Skip to content

How Alcohol Affects the Brain?

How Alcohol Affects the Brain?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [1], alcohol use contributes to almost 88,000 deaths in the United States each year. While many alcohol-related deaths result from motor vehicle accidents, other causes include falls, drownings, homicide, suicide, burns, and sexual or other violence.

Alcohol has a strong effect on the complex structures of the brain. It blocks chemical signals between brain cells (called neurons), causing common immediate symptoms of intoxication, including slurred speech, impulsive behavior, slowed reflexes, and poor memory. If heavy drinking continues over a long period of time, the brain adjusts to the blocked signals by reacting more dramatically to certain brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). 

Even after alcohol leaves the system, the brain continues over-activating the neurotransmitters, leading to potentially dangerous and painful alcohol withdrawal symptoms that damage brain cells. This damage is made more harmful by drinking binges.  A wet brain is a form of alcohol brain damage that results from repeat and heavy exposure to alcohol.

How Much Alcohol Is Safe To Drink Daily
How alcohol affects the brain? There are slight differences in how alcohol leads to brain damage in men and women, but regardless of gender, loss of brain matter increases with age and the amount of alcohol drunk.

Alcohol’s harm to the brain can take several forms. The first is neurotoxicity, which happens when neurons overreact to neurotransmitters for too long. Too much exposure to a neurotransmitter can cause neurons to eventually “burn out.”.

Since neurons make up the pathways between different parts of the brain, when they start burning out, it can cause a noticeable slowing in the reactions of these pathways. In addition to pathway damage, brain matter itself is also damaged by heavy alcohol intake. Individuals with alcohol dependence often experience “brain shrinkage,” which is a reduced volume of both gray matters (cell bodies) and white matters (cell pathways) over time.

Is alcoholism a mental disease? Multiple studies have found a connection between excessive alcohol use and damaged brain function, resulting in conditions such as mental disorders, dementia, deficits in learning and memory, and other cognitive damage. Without intervention, the brain can be permanently damaged by chronic alcohol use. However, it’s possible to reverse this damage and heal the brain with proper alcoholism treatment that always starts with alcohol detox in an inpatient alcohol rehab.

Even in short-term consumption, alcohol affects areas of the brain controlling motor and cognitive functions, causing them to slow down. As a result, alcohol damages judgment, memory, and coordination and affects sleep patterns.

When consumed long-term, alcohol may cause permanent brain damage. When a person consumes alcohol in large amounts or over a long period of time, the effects on the brain and body can be lethal. Alcohol adversely affects several regions of the brain and the Central Nervous System (CNS), which includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. In addition, because alcohol is a depressant, it can dangerously suppress breathing and lower body temperature to life-threatening levels.

Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce an alcohol blackout, or an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events, or even entire events [2].

What Part of the Brain does Alcohol Affect?

Alcoholism can affect the brain and behavior in a variety of ways, and multiple factors can influence these effects. A person’s susceptibility to alcoholism-related brain damage may be associated with his or her age, gender, drinking history, and nutrition, as well as with the vulnerability of specific brain regions.

Researchers use a variety of methods to study alcoholism-related brain damage, including examining the brains of deceased patients as well as neuroimaging, a technique that enables researchers to test and observe the living brain and evaluate structural damage in the brain [3].

The brain controls our emotions, thoughts, memory, temperature, senses, organs, motor functions, and autonomic activities like breathing. Alcohol can have a damaging health impact on all of these important brain functions.

The Cerebral Cortex is the thinking center of our consciousness. It’s where we process incoming information and where we formulate decisions and judgments. Alcohol depresses this function, clouding the thought process, slowing the input of sensory information, and decreasing inhibitions. Long-term alcohol consumption can permanently impact the cerebral cortex.

The Cerebellum is the center of movement, equilibrium, coordination, and balance. Alcohol damages this brain region, affecting our balance, causing us to stagger, unsteady, and possibly fall. It may also cause our hands to shake.

The Hypothalamus and the Pituitary work together to connect the nervous system to the endocrine system. This region of the brain both inhibits and stimulates key hormonal processes in order to maintain the body’s internal balance. Alcohol disrupts and depresses the balance of these systems, as well as affects sexual desire and performance. Sexual desire may intensify, but the ability to perform may be impaired.

How alcohol affects the brain
How alcohol affects the brain? Alcohol intake can result in cognitive deficits, but several studies have shown that abstinence can reverse much of the physical and cognitive damage caused by heavy drinking if treatment begins in time. 

The Medulla controls such automatic functions as breathing, consciousness, and body temperature. Alcohol depresses these important functions, causing slowing breathing, lowering body temperature, and possibly coma. Depression of automatic functions can be fatal.

The Hippocampus controls memory. Alcohol affects this area, causing memory loss, alcohol blackouts, and affecting the ability to learn. Long-term alcohol consumption can permanently affect memory and can contribute to dementia.

The Central Nervous System is made up of the spinal cord, brain, and nerves. Alcohol slows down the transmission of messages to and from these areas, slowing movement, speech, and thinking.

