Alcohol is so widely used and accessible that people often forget that it is a drug that has dire consequences when not used responsibly. While many people enjoy alcohol regularly without overindulging, others do not, raising their chances of developing problematic drinking patterns and alcohol use disorder (AUD).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any use of alcohol by pregnant women and anyone under age 21, the legal drinking age in the United States.
The CDC also reports that 90,000 deaths a year can be attributed to excessive drinking, as well as one in 10 deaths among working-age adults ages 20-64.
How much alcohol affects the drinker depends on several factors, including how much and how often the person drinks, their age, their overall health and genes, and if they have a family history of substance abuse.
Alcohol affects various parts of the body, including the brain, liver, stomach, and small intestines.
Repeated and prolonged heavy drinking can lead to “wet brain,” a term for a medical condition officially known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). Wet brain is brain damage that occurs over time as a result of a deficiency of thiamine or Vitamin B1. Mayo Clinic says thiamine aids the body in generating energy from nutrients and that it is essential to the growth, development, and function of the body’s cells.
According to research that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) cites, up to 80 percent of people with AUD have a thiamine deficiency, and some of them will develop WKS.
A person with WKS will experience two separate conditions at the same time. Wernicke’s encephalopathy, also known as Wernicke’s disease, which comes on suddenly, and Korsakoff disease, which develops over time and is an ongoing condition.
Recognizing when a person has wet brain is important to getting the proper medical treatment for it. The condition is preventable, and its effects are reversible if treated in time while it is in the early stages. Thiamine replacement therapy is one treatment method that can address the brain damage, and other medications may be prescribed to address other conditions.
If a person is suffering from severe brain damage as a result of excessive drinking, long-term care likely will be required as there will be a marked decline in cognitive ability. The outcome of treating alcoholic brain damage varies depending on the individual’s condition, but in some cases, the damage is not reversible.
A person with wet brain who can recover from it is strongly advised to abstain from alcohol use. For most people in this stage of alcoholism, staying away from alcohol will require professional, targeted help from an accredited facility that specializes in alcohol addiction treatment.
As noted above, wet brain is a combination of two disorders. Wernicke encephalopathy requires prompt treatment, as it comes on right away. Symptoms of the condition include:
Wernicke’s encephalopathy can lead to Korsakoff’s syndrome, the other disorder of wet brain that severely affects memory. One key symptom is short-term memory loss that makes it difficult to learn or retain new information, as WebMD highlights.
A person with Korsakoff’s syndrome may hallucinate, exhibit poor judgment, struggle to communicate clearly, and not remember who they spoke with a short time later after speaking with them. They also may be able to share details about an event in great detail but not remember what they talked about an hour later, according to the NIAAA. WKS patients also can struggle to form new memories.
The damage that long-term excessive alcohol use can cause to the brain presents when people exhibit problems with overall functioning. This includes:
In addition to memory loss, drinking alcohol above moderate levels can cause “serious and persistent changes in the brain,” according to the NIAAA. “Damage may be a result of the direct effects of alcohol on the brain or may result indirectly, from a poor general health status or from severe liver disease,” it writes.
Researchers have found evidence that brain shrinkage can result from excessive alcohol use. According to a Verywell Mind article, people who chronically abuse alcohol have smaller and lighter brains than nondrinkers, giving us an idea of what the alcoholic brain can look like. Alcohol abuse can also adversely affect how the brain’s neurons communicate with one another.
A person may be able to reverse some of the effects of shrinkage, but again, each case is different. Permanent damage, such as cell loss, can affect certain regions of the brain, such as the frontal cortex and cerebellum. A medical professional can advise what treatments are available to treat this condition or the side effects of it.
Drinking too much also puts users at risk of having an accident that can lead to head injuries that result in a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI can be mild to severe, but it can disrupt normal brain functioning after a person experiences a bump or blow to the head.
A person who drinks excessively can raise their blood pressure and possibly have a stroke, a medical emergency that results when blood flow to the brain is stopped or reduced. When this happens, brain tissue does not get the oxygen or nutrients it needs to function.
When the brain does not get enough oxygen or nutrients, it can result in several temporary or permanent conditions, including paralysis, muscle function loss, memory loss, thinking difficulties, problems with talking or swallowing, emotional disturbances, or pain anywhere in the body.
Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to blackouts, especially if the substance is consumed on an empty stomach, according to the NIAAA. Drinking too much alcohol too fast also puts drinkers at risk of having a blackout because the blood-alcohol level rises too quickly when this happens.
NIAAA also notes that blackouts are common among social drinkers, regardless of the drinker’s age or whether they have an alcohol problem. Women are also at particular risk of having blackouts despite men drinking more heavily, the agency notes.
A person who binge drinks is at risk of having a blackout. Women who drink four or more drinks over two hours, and men who drink six or more drinks in that time are binge drinkers. Another significant risk of engaging in this drinking practice is that alcohol poisoning is always a possibility.
The body can only process so much alcohol in a given period. Once it has reached capacity, alcohol can back up in the blood. A person who has alcohol poisoning must be treated right away.
Drinking too much alcohol can affect a person’s breathing and heart rate, among other things, and lead them to a coma or death, the Mayo Clinic says.
A medical professional is the best person to diagnose alcoholic brain damage. A doctor can ask the person with suspected brain damage to share the symptoms they are experiencing. They also can order imaging tests, such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), blood tests, and evaluations, such as exams to test a person’s ability to focus, problem-solve, or retrieve information.
Imaging tests can show the effects of chronic drinking, Verywell Mind reports, writing, “Imaging studies have revealed a consistent association between heavy drinking and physical brain damage, even in the absence of other usual symptoms of severe alcoholism—chronic liver disease or alcohol-induced dementia.”
Curing alcohol-related brain damage is likely not possible, but abstaining from alcohol and getting help for alcohol addiction treatment is a smart decision. Withdrawing from chronic alcohol use will affect the body as it has gotten used to it, and symptoms can be uncomfortable and dangerous for a person to attempt to recover on their own.
Quitting cold turkey, or abruptly, from this substance is dangerous. Tapering off with the help of a medical professional who knows how to treat people with alcohol dependence or addiction is the safest option. They will know how to treat medical emergencies that can happen during withdrawal, including life-threatening seizures.
The Palm Beach Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, has been helping people start over after drug and alcohol addiction since 1970. We were among the first private rehabilitation centers in the state because we understood how important it was to treat addiction for the medical condition that it is.
If you have been dealing with the side effects of an alcoholic brain, part of your recovery plan may include professional treatment for alcohol use disorder, which we can help you with.
We are an accredited facility with addiction treatment professionals who are ready to help you get to a safe place medically and start rebuilding your life. You may start with a medical detox and go from there.
Call us today and tell us how we can help you or your loved one.
CDC. (2020, September 21) Excessive Alcohol Use. from https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm
Thiamin. (2020, November 14). from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-thiamin/art-20366430
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004, October). Alcohol's Damaging Effects on The Brain. from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment. (2020, July 16). from https://www.webmd.com/brain/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome-facts#1
T, B. (n.d.). Causes of Brain Shrinkage in Alcoholics. from https://www.verywellmind.com/cause-of-brain-shrinkage-in-alcoholics-studied-66615
TBI: Get the Facts. (2019, March 11). from https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/get_the_facts.html
Stroke. (2020, November 06). from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/stroke/symptoms-causes/syc-20350113
Mayo Clinic. (2018, January 19). Alcohol Poisoning. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386
T, B. (2019, December 05). MRI Images Reveal How Alcohol Can Physically Damage Your Brain. from https://www.verywellmind.com/images-of-brain-damage-62744