Augier, Eric, et al. “A Molecular Mechanism for Choosing Alcohol over an Alternative Reward.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 22 June 2018, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6395/1321.

Edenberg, Howard J, and Tatiana Foroud. “Genetics and Alcoholism.” Nature Reviews. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056340/.

“Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 21 Sept. 2018, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders/genetics-alcohol-use-disorders.

Saad, Marcelo, et al. “Are We Ready for a True Biopsychosocial-Spiritual Model? The Many Meanings of ‘Spiritual.’” Medicines (Basel, Switzerland), MDPI, 31 Oct. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5750603/.

Updated on: September 22, 2020
Alcohol Rehab Help Writing Staff
Medically Reviewed: May 1, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
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