Alcohol Effects on the Brain 

Blurred vision, difficulty walking, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory: Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these damages are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain deficits that stay well after he or she achieves sobriety. Exactly how alcohol affects the brain, and the possibility of reversing the effect of heavy drinking on the brain remain hot topics in alcohol research today.

We do know that heavy drinking may have vast and far-reaching effects on the brain, varying from simple “slips” in memory to enduring and debilitating conditions that need lifetime custodial care. And even moderate alcohol intake leads to short–term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain, including

  • How much and how often a person drinks
  • His or her general health status.
  • The age at which the individual first began drinking, and how long that individual has been drinking
  • The individual’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism
  • Whether he or she is at risk as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol intoxication is a result of short-term effects on the central nervous system. Symptoms of alcohol intoxication, such as mild cognitive and physical impairment, may become obvious after just 1 or 2 drinks, but heavier consumption can result in alcohol overdose if someone consumes too much alcohol during one sitting.

The immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are due to its influence on the organ’s communication and information-processing pathways. Unfortunately, drinking too much or too fast can result in several negative mental effects, such as impaired motor coordination, confusion, and declined decision-making ability. Continuing drinking despite recognizing signs of this can lead to alcohol overdose, usually referred to as “alcohol poisoning”. Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous and potentially fatal consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Those who drink more heavily are at increased risk for damaging alcohol-related complications, especially if they drink heavily over long periods of time. Long-term health risks of chronic alcohol use include heart, liver, and digestion problems, cancer, immune system weakening as well as mood and sleep disturbances, and the development of other mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.

Alcohol can inflict continuing harm on your brain and result in shrinkage of the organ region known as the hippocampus. The brain shrinkage was proportional to the amount of alcohol the individual consumed, and even mild and moderate drinkers showed more shrinkage of the hippocampus than those who abstained from alcohol completely.

Those who consume alcohol excessively and for long periods of time also risk thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency as a result of poor nutrition, which may result in the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), commonly referred to as “wet brain”. This condition can cause persisting mental confusion, difficulty with coordination, eye movement disturbances, and persistent learning and memory problems.

Lastly, long-term alcohol intake can also lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which may be referred to as having an “alcohol addiction” or “alcoholism”. An AUD is a compulsive, problematic pattern of alcohol use that persists despite negative consequences to a person’s job, health, and personal relationships. 

How alcohol affects the brain
How alcohol affects the brain? No matter how long you have had a drinking problem, now is the best time to stop drinking. Quitting alcohol may help reverse some alcohol-related brain damage, prevent premature death, and reduce the risk of further damage.

What Effect can Alcohol have on My Mental Health? 

Alcohol affects the brain, making you feel relaxed in a small amount of time. As you drink more, you become unsteady and intoxicated, and you might do or say things you normally won’t.

Individuals with depression and anxiety might use alcohol to help ease symptoms, but excessive alcohol use can also worsen their mental health.

Depression and alcohol consumption are closely linked. Sometimes individuals drink alcohol to help with the symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety. Alcohol changes the way your brain cells signal to each other, which can make you feel relaxed.

Other times individuals use alcohol to self-medicate. While this can feel good for a short time, this effect doesn’t last for long. The feelings of bliss wear off, and they can worsen your depression symptoms.

Some side effects of alcohol consumption include the following:

  • Worsening of mental health after the calm feeling fades
  • Hangovers, including headaches and nausea, and vomiting
  • Post-alcohol anxiety and/or depression

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) [3], the co-occurrence of alcohol and anxiety disorders is relatively common. The research found that 20% of those with social anxiety have an alcohol misuse problem.If you keep drinking a lot of alcohol, it can cause more problems and make your depression and anxiety worse over time.

Consequences of Alcohol Damage

Drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can take a serious toll on your health. Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:

Brain

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.  

Heart

Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:

  • Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of the heart muscle
  • Arrhythmias – Irregular heartbeat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure  

Liver

Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:

Pancreas

Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. 

Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute: “There is a strong scientific consensus that alcohol drinking can cause several types of cancer. In its Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists the consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen.

Clear patterns have emerged between alcohol consumption and increased risks of certain types of cancer:

  • Head and neck cancer, including oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx cancers.
  • Esophageal cancer, particularly esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. In addition, people who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol have been found to have substantially increased risks of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma if they consume alcohol.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Breast cancer: Studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer in women with increasing alcohol intake. Women who consume about 1 drink per day have a 5 to 9 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink at all.
  • Colorectal cancer.

Immune System

Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

Find the Right Treatment at We Level Up Inpatient Rehab New Jersey

Now that we’ve answered the question, of how alcohol affects the brain, it will give us a new view and perspective on how to deal with individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder. If you or someone you love is struggling with alcoholism, get them the safest help they need and deserve. Inpatient alcohol rehab might offer an environment where initiating sobriety feels more manageable. We Level Up NJ offers safe and medically assisted dual diagnosis programs in New Jersey. Contact our team today!

How alcohol affects the brain
  How alcohol affects the brain? Learn more and reach out at We Level Up NJ!

Sources:

[1] CDC – https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm

[2] NIAAA – https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm

[3] NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1295099/

[4] NIAAA – https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body