Most people drink alcohol. Its pleasurable effects allow you to relax, feel confident and have a good time. This is due to alcohol affecting your brain as soon as it enters the bloodstream. Once the alcohol has reached your brain, you will think differently and feel differently.
In a healthy person who is able to set safe limitations on their drinking, the brain and body can cope and are able to process and eliminate alcohol efficiently and quickly. However, when an individual drinks frequently or too excessively, the liver struggles to process alcohol fast enough. This means that alcohol stays in their system for longer, this triggers immediate chemical changes in the brain.
Excessive alcohol consumption over a prolonged period of time can result in damage to the brain and to other vital organs. When an individual suffers from alcoholism, brain damage can become very apparent and become irreversible.
How excessive alcohol intake affects the brain
Binge drinking and excessive alcohol consumption not only destroys brain cells but also has a long term effect on the brains neurotransmitters. Alcohol prevents the brains neurotransmitters from communicating properly and from working effectively. This can cause them to work counterproductively.
Long term alcohol abuse also results in nutritional deficiencies. Essential B vitamins are required to maintain healthy brain function. Alcohol prevents essential vitamins from being absorbed and in long term excessive drinking an individual can become very depleted. Ultimately their brain suffers as a result.
Even moderate alcohol consumption can have a negative effect on the brain. Although with moderate alcohol use, these effects are temporary.
Alcohols short term effects on the brain
Drinking moderately still changes the way the brain functions and can result in the following symptoms. Thankfully with moderate alcohol use, these symptoms are temporary and normal brain function is restored once alcohol has left the persons system.
Short term effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Change in mood
- Loss of inhibition
- A false sense of confidence
- Reduced motor skills
- Delayed reflexes
- Euphoria and elation
- Decreased concentration levels
- Anxiety and depression
- Memory loss and difficulty in forming new memories
- Poor judgement and decision making
Alcohol poisoning and alcohol overdose
In an individual that drinks excessively, more serious and even life-threatening effects can happen. The ethanol in alcohol is poisonous to us, the longer it stays in our system the more damage is caused to the body and to the brain.
Alcoholic poisoning results from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol within a relatively short space of time. The liver is unable to process all the alcohol adequately which results in the brain being severely affected.
People who binge drink are at most risk of alcohol poisoning, as are those who mix alcohol with drugs or medications for greater effect and those that have a low tolerance to alcohol.
An overdose of alcohol/alcohol poisoning produces the following short term effects and symptoms
- Extreme drowsiness and difficulty staying awake or conscious
- Clammy skin
- Slowed heart rate
- Inhibited gag reflex – this can cause the person to choke on their own vomit
- Drop-in body temperature
Left untreated alcohol poisoning can be fatal. The effects of alcohol on the brain inhibit its ability to sustain basic functions that enable us to live.
In severe cases of alcohol poisoning, even if the person is treated and survives they may well be left with irreparable brain damage.
Long term effects of alcohol on the brain
Drinking heavily for a prolonged period of time causes long term damage to the brain. The severity of the damage depends on numerous personal factors, but generally, the more you drink, the more often you drink, and the longer you drink to excess – the more harm is likely to be caused.
Long term heavy drinkers that stop and undergo vitamin therapy and maintain abstinence stand a good chance of the damage being reversed. Sadly with alcohol-related brain damage that isn’t addressed promptly, this isn’t always the case. The person may continue to have trouble with concentration, memory and depression for example. This is quite common in varying degrees in alcoholics that find recovery.
The worst alcohol-related brain damage that a person can be left with is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. These are two chronic brain damage conditions that when combined together are debilitating.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is commonly referred to as wet brain disease. The majority of individuals that are affected by this require supported living and supervision for the rest of their lives.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy presents in the following symptoms:
- Significant weight loss through malnourishment
- Poor balance and coordination
- Confusion that continues past drunkness and when the individual is sobering up
- Difficulty in moving the eyes and jerky eye movements
Korsakoff syndrome can follow on from Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Korsakoff syndrome is a type of dementia and has the following symptoms:
- Mood swings and changes in personality
- Poor judgments and decision-making skills
- Poor memory and in particular forming new memories
- Inability to organise and plan
- Hallucinations – auditory or visual – seeing or hearing things that are not there
- Cognitive decline and worsening of bodily control. This can affect speech, vision, hearing and bowel and bladder function
These two conditions occur together when the brain is severely starved of vitamin B nutrients through chronic alcoholism. Wernicke-Koprsakoff syndrome can also affect those that suffer from any condition, disease or illness that prevents the body from absorbing nutrients, such as eating disorders, cancer and HIV.
Any individual that undergoes an alcohol detox should be prescribed Thiamine and high strength vitamin B-1 to support the brains recovery.
Recognising the Early Signs of Alcoholic Brain Damage
If you are a heavy drinker and have started to experience issues whilst sober and a decline in function when drunk, it is time to seek immediate help for your alcohol problem.
Alcohol-related brain impairment does have some early signs that should not be ignored. Continuing to drink and not seeking treatment is likely to result in a further decline of your mental and physical health that may become irreversible.
Early signs of alcoholic brain damage include:
- Aggressive and angry outbursts
- Withdrawal and social anxiety
- Poor motivation
- Untidiness and poor hygiene habits
- Sexually inappropriate behaviour
- Inability to control emotions
Brain injuries acquired through alcohol
Alcohol is a considerable contributing factor in many brain injuries acquired through accidents, falls and violence. In 2010 a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health showed that between 35-81% of individuals who have sought medical treatment for a traumatic brain injury, were intoxicated at the time the injury was sustained.
There is no denying that alcohol increases your risk of being injured – Alcohol reduces your ability to make safe decisions, increases risk-taking, reduces inhibitions, affects mood and inhibits balance and coordination. The more alcohol you consume, the higher the risks of a traumatic injury occurring.
Getting help for alcohol-related brain damage
If you or a loved one are showing signs of alcohol-related brain damage, or are drinking excessively enough to regularly put your health at risk, it is imperative that you seek help to stop drinking alcohol sooner rather than later.
PCP rehabs offer a full medical alcohol detox with vitamin therapy that supports the brain whilst you stop alcohol. Following a detox, an accurate assessment can then be made to determine if there is a need for further medical intervention.
Alternatively, your local GP will be able to assess your symptoms and advise you accordingly.
Please don’t ignore the early signs of alcohol-related brain damage. In most cases where treatment is sought quickly, the effects can be successfully reversed, providing you achieve and maintain abstinence from alcohol.
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