How does alcohol affect the brain? This is a great question that you probably don’t know the answer to. You know that when you drink too much, you end up getting drunk, but why? What is it that it does in the brain that causes this to happen?
It’s important to know the effects of alcohol on the brain, especially if you’re a heavy drinker. You may even know someone who drinks a lot, and you want to warn them. Most people who drink excessively have no idea the kind of damage they may be doing.
Do You Know What Alcohol Does to the Brain?
The effects of alcohol on the brain frequently go under diagnosed. Heavy alcohol use, especially over long periods of time, has serious ramifications for your brain function, in ways that are difficult or impossible to reverse.
Research is still being conducted on this topic, because science has yet to fully understand the human brain. But we know more than enough now to understand some of the drastic effects alcohol has on the brain. The effects of extended use are so severe that they can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s or dementia in the elderly.
Of course, there are other negative effects. Liver disease being chief among them. But that’s another story entirely. Here, we’re going to break down the specific effects alcohol has on the brain, both short- and long-term.
What Happens When You Get Drunk
First off, alcohol is a depressant. It’s a drug, and regardless of the fact that you see it advertised all around you on a constant basis, it is still a potentially dangerous substance.
Of course, while alcohol – or rather its active ingredient, ethanol – is a depressant, it actually works in phases. In the first stage, you feel great. That’s because drinking releases dopamine to your brain. Dopamine is the “reward” substance in your brain that makes you feel good about what you’re doing. This is a big part of the reason why alcohol – and other drugs – seem as pleasant as they do.
While your brain is feeling a high off of your drinking, your stomach and liver are working overtime to process the alcohol and prevent it from getting into your bloodstream. In small quantities, your body can do that, which is why drinks with low alcohol content never get you drunk.
The initial rush usually lasts about a half-hour, and is a big reason why people never stop at “just one drink.” if you’re still drinking consistently, the depressive effects kick in. These effects are the ones that slow movement and reaction speed, and blocks the parts of your brain that work as behavioral inhibitors. This is why people are more prone to making decisions while drunk that they wouldn’t have normally.
In extreme cases, drunkenness may lead to a blackout and memory loss. But why is that, and how big of a problem is it?
Understanding Alcoholic Blackouts and Memory Problems
Blackouts generally occur because the person has had too much to drink in too short a period of time. But you already knew that. Alcohol, in too large a quantity, impairs the brain’s ability to transfer memories from short-term to long-term memory, which is why people who blackout may be unable to remember large parts of their time intoxicated.
However, one thing worth noting is that blackouts are not exactly caused by a large amount of alcohol consumption. They are, specifically, caused by a sharp spike in blood-alcohol content. In other words, you’re more like to blackout having six drinks in one hour than if you had 10 drinks slowly over the course of several hours.
Does Alcohol Affect Women’s Brains Differently Than Men’s?
Many studies have been done to answer this question. According to Forbes, a new study found that it’s true that alcohol affects women’s brains differently. In the study, none of the participants suffered from an alcohol use disorder. However, they all drank heavily on a regular basis. The participants in the study were all in their 20s. This suggests that it might not take decades before significant changes in the brain from alcohol are visible.
They were testing two types of GABA receptors during the study; A and B. GABA-A is believed to influence drinking patterns, while GABA-B is connected to the desire to drink. Females reacted strongly within the GABA-A receptor, while men reacted in both. This explains why more men are alcoholics than women. It also suggests that men are more likely to binge drink. What’s interesting is that even though more men drink than women, women are starting to catch up. In recent years, these numbers are starting to become more similar.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has additional information on this topic. They state that women are much more sensitive and vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on the brain. They tend to get impaired faster than men, and they achiever higher BAC levels after consuming the same amounts.
Types of Drinking and the Related Dangers Explained
Of course, we know that not all alcohol consumption is the same. There are different levels of drinking, and not all of them are bad. It’s important to understand the differences, but you also need to know the possible dangers.
There really isn’t any harm in occasional drinking, as long as it’s not being done excessively. Sometimes people think that if they drink a lot once a month or so, there are no risks. That’s not entirely true.
While your brain and your body will recover from drinking a lot once in a while, it’s still not smart. Drinking too much in one sitting is better referred to as binge drinking, which we’ll cover in just a moment. Anyone who does this is at risk for making poor decisions, such as getting behind the wheel of a car.
On the other hand, if you’re someone who only has a few drinks once in a while, there’s no need for alarm. You’re treating alcohol exactly as you should.
There tends to be a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of moderate drinking. Some say that it’s not bad for you, and that there are actually a lot of benefits to it. Others say that drinking alcohol moderately can have adverse effects on the brain and on health in general. Moderate drinking is defined as up to 4 drinks for men, and 3 for women in a day. Experts also indicate that there is a maximum of 14 for men and 7 for women per week.
The benefits of moderate drinking are poorly studied, but they indicate that it may be good for the heart. It was also found to be associated with a lower risk of stroke and depression.
Moderate drinking does have its risks as well. It may contribute to dementia in older people and mental health problems in younger people. It may also contribute to liver problems and arrhythmias. It’s possible that it also plays a part in causing nerve damage and seizures.
