How Alcohol Affects the Brain
People are curious about how alcohol affects our bodies. We have been taught that alcohol has toxins, but at what point does that negatively change our most important organ: the brain?
Research proves alcohol has a clear effect on the brain. This effect is both why people drink it and why it can be so harmful. To understand the effects alcohol causes, it’s important to understand the different parts of the brain and alcohol’s impact on them.
How Does the Brain Work?
The brain is one of the most complicated and hard working organs we have. It controls just about everything we do: thoughts, motor skills, emotions, etc.
To do so, the brain utilizes neurotransmitters (neurons) throughout it to complete a task. Neurons are the fundamental reason for our body's responses as they send and receive messages from our brains to other parts of our body on how we should behave or react.
Through this transmission of neurons, our brain becomes active and can process the skills and responses required to function.
Different Areas of The Brain
The brain consists of several sections controlling different aspects of what makes you human. They include:
- The Cerebral Cortex: In charge of judgment and reasoning
- The Cerebellum: Responsible for balance and coordination
- The Hypothalamus: Regulates appetite, temperature, pain, and emotions
- The Amygdala: for regulating social behavior
- The Hippocampus: the center of memory and learning
The brain is also made up of two different types of matter: gray and white. Both matters add up to complete the total of the central nervous system. The gray matter houses most of the brain's neurotransmitters, while the white matter houses the axons, which keep the neurons together.
All these different parts of our brain are the core reasoning behind nearly all of our actions.
Alcohol’s Effects on The Brain
Alcohol affects the brain in many ways. Both the function and appearance of the brain are altered, potentially causing some detrimental and irreversible changes in the long-term.
How Does Alcohol Work in the Brain?
When a person begins drinking alcohol, it quickly enters the bloodstream, and through the bloodstream, it enters the brain. In the brain, alcohol affects neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that either increase or decrease brain activity through electrical impulses.
Alcohol addiction, unlike addictions to many other drugs, affects many different neurotransmitters at the same time, demonstrating why recovery can be so difficult for someone with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
With regards to why many people associate alcohol with becoming more social, Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the answer. GABA helps rid the user of inhibitions and slows down the brain. Dopamine, Glutamate, and Serotonin, which are neurotransmitters, stimulate pleasure and activate the brain’s reward center, signaling that alcohol, like food, is good for your well-being.
But serotonin and glutamate levels drop the more you drink, and as you consume more it can leave you feeling depressed. Many then begin the drinking process again to ease the negative or regretful feeling a hangover produces.
The more alcohol you consume, the more at risk you are for chronic anxiety, depression, and AUD, as this cycle is hard to break and leaves you craving the boost of neurons, like dopamine, once again.
Can Alcohol Affect Your Brain?
The more intoxicated you get, the more areas of the brain are compromised by the neurochemical reactions. That’s why it’s fairly obvious to tell the difference between someone who has had three drinks and someone who has had twelve.
With higher consumption, specifically for those who struggle with alcoholism, your brain and body slowly start needing more and more to achieve the desired effects. Binge drinking or addiction can grow out of this.
For those underage, alcohol has the greatest effect. As adolescents do not have fully developed brains, excessive drinking can disrupt brain development, structure, and function.
What is the First Brain Function Affected by Alcohol?
The first area compromised is the Cerebral Cortex, which causes confusion and lowers inhibitions. For example, jokes start to seem funnier, and a user may be less afraid to talk to new people or do something outside of their comfort zone.
Next, it hits the cerebellum, altering movement and balance. This is why intoxicated people may be more likely to fall or have slurred speech.
If the user continues drinking, the hypothalamus and amygdala become affected. This may make it harder to control emotions, and some people may even injure themselves and not realize it until the next day. At this point of consumption, the user can be described as someone who is acting on animal instincts since all parts of the brain that regulate human reasoning have gone offline.
If a user continues to drink at this point, it may affect the brain stem, which induces sleep and can cause irregular breathing and even seizures. This is how even one binge event can lead to an untimely death. Fortunately, most stop drinking or pass out before putting themselves at risk for this level of impairment.
The Brain After Alcohol Dissipates
While these impairments are not permanent and recede as the alcohol leaves the body, alcohol can also cause long-term damage to the brain in cases of continued, habitual use or use by individuals under the age of 21.
The more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk for permanent brain damage.
Does Alcohol Permanently Damage the Brain?
Alcohol consumption, in most cases, does not cause permanent brain damage in reasoning, memory, or other forms of cognition. After a couple of years of sobriety, this functioning returns to normal.
However, there are two main exceptions when long-term damage can be severe and life-altering. Two of these permanent problems include Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome and Hepatic Encephalopathy.
Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome
More commonly known as “wet brain,” this syndrome is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. It happens to people who are long-term alcohol-dependent because alcohol blocks the absorption of thiamine.
This syndrome arrives in two stages. The first is Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which causes several serious neurological problems, including symptoms such as muscle spasms, paralysis of the eye muscles, and general confusion. During this stage, the disorder can be reversed with thiamine supplementation.
But, if no one intervenes, an individual is at risk of it progressing quickly into Korsakoff psychosis, which is incurable.
At this stage, the individual experiences permanent memory loss and confabulation (creation of new but untrue memories), learning problems, hallucinations, unsteadiness on his or her feet, and dementia. It’s ideal to catch the disorder before it gets this far, but, sadly, this is not always a reality.
