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Your Genes and Their Role in Alcoholism

High stress and depression are leading causes of relapse in alcoholism. If you or someone you know has a drinking problem and wants to quit, then you need to understand all aspects of the problem in order to defeat it. Alcoholism, also known as an alcohol dependency, isn't simply the inability to stop drinking and the need to drink more. There are in fact many complex factors that come into play, including everything from social and economic stress, psychological considerations, brain function and chemistry, and your genetic makeup.

There have been several research studies over many years attempting to link a person's genetic traits to alcoholism, and while many studies have yielded interesting results, not all have been proven to be fact as of yet. However, it has been suggested that a person who has one or more parents that were alcoholics may also have inherited genes that increase the chances for them to become an alcoholic as well. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will, only that there is a higher risk of developing a dependency if too much alcohol is consumed too often.

Fifty-one different chromosomal regions have been studied for links related to alcoholism. Other studies suggest that a person's inherited genes might be lacking the mechanism for realizing when to stop drinking at a certain point.

Alcohol and the Brain

When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it also affects the nervous system and brain cells, and cause brain functions to produce more neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Abnormal levels of theses neurotransmitters have been found in alcoholics, and are associated with the withdrawal symptoms an individual may experience if they try to stop drinking. Prolonged and repeated instances of this can cause the body and brain to develop an alcohol dependency, which is the medical term for alcoholism.

Serotonin is utilised by the brain to enable normal behavioural functions such as eating and sleeping. When a large amount of alcohol is consumed, high levels of serotonin can be produced, and normal behaviour is impaired. Additionally, a person may also begin to develop a tolerance, meaning that it will take longer for the effects of alcohol to impair their behaviour. High serotonin levels are often found in alcoholics with a high tolerance.

A higher risk of developing alcoholism is when one or more parents is an alcoholic.

When a person with an alcohol dependency drinks, neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine tell that person that they are happier and more relaxed. The brain eventually gets conditioned to alcohol, and causes a person to feel nauseous, depressed, or stressed and agitated if they try to reduce the amount or stop drinking.  Essentially, the brain is telling the body that it needs alcohol, and a person will have strong addictive cravings for a drink.

Why do People Relapse?

About 80 to 90% of people who go to rehab or seek other alternative treatments for alcohol addiction relapse, even when they have been abstinent for years. Those in recovery along with their loved ones ought to understand that relapses are equivalent to periodic flare-ups of chronic illnesses like diabetes or asthma. Factors that may put a person at high risk of relapse consist of:

  • Anger and Frustration
  • High Stress
  • Social pressure
  • Inner temptation

Mental and Emotional Stress. When relationships or circumstances fail, alcohol is made out to be a loyal friend as it can help block out emotional pain. It is also coupled with freedom and loss of inhibition that compensate the boredom of daily routines. When an alcoholic tries to quit drinking, the brain tries to find how to bring back what it perceives to be balanced. The brain responds with anxiety, stress, and depressions - emotional equivalents of physical pain that are produced by imbalances of neurotransmitters. These negative moods are what tempt alcoholics to relapse and return to drinking even after periods of sobriety.

Codependency. What may make it difficult for some to remain sober are the changes that occur in relationships when the recovering alcoholic’s chooses to abstain:

  • Another reason for relapse is temptation. This is especially inherent when the recovering alcoholic is put into social situations or an environment where others, including friends or family members, are able to drink freely. The individual will feel many different emotions, most of them causing him to want to drink again. Additionally, if friends are not very supportive, they might even encourage the person to have at least one drink. Unfortunately, with a recovering alcoholic, there is never "just one drink."
  • It is not uncommon that some friends and loved ones may not easily accept the new sober, perhaps more restrained, former drinker.  Some partners and close friends may find it difficult to accept this new sober person which in a number of cases encourages them to return to drinking.
  • To preserve marriages, spouses of alcoholics at often times develop new coping strategies on handling their mates' prior drinking behaviour and then learn that they find it difficult to adjust to new roles and behaviours.

If a recovering alcoholic is dead set on quitting and remaining abstinent, then he may need to make some hard choices, such as declining to be a part of these social situations or limiting friendship with those who still drink often enough to be a worrisome factor. At this point in time, much needed guidance, understanding and encouragement can be found in support groups, and in time, the individual may be ready to attend social gatherings or spend time with friends without fear of a relapse.

Social and Cultural Pressures. The media often portrays the pleasures of drinking through advertising and television programmes.  There are some discussions on medical benefits of light-to-moderate drinking that are publicised frequently, giving some the bogus excuse of returning to alcohol for their health.

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