Heavy and Chronic Drinking
The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as binge drinking episodes that occur five times within a month. They don’t have to take place every single day in order to be a problem. This is where many people tend to get confused. They assume that they don’t have an issue with alcohol if they’re not drinking daily.
Heavy drinking contributes to many alcohol-related problems, including cancer and liver disease. When people are chronic drinkers, it is safe to assume that they have alcoholism.
The CDC defines binge drinking as when men consume 5 or more drinks and women consume 4 or more drinks in two hours. This is a pattern that will bring their BAC levels to 0.08% or above.
Interestingly enough, the CDC states that most people who binge are not dependent upon alcohol. Even so, they still have a serious problem with it. If they don’t stop, they could easily become alcoholics.
Binge drinking is associated with many health problems, such as:
- Car crashes and other types of accidents.
- Sexually transmitted infections or diseases.
- Sudden infant death syndrome.
- Learning and memory difficulties.
- Chronic diseases such as heart disease and high blood pressure.
Know the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Now that you know more about what the different types of drinking are, maybe you can see where you fall. If you drink chronically or heavily, you need to know the effects of alcohol on your brain.
Heavy alcohol use can cause both short and long-term effects on the brain. You don’t have to be drinking for a long time to experience the consequences of it.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
When you drink too much – even if it’s your first time – you’re going to experience the negative effects. These might include:
- Slurring your speech.
- Becoming drowsy.
- Having problems with your vision and hearing.
- Problems with your judgment and making decisions.
- Problems with your coordination.
- Blackouts and memory lapses.
It’s even possible to fall unconscious or go into a coma. When this occurs, it’s usually because you’ve suffered from alcohol poisoning. This can happen if you underestimate the impact that drinking so much can have on you.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol in the Brain
We’ve discussed largely the effects of being drunk and binge drinking on the brain, and largely just in the way it affects the brain and body immediately.
But that doesn’t come anywhere close to telling the whole story. Actually, long-term alcohol use can cause long-term problems with the brain, even if you don’t binge drink or regularly get drunk. It’s most common to see symptoms in someone who has been a heavy drinker for a long time. But long-term changes in the brain can result from either a single instance of heavy drinking, or an extended period of moderate drinking.
Many factors go into determining risk factors for alcohol affecting the brain, like:
- how much a person drinks
- how often a person drinks
- what age the person began drinking
- how long the person has been drinking
- education level
- genes and family history
- general health
Like anything else with addiction, the answer is never cut-and-dry. There are a lot of factors, and a lot of unexplained variables. Some frequent binge drinkers may avoid any serious symptoms from alcohol consumption. Others may find themselves hammered with symptoms despite relatively light usage.
Regardless, there is a clear correlation between alcohol use and a number of adverse effects.
A recent study showed alterations in the cortex and throughout the brain’s functional capacity in otherwise mentally-healthy adolescents. The electrical and chemical reactions in the brains of adults who drank heavily as adolescents was notably different from those who did not. The study showed a change in the GABA neurotransmission system, which is known to play a role in mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
The full extent of this link is not clear, but it is making researchers rethink standards for determining when alcohol use becomes a substance abuse disorder, especially in younger people.
Long-term drinking is also connected to a reduced size of brain cells, and as a result, a shrinking of the brain entirely. As you might expect, a smaller brain leads to myriad problems, such as problems with learning, memory and basic motor skills.
Sleeping is also difficult for routine drinkers, especially once they’ve stopped drinking. Because the brain adapts, and begins producing chemicals to deal with the regular onslaught of alcohol, removing the alcohol from your life can cause imbalance that alters your mood, sleeping ability, and even the way you experience temperature fluctuations.
This is the same concept that drives withdrawal symptoms.
More Long-Term Effects
Some of the long-term effects you’ll feel from drinking won’t be medical effects, or even physical ones. In some cases, the effects might be consequential.
It’s commonly known that alcohol leads people to make bad decisions. This is actually supported by science. It blocks the part of the brain responsible for inhibition. In other words, the part of the brain that tells you when something is a bad idea doesn’t work properly when you’re under the influence.
This can play out in some innocent ways, like someone busting out a silly dance at a wedding. But it can also lead to some bad decisions that stay with you (in more than just a video you’ll never live down).
Alcohol use leads to a lowering of sexual inhibition, which can lead to infidelity, or unprotected sex leading to STDs or an unexpected pregnancy.
It also gives thousands of people every month the confidence that they’re fine to drive, which can lead to a DUI or much worse.
About Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)
Wernicke-Kirsakoff Syndrome is a condition that is quite common among people with alcohol use disorder. It’s caused because Vitamin B1 is deficient in the body due to excessive drinking. WKS is actually a combination of two different conditions – Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.
The symptoms of WKS include:
- Bouts of confusion.
- The loss of mental activity that can progress into a coma and eventually, death.
- Loss of muscle control.
- Changes in vision.
- Problems with forming new memories.
- Severe memory loss.
- Having hallucinations.
For someone who develops this condition, it cannot be reversed. Treatment can be prescribed to keep it from progressing.
