Why do people react differently to alcohol?

There are a variety of reasons:
  • Age, Gender, Race or Ethnicity.
  • Physical condition (weight, fitness level, etc).
  • Amount of food eaten before drinking alcohol.
  • How quickly they drink the alcohol.
  • Use of other drugs, legal (prescription medicines) or illegal (marijuana etc.)
  • Family history of alcohol problems.

The current mainstream scientific and medical view is that alcoholism is a disease. Although some debate on this topic still occurs — my personal experience validates the disease model.

The first time I tried alcohol, I was about 13. I remember accepting an offer of one beer. The rest is fuzzy because I blacked out. The next memory I had was feeling terrible the next day. My mom told me I had been throwing-up all night. My plan — I need to drink more often, because it was clear that I didn’t have any “practice”. I never saw adults vomiting after they drank, so certainly, after a few more drinking episodes I will get the “hang” of it. I drank from age 13 to age 26. During those 13 years, never did I experience a “normal social” drink. So, you would be hard pressed to convince me, that my drinking problem stemmed from morals issues, or lack of willpower.

1904 Advertisement
“1904 Claim of Alcoholism being Disease” by E. H. Mills – August 1904 edition of “Review of Reviews”.

What is alcoholism?

It’s not as straightforward as you might think. The short answer — alcoholism is a dependence on alcohol. The longer answer — there are four symptoms of alcoholism. The first one is having a craving or strong urge to drink. The second symptom is not being able to stop drinking once you start. This can sometimes be tricky to comprehend, because you can drink once a year and still be an alcoholic. You see, It’s not only how often you drink, but what happens after you take the first drink. Third, is physical dependence. This means that when you stop drinking you have side effects like nausea, shakes and or anxiety. Fourth, is developing a tolerance. This is the need to drink a larger quantity to get the same feeling.

A non-alcoholic can plan out how much they will drink and have little trouble keeping to their plan. An alcoholic might occasionally keep to their plan but can not do it every time.

Example: I like to eat at nice restaurants. I am on a budget, so each month I set aside some money to try out a fancy restaurant or two. My husband and I make two reservations at the beginning of the month. We effortless stick to our plan. We enjoy our two nice meals and think nothing more of it.

A non-alcoholic can do the same thing with liquor. Example: Sam decides to have two drinks at a party, but not more. He has an early meeting the next day and three drinks will hinder his performance. He easily orders only two drinks and thinks nothing more of it.

What about a problem drinker — is that the same thing as an alcoholic? Simply put — no. You can have problems with drinking without being diagnosed as an alcoholic. This kind of consumption is sometimes referred to as heavy drinking or drinking abuse. You might find it interesting that not all problem drinkers turn into alcoholics. Here is how I have come to understand it. If drinking is causing problems in your life, you have a drinking problem. It’s really that simple. A problem drinker can stop drinking, if there is good enough reason for it. Let’s take another example. Stewart is a heavy drinker. He has 2 to 5 cocktails every day. Some days he drinks even more. During his annual check-up he discovers he has a (potentially deadly) medical condition. The doctor tells him there is a surgical procedure that can cure him. He schedules the surgery to be preformed in six weeks. The doctor warns him not to drink before the surgery. In fact, he is told that if he drinks anything alcoholic, in the upcoming six weeks, the surgery will most likely fail. So Stewart, follows the doctors orders and does not drink for six weeks. He misses the drinking. He is moody and has sugar cravings. However, he follow the doctors orders, without too much difficulty.

If Stewart is an alcoholic, he will drink despite the warning. It will baffle the doctor, his family and himself. Why, with so much on the line, would he drink? He has willpower in all other aspects of his life. He is reasonable and successful in all of his choices. It doesn’t make any sense. The disease of alcoholism convinces a person that it will be different this time. And, the real alcoholic has the most trouble when he stops drinking. That is because, when life presents difficulties, there is an instinctive reaction to reach for something to alter the brain. No amount of training, or self-knowledge seems to fix this instinct.

Question: Is alcoholism genetically inherited?

