How Alcohol Affects the Brain and Damages Your Life
Are you curious about how alcohol affects the brain? The body does not actually like alcohol. When it detects alcohol, it goes into defense mode and produces alcohol dehydrogenase (AD), an enzyme. This enzyme converts alcohol into a nonintoxicating substance called acetaldehyde, breaks it down and clears it from the body. Basically, drinking is a kind of race to keep enough alcohol in your body to prevent the cleanup process from occuring.
Alcohol’s Brain-Damaging Effect
In reaction to alcohol, drinkers experience effects like slowed-down reactions, blurry vision, trouble walking, blackouts, memory lapses, poor judgement, and slurred speech. In a social drinker, these symptoms clear up quickly after drinking stops. On the other hand, long term heavy drinkers may continue to experience these symptoms even after sobering up. Women are more at risk for alcoholic brain damage than men, and the longer and heavier one drinks, the more damage will occur.
Symptoms of Alcoholic Brain Damage
Difficulties with thinking and cognition
Depression and anxiety
Most heavy drinkers develop thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency at some point. With continued drinking and no intervention, a serious brain condition called Wernickeâ€“Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) can develop. Also known as “wet brain,” WKS is characterized by initial short term encephalopathy and long term psychosis. Symptoms include extreme mental confusion, drowsiness, a staggering gait and forgetfulness. There may be loss of coordination, inability to separate what’s real from what’s not, and paralysis of the nerves affecting the eyes. In 20 percent of cases, these symptoms become so severe that custodial care is required.
Cirrhosis of the liver, which is caused by alcohol, can also damage the brain and cause a serious condition called hepatic encephalopathy (HE). This condition is potentially fatal and can disrupt sleep, cause personality changes, and alter mood. The brain damage occurs, because the liver looses its ability to remove toxins from the blood. Other symptoms of HE include a short attention span, diminished cognitive function, and severe problems with balance and coordination.
Cerebellar atrophy results from physical injury to the brain due to excessive consumption of alcohol. It may be very mild or very severe, and it’s similar to ataxia, which is the loss of full control of bodily movements.
Peripheral neuropathy (PN) also results from excessive alcohol consumption. It affects the hands, legs, and feet. Early signs of damage include numbness, pain, a burning sensation, and muscle wasting in the extremities.
Frontal Lobe Dysfunction
When the frontal lobes are damaged by alcohol, there are changes in behavior, personality, and thinking patterns. It becomes difficult for the patient to be flexible, to plan and organize activities, or to adapt to change and unfamiliar situations. In serious cases, it may become almost impossible to monitor or control behavior.
Many drinkers are unaware of how alcohol affects the brain until after the damage is done. The good news is that for many people, alcohol abstinence and long term sobriety can lessen or even reverse some or all alcohol-related brain damage.