Alcoholism and biology

Alcohol has been used in most of the world for centuries. In moderate amounts, alcohol helps you relax and there is even evidence that alcohol helps prevent heart problems. In larger doses, however, it damages the liver and other organs, impairs your judgment and ruins lives: you are an alcoholic. There are certain risk factors surrounding alcoholism that have to do with genetics. Alcoholism or alcohol addiction is the continued use of alcohol despite medical or social harm, even though people have decided to stop or cut down. You don’t have to drink loads of beer every day to be an alcoholic. What matters is whether your drinking disrupts and limits your life.

What does alcohol do to your body?

  • Alcohol restricts sodium from crossing the membrane
  • Increases the surface area of membranes
  • Decreases the activity of serotonin (the ‘happiness hormone’)
  • Blocks glutamate receptors
  • Increases the activity of dopamine



Alcoholism that emerges relatively early in life has a strong genetic basis, mainly in men. Alcoholism that develops at an early age is called type II alcoholism :

  • Occurs before the age of 25
  • Has a rapid development
  • Many alcoholics in the genetically related environment
  • More men than women
  • Often severely restrictive, associated with crime

The other type, type I alcoholism, is characterized by the following:

  • Occurs after the age of 25
  • Gradual development
  • Fewer alcoholics in genetically related environment
  • Equal numbers of men and women
  • Usually less restrictive

Research shows that the risk of developing alcoholism is already determined in the womb. The chance that someone will develop alcoholism appears to be strongly correlated with the amount of alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy.
In addition, your genes influence to a certain extent how susceptible you are to stress, how you deal with problems, how relaxed you are, etc.

Risk factors

If it turns out that the correct risk factors for developing alcohol dependence have been identified, it may be possible to start alcohol prevention at a young age. A number of biological risk factors have emerged from research:

  • Some alcoholics exhibit lower than average intoxication after ingesting an average amount of alcohol. These people feel less drunk, have more body control and show less change on the EEG. Someone who has a high threshold for the expected effects of alcohol must drink more to get the same effect as someone with an average threshold. These people appear to have a 60% chance of developing alcoholism.
  • Alcohol reduces feelings of stress for most people, but it lowers stress even more in the sons of alcoholics
  • Some alcoholics have brain abnormalities, such as a smaller-than-normal amygdala in the right hemisphere.



Also visit my Solving Alcohol Problem special for more information.

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