Alcoholism: Biological Sensitivity or the Circumstances of Poor Life Decisions

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.3% of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime (SAMHSA, 2018). Although this statistic may not strike you as “new news,” the following one might; an estimated 88,000 people died from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States (Mokdad et al., 2000).

Keeping these statistics in mind, this post is going to focus on alcohol dependency, also known as alcoholism, one of many addictive diseases that continue to harm populations globally. Specifically, together we will investigate the definition of addiction, why it occurs with this specific substance, and how to prevent it.

Alcoholism has in the past been described as a “waterpark,” where there are many different slides (or ways to develop an alcohol addiction) but ultimately all the slides dump in the same pool.

Some of the different “slides” that can lead people to drink which can therefore lead to alcoholism are …

  1. Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, ect.)
  2. Self-medicating undiagnosed mental illnesses with alcohol
  3. Allergies to ethanol
  4. Social pressures to drink
  5. Exposure to alcohol at a young age

Alcohol is commonly though of as a drug to help “unwind and have fun.” For this reason, this particular substance has gained popularity among millions of individuals of a wide variety of ages, socioeconomic statuses, levels of education, and cultural backgrounds.

So, what does alcohol do to us? Well, it actually causes a myriad of problems. First and foremost, it lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment and coordination. Similarly, short term use can also increase aggression and cause alcohol poisoning, causing vomiting and potentially life-threatening asphyxiation (a lack of oxygen which causes an individual to suffocate). When heavily consumed over a long period of time, alcohol can also lead to heart and liver damage and a weakened immune system.

“Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable.” — G.K. Chesterton

I want to make it clear that not all of the estimated alcohol-related deaths were due to alcoholism per se, but it only takes one instance of drinking to commence a downhill snowball effect to put yourself in harm. Evidence has been found that some individuals are more prone to alcoholism than others (Goodwin et al., 1979).

Now that we have a general background on alcohol and its effects, we are going to focus on why some people might be more biologically prone to relapse (or to become ill again after a period of improvement).

First, we need to take into consideration that both biological and psychological aspects are at play when thinking about alcoholism. In other words, both the environment an individual is surrounded by, as well as their genetics could together put them at a greater risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.

Professor Mary Jeanne Kreek at Rockefeller University in New York runs a research lab that focuses on the biology of addictive diseases. Kreek and others have conducted much of their research on addiction based on prior literature. Past research has proven that alcohol intake activates the brain’s response to stressful information in the environment and an excess amount of activation of this system can lead to the development of alcoholism.

Recently Kreek and one of her colleagues published an article entitled, “Involvement of Activated Brain Stress Responsive Systems in Excessive and “Relapse” Alcohol Drinking in Rodent Models: Implications for Therapeutics” where they explain their research on rat subjects. The article acts as a mini-review of four different stress-responsive systems in alcohol research using animal models and clinical research (Zhou & Kreek, 2018).

Their results were in line with prior research on the interplays between alcohol and the body’s internal ability to respond to stress and worry stimuli. The current study provided insight into how alcohol has direct negative impacts on specific receptors (organs or cells that respond to external stimuli such as light or heat, which send signals to nerves within our bodies and brains). But more specifically, the researchers shed light on how targeting multiple systems within the body may be an effective way to treat alcoholism as a disease that is involved with a combination of multiple genes.

This new knowledge that combining different drugs to target multiple systems within our genetically variant bodies may, in fact, prove to be a more efficient way to alleviate alcoholic impulses. Hopefully, future research will hone in on specific treatments to alleviate different individuals’ susceptibility to alcohol. In the meantime, if you do choose to drink, drink responsibly and remember the consequences of “overdoing” it.


Works Cited:

Goodwin, D. W. (1979). Alcoholism and heredity: A review and hypothesis. Archives of General psychiatry36(1), 57-61.

Mokdad, A.H.; Marks, J.S.; Stroup, D.F.; and Gerberding, J.L. Actual causes of death in the United States 2000. [Published erratum in: JAMA 293(3):293–294, 298] JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 291(10):1238–1245, 2004. PMID: 15010446

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Table 2.1B—Tobacco Product and Alcohol Use in Lifetime, Past Year, and Past Month among Persons Aged 12 or Older, by Age Group: Percentages, 2017 and 2018. 

Zhou, Y., & Kreek, M. J. (2018). Involvement of activated brain stress responsive systems in excessive and “relapse” alcohol drinking in rodent models: Implications for therapeutics. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics366(1), 9-20.

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