Answer: Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism runs in families. But just because there is a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean that the child of an alcoholic parent will automatically become an alcoholic. Not all children of alcoholic families get into trouble with alcohol. And some people develop alcoholism even though no one in their family has a drinking problem.

Lifestyle is a critical factor, as well. Your friends, the amount of stress in your life, and how readily alcohol is available are factors that may increase your risk for alcoholism.

Question: Can alcoholism be cured?

Answer: No, alcoholism cannot be cured at this time. Even if an alcoholic hasn’t been drinking for a long time, he or she can still suffer a relapse. Not drinking is the safest course for most people with alcoholism.

Question: Can alcoholism be treated?

Answer: Yes, alcoholism can be treated. Treatment has helped many people stop drinking, rebuild their lives and life a life in long-term recovery.

In another article, I will talk about the medical professionals and scientists that reject everything I just wrote. I am always open-minded about being wrong, however I can’t discount a lifetime of personal experiments that prove (to me) the disease theory of alcoholism is accurate.

Our 800RecoveryHub site offers free and confidential help

13 thoughts on “Why do people react differently to alcohol?

  1. Great explanation on the topic! I think it is also important to note the alcoholic’s motive for drinking. While the heavy drinker loves to drink to party / have a good time, the alcoholic is usually using it to self-medicate for a feeling or to kill a feeling. Hints the reason they can’t function without their “medicine”. At least this was the reason from my personal experience and many that I’ve talked with. Thanks for the great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Example: both my brother and myself have dealt with alcoholism. At different times, while drinking, mental specialists tried to tell us that we were schizophrenic. Once sobered up, though, it was obvious that we weren’t.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your great question. People with alcoholism, can have delusional problems while drunk. Also, delusions can occur after long periods of drinking and then stopping suddenly. There is also a kind of unknown condition called alcoholic paranoia. It is an alcohol-induced psychotic disorder, which really only happens in chronic alcoholics with years of heavy drinking. I am not a mental specialist, so I am only commenting on my own experience. That said – I think it is very hard to diagnosis someone who has not had time to be sober. Many people, in their first year of sobriety, display behaviors of depression, mania and anxiety. Ofter, these problems go away on their own. When they don’t, a doctor can provide help.


  2. Exactly right. Some people don’t think about how “you can drink once a year and still be an alcoholic” because the typical view of an alcoholic is someone who drinks every day. You can drink occasionally but just not have the ability to control how much you drink. Their lies the issue. This was very helpful, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m having trouble knowing whether I’m a problem drinker or an alcoholic.
    I once had an operation and couldn’t drink the night before, so I didn’t. Sometimes it feels that I could have a normal social drink (the 3-5 cocktails) of a session/night, but other times it could be a really long binge, with every few years an all night binge occurring on which something bad for my health/life might happen.
    I have recently attempted stopping for a month or so. Like the problem drinker when I stop I miss drinking a lot (I remember the euphoria of drinking). I get moody, sugar cravings etc, like the problem drinker. The trouble is this feeling stays for a long time (seemingly forever) and after a period of time (1 or 2 months or so) I would feel so irritable and miss the drinking so much I would want to drink again, even if I made an effort to remember all the bad things that ever happened over the years , likely related to being intoxicated and that after 15 years of drinking every 2-4 days a week (and often binging), that I also felt being bored of drinking and that it didn’t feel as good/sedating as it once was.
    I also drank because I wanted to please people by always seeming happy and I couldn’t stand the having resentments at the world/others and having any flaws in myself. It seems I can stop for a little while now (a few months), but It seems I need to talk through my irritability and feelings with a counsellor and to other people like ALL THE TIME in order to stay stopped. I still don’t know if I am a problem drinker or an alcoholic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. It can be very tricky to determine if a person is a problem drinker, a heavy drinker or an alcoholic. Typically an alcoholic will not be able to accurately predict what will happen after the first drink. If you can easily have one or two drinks for a month, you probably are not an alcoholic. If you can easily not drink at all for 30 days, you are probably not an alcoholic. Unfortunately, you are going to have to determine this within yourself, because there is not am “official test”. I will say that most people who are questioning their drinking, need some sort of help. Normal drinkers don’t worry about this kind of stuff.


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