To prevent either stage from happening, those who abuse alcohol need to monitor their vitamin B intake.
Hepatic Encephalopathy has nothing to do with vitamin intake. Instead, it has to do with the liver.
When the liver can no longer filter toxins out of the blood, these toxins that come from drinking – like manganese and ammonia – circulate through the body and damage brain tissue. The damage to the brain can slow down reaction time and create general apathy.
Sometimes people with hepatic encephalopathy appear drunk even when sober due to slurred speech and behaviors that lie out of social norms or even norms for them before the damage occurred. In advanced stages, the brain shuts down completely, leaving the person in a coma.
Note that liver failure has to occur first before this disorder becomes symptomatic.
Other Permanent Damage in the Brain
While heavy drinking constricts blood vessels and can shrink the brain, one type of brain cells appears to be permanently damaged once the person achieves sobriety: the gray matter cells in the Parietal Lobe, the part of the brain in charge of spatial processing.
Even years after he or she stops drinking, a dependent drinker can have trouble figuring out how things relate to each other, such as judging distances on a map or putting a puzzle together. It is important to seek treatment for alcohol addiction before the damage becomes too severe.
The Risk of Blackouts and Overdose
If you are drinking in excess, you are also at risk of blacking out or experiencing an overdose, both which have an effect on your brain.
When you over drink, your brain becomes confused, and your memory becomes unreliable. This is also known as a blackout. Specifically, an alcohol-induced blackout occurs in the hippocampus part of your brain, where memory consolidation happens. It becomes affected by the intoxication and causes a stoppage of short-term memory, becoming long-term memory.
This can cause injuries, poor decision-making, and other detrimental events that can affect the rest of your life.
Overdosing on alcohol often follows blackouts, which can be dangerous and even lethal. When an individual is past the point of intoxication, their body stops responding to the brain’s most basic functioning and things as simple as breathing or a controlled heart rate can become impossible.
Some symptoms include difficulty breathing, vomiting and gagging, low heart rate, and inability to remain conscious, resulting in severe brain damage and even death.
How Does Alcohol Affect Other Parts of the Body?
The brain is not the only part of your body that is affected by drinking alcohol. Alcohol is made up of toxins and, therefore, negatively affects many different and vital parts of your body.
For those who drink mass amounts of alcohol, the following body parts are at risk for damage:
- Heart: risk of stroke, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat).
- Liver: risk of extreme inflammation, steatosis (known more commonly as “fatty liver,”) fibrosis, cirrhosis, and hepatitis.
- Pancreas: at risk for pancreatitis, which complicates digestion
- Immune system: higher risk of illness, more specifically pneumonia and tuberculosis.
One other major risk from overdrinking is a higher chance of cancer. People with alcohol addiction risk getting head, neck, liver, esophageal, breast, or colorectal cancer.
Lastly, your body’s overall functions and health are negatively affected by consuming too much alcohol. Body aches, fatigue, and brain fog are just some examples of how your body may respond.
Addiction Treatment and Recovery
If you or a loved one are concerned about their brain or other vital parts of their body being permanently affected by heavy drinking, there are many treatment solutions available to help with lasting recovery from Alcohol Use Disorder or addiction. Finding the right treatment plan and resources is key to avoiding long-standing damage from overdrinking.
Rehabilitation or Detoxification
For those with severe addiction, rehabilitation or detoxification may be the best first step in a treatment plan.
These programs come in all shapes and sizes. They differ in pedagogy, length, and outpatient or inpatient and can be an effective first step to learning how to manage AUD.
Because rehabilitation and detoxification come in many different forms, finding a place that aligns with your recovery goals and desired outcome is important.
One of the tools that can assist with managing your alcohol addiction is Soberlink. Soberlink allows users to document sobriety in real-time with a discreet remote breathalyzer that sends results automatically to designated individuals in the user’s Recovery Circle.
More than just an alcohol monitoring device, Soberlink’s comprehensive system provides scheduled testing and allows users to track progress via daily, weekly, or monthly reports using an easy-to- read color-coded Advanced Reporting system.
Soberlink and the accountability model it provides users often serves as a reminder of effects, such as the ones to the brain, that are occurring due to heavy alcohol consumption. Staying connected in a non-invasive way can help your brain heal over time before something permanently damaging takes place.
Relying on your Community
If you want to become sober, finding a support system to help you on the daunting journey is crucial. Accountability is a vital and required part of sustaining recovery.
Asking your friends and family to walk alongside you as you navigate a new way of life will help you keep momentum and motivation high. Rebuilding or strengthening relationships reminds you how loved and supported you are and helps give you a reason to continue to aim for sobriety.
Additionally, finding like-minded people who also are suffering from addiction is beneficial to your sobriety. Whether it be group counseling in a rehabilitation center or attending weekly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, having a place to find camaraderie is crucial. These types of communities can make you feel less alone and offer you a place to speak without fear of ridicule or judgment.
Making the Right Decisions
As outlined above, severe risks are associated with abusing alcohol for long periods of time.
Though damage may be reversible in some cases, others may not be as lucky. If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction, it is vital to be aware of these possibilities to make an informed decision moving forward.
Sobriety is challenging, but your health is worth it.
About the Author
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.