How Alcoholism Works

How Does Someone Become an Alcoholic?

Why is it that some people can drink socially and not become addicted while others become alcoholics? The reason has to do with a combination of genetic, physiological, psychological and social factors.

Genes may be an important factor triggering the development of alcoholism. Research has indicated that children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves; and while this statistic is at least partly due to environmental factors, scientists have determined that there is a genetic link. Researchers are working to pinpoint exactly which genes increase a person's risk of becoming an alcoholic in order to develop new medications to treat alcoholism.


Physiologically, alcohol alters the balance of chemicals in the brain. It affects chemicals in the brain's reward center, such as dopamine. The body eventually craves alcohol to restore pleasurable feelings and avoid negative feelings. People who already suffer from high stress or psychological problems such as low self esteem and depression are at higher risk for developing alcoholism.

Social factors such as peer pressure, advertising and environment also play an important role in the development of alcoholism. Young people often start drinking because their friends are doing so. Beer and liquor ads on television tend to portray drinking as a glamorous, exciting pastime.

Signs that someone might be an alcoholic include:

  • Drinking to forget his or her problems
  • Drinking alone often
  • Lying about his or her drinking habits
  • Losing interest in food
  • Feeling unhappy or irritable when he or she is not drinking
  • Losing memories of certain events ("blacking out")