How Alcoholism Affects the Brain

How Alcoholism Affects the Brain

Alcohol is an integral part of the lives of many people. However, when after-work drinks turn into a day-long drinking spree, that’s when the bigger problems start to arise. Such an impact is felt most by the brain, that three-pound organ inside your head. The brain is responsible for more than just thinking – it governs all bodily functions as well. 

If you are guilty of often searching for answers at the bottom of the bottle, you might probably think twice once about hitting another bottle once you learn more about how alcoholism affects the brain.  

Drinking alcohol can lower your inhibitions.

Ever wonder why you’re suddenly a congenial person who can speak confidently to every individual around you? That’s the effect of alcohol on the cerebral cortex, which governs your thought processes.  This might sound like a good idea if you can’t muster up the courage to talk to the pretty lady by the bar, but it’s not. If you continue drinking, alcohol can further depress your inhibitions. This might lead to risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex and driving under the influence. 

You might dismiss these as little things, but these often turn out lethal. Unprotected sex accounts for numerous sexually transmitted diseases, including the often-fatal HIV-AIDS.  DUI, on the other hand, can push you to become one of the 1.25 million who die in road accidents every year.

Alcohol can make you act slower. 

The central nervous system (CNS) works by relaying the signal from the brain to the part of the body that it wants to move. This usually works seamlessly but with alcohol in the system, the conduction mechanism is delayed. Alcohol, after all, is a CNS depressant, meaning it can slow down brain activity. The result? Slow speaking, moving and thinking.

Your vital signs can go haywire.

Whenever you feel cold – or feel as if your heart is racing out of your chest – it’s your hypothalamus telling you that you are way beyond the safe drinking limits. 

The hypothalamus ensures your body’s homeostasis or internal balance by altering your heart rate, blood pressure, among many other functions. With alcohol in the system, hypothalamic processes go haywire – heart rate and temperature decrease while blood pressure, thirst, hunger, and urination increase. 

It can affect your motor skills – as well as your balance. 

Alcohol intake of 10 to 12 units affects the cerebellum, the brain’s center for awareness, thought, and coordination. As a result, you may feel shaky or jittery – so much so that you won’t be able to hold on to things the way you did pre-alcohol.  To make matters worse, this feeling can lead to dizziness and loss of balance – with falls and accidents potentially happening. Again, these side effects are almost always lethal. 

Should the abuse continue, this simple cerebellar involvement can lead to alcoholic cerebellar degeneration. This condition can affect eye movements, gait, and muscle coordination. In the long run, this can lead to an inability to walk. 

Excessive drinking can lead to memory loss.

Memory is just one of the many brain functions affected by alcohol use. This happens when alcohol reaches the hippocampus, an area of the brain governing memory formation. The hippocampus is so sensitive that 2 glasses are enough to alter your memory.  

Should you continue with your alcoholic binge, you can end up with a damaged hippocampus. What happens after this is quite drastic, as you might find it harder to learn and retain new knowledge. This has been proven in a study by Sabia et al. Results show heavy alcohol drinkers experienced faster cognitive decline. 

Increased alcohol intake can make you feel depressed.

In small amounts, alcohol can make you feel happy – that’s because this substance brings about an increase in dopamine, the feel-good hormone. But as your blood alcohol concentration reaches 0.05, this happiness can immediately turn into depression. As has been mentioned, alcohol is a CNS depressant. As the name suggests, it can make you feel down in the dumps.

Apart from that, alcohol often leads to poor decision-making. This usually comes with consequences, such as broken relationships and drained bank account – factors that might throw you farther down into a pit of depression. 

You may lose consciousness. 

The movie “Dude, Where’s my Car?” is the classic example of memory loss after binge drinking. Following a night of getting wasted, Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott found themselves blacked out, unable to remember what transpired the day before.

This is, however, more than just tacky 2000’s Hollywood portrayal – alcohol blackout does occur, especially if your drink 12 or more units of alcohol. This happens when you drink copious amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time. The brain, overwhelmed with the situation, is then unable to form short-term memories. 

Blackout might sound like passing out, but it’s not the same. With an alcohol blackout, you remain conscious, yet you won’t have a recollection of what happened recently. 

Should you decide to continue binge drinking despite the unpleasantness of the mentioned short-term effects, you might end up developing the following conditions associated with long-term use: 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

This disorder is brought about by the loss of Vitamin B12 or Thiamine due to heavy drinking.  As a result, the body is left unable to absorb nutrients. This two-prong disease is characterized by two sets of symptoms. Double vision, confusion, mental impairment, and muscle tremors illustrate Wernicke’s encephalopathy, while hallucinations and severe memory loss describe Korsakoff syndrome. 

A good thing about Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is that it can be reversed with abstinence and treatment. However, if you continue binge drinking, you can expect the symptoms to worsen. In 20% of cases, it often leads to premature death.  

Delirium Tremens 

Alcohol has bad effects that can become even worse once you stop using it abruptly. This condition is called alcohol withdrawal syndrome or delirium tremens. Life-threatening side effects occur since brain function has been overly dependent on alcohol. Symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, tremors, severe confusion, and convulsions. 

Alcoholism affects most brain regions, impairing the person greatly as time passes by. With studies showing that intake of both moderate and excessive amounts can lead to adverse brain outcomes, it is best to make the necessary lifestyle changes while the damages are still reversible


Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)

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