About Hepatic Encephalopathy
Hepatic encephalopathy is a condition that can result in people with liver disease. It is caused by the buildup of toxins in the brain. When HE develops, people may notice that many aspects of their lives are affected. For example, they may notice changes in their:
- Sleep patterns
- Coordination and movements
The symptoms of HE aren’t always easy to see at first. At first, they’re usually mild, and they can include:
- Bouts of confusion.
- Forgetting things easily.
- Inappropriate speech.
- Lack of interest.
- General sense of irritability.
- Breath that smells strange.
- Slurred speech.
- Difficulty using or moving the hands.
In many cases, the symptoms of HE can be controlled with the proper treatment. However, the condition may not be reversible.
A Word About Alcohol and the Developing Brain – Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Unfortunately, many pregnant women will drink during their pregnancies. When they do, they put their babies at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Babies with this condition may have abnormal facial features or problems with growth as they get older. They could also have issues with their central nervous systems. Sometimes FAS can result in fetal death.
People born with FAS will often have trouble in school, according to the CDC. It may be difficult for them to concentrate, and they may struggle socially.
What to Do About Abuse and Alcoholism
You don’t have to be an alcoholic to suffer adverse effects from drinking. However, it is still helpful to recognize the early warning signs of alcohol abuse.
Recognizing a problem before it gets out of hand is the best way to ensure you never have to deal with the pain of addiction. Prevention truly is the best treatment, because once addiction has gripped you, it doesn’t let go, even if you get sober. Know when enough is too much, and set boundaries for yourself.
Of course, if it’s too late for that, don’t despair. There is still help for you, and you can still get yourself sober before the negative effects we’ve discussed set in. Some (but not all) of the brain damage done by alcoholism is reversible.
Consider joining a support group. Alcoholics Anonymous is the biggest addiction-related support group in the world, and it’s completely free to join. And if AA isn’t really your speed, there are plenty of alternatives.
You should also consider getting professional treatment if you’ve tried to quit several times and failed. Addiction isn’t your fault, but it isn’t going to let you go easily. Addiction, you could say, is one of the most severe effects alcohol has on the brain.
It brings you back in no matter how many times you try to leave, by altering your brain’s decision-making process and forcing you to believe drinking is a necessary part of your life, even when it isn’t. Even if you’re able to cut yourself off from alcohol, there is still a high likelihood you’ll run into potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms, which will require immediate medical attention.
Many people are connected closely to someone with an alcohol problem. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to face recovery alone.
Get the Recovery Help You Need to Stop Drinking
If you are an alcoholic, it’s very important to get the help you need to recover. Alcoholism isn’t a condition that you can recover from on your own. You need professional assistance, otherwise, you’re likely to go back to drinking again.
This means that you will need to go to alcohol rehab and detox. Both are going to be instrumental in giving you the tools you need to fight your alcohol dependence.
What is Alcohol Detox?
Going to an alcohol detox program is going to be the first step in your recovery. You may not realize what a powerful hold alcohol has over you right now. However, you may be afraid to stop drinking because of the risk of going through withdrawal. This is typical. Many people are scared of their withdrawal symptoms.
Fortunately, alcohol detoxification can get you through this difficult time. It works by helping your body cleanse itself of those harmful toxins, which lead to your symptoms. As a result, it can make your recovery a lot easier on you, both physically and mentally.
What is Alcohol Rehab?
After you’ve detoxed, going to an alcohol rehab is the next step in your recovery. This is where you’ll work on the issues that led to your addiction. It’s very important that you don’t neglect this part of your healing. There are so many reasons why people turn to the bottle. You need to know what’s at the root of your alcoholism. That way, it can be treated in the right way.
During your alcoholism treatment, you’ll receive many types of therapy. You’ll work with a counselor one-on-one and you’ll also have group therapy sessions. There are other activities that you’ll participate in as well, as a part of your treatment plan.
Most people believe that going to alcohol rehab was the best decision they could have made. They found it to be very rewarding for them, and they’re glad they did it. You will feel the same way because it’s going to help give you your life back.
Can Alcoholism Treatment Reverse the Negative Effects of Alcohol on the Brain?
You may be wondering if your brain recovers after you quit drinking alcohol. This is a hard question to answer because everyone is so different. There may be some effects that can be reversed, and some might not. Your brain does make new brain cells as the years go by and you remain alcohol-free. However, some parts of the brain may be damaged beyond repair.
For instance, the frontal lobe may experience significant damage due to your alcoholism. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for logical thinking and behavior control. Even so, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. That way you can retain as much of your brain’s abilities as possible.
Why Choose Northpoint Washington for Alcohol Rehab and Detox Treatments?
At Northpoint Washington, we have an exceptional alcohol rehab and detox program. We understand that right now, you may be feeling nervous about seeking help. Most people do once they realize that they are battling alcoholism. We want you to know that we’ll do everything we can to make it easy for you.
With our professional support, you can overcome the disease of alcoholism. Isn’t it time that you made the decision to get help and protect your brain from the effects of alcohol?
Please contact us today if you’d like more information.