A few drinks over the weekend with friends is fine. A few drinks a day every day is not so fine. A few drinks every few hours of every day… well, that’s probably a sign that you might have an alcohol use disorder. Overconsumption of alcohol is not only bad for your liver, your social life, and finances, it is also damaging to the brain.
Did you know that over 200 diseases and medical conditions are alcohol-related? Alcoholism was the cause of 2.9% of all the deaths that occurred in 2010 in the USA. How exactly can alcohol have such life-threatening impacts on us? Well, it all comes down to alcohol’s terrible effect on the brain when consumed in excessive amounts. We are probably familiar with the short-term effects of too much alcohol at once. You might even have experienced it firsthand without being an alcoholic. A few drinks can cause a loss of control over your own body. Your speech begins to slur, your reaction time increases, your vision becomes impaired, and you sometimes even forget what happened. College dramas and television might make being super drunk look cool, but it really isn’t.
Losing control over one’s body is hardly anything to be excited about. If these are the immediate effects of alcohol, imagine what long-term usage does to your brain. But we wake up with a hangover, and are fine! We can do it all over again! That’s where you’re wrong. Continually overdrinking will lead to permanent damage to both your brain and nervous system.
Why is alcohol bad?
Alcohol is a toxin, which by definition is harmful to our bodies. When we consume alcohol, it moves from our throat down to the stomach, then through the intestines, and then it gets absorbed into our bloodstream to be carried to the other organs. The liver is the most commonly associated with alcohol damage, but that isn’t the only organ that alcohol affects. From the liver, alcohol further moves into the heart and central nervous system which are key systems that sustain our very life. The alcohol in the central nervous system will move into the blood-brain barrier and into the brain’s neurons. Neurons can be killed by too much alcohol.
Furthermore, alcohol has the ability to inhibit and slow down the functioning of the neurons. Neurons are responsible for sending out electric impulses through the interconnected system of neurons. This system is how communication and coordination between the various parts of the body occur, and how our entire body is able to function as a whole. When the neurons slow down their signals, the entire communication system of the body also slows down. Some of the automatic processes in our brain which are controlled by the cerebral cortex slow down as well, including processes like breathing, a sense of balance, and the processing of information.
The GABA neurotransmitters are also slowed down which causes the slurring of speech and heavy movements, including the slowed reaction times. The hippocampus part of the brain also gets damaged when binge drinking occurs. The hippocampus is responsible for our memories, and alcohol damages it by causing brain cell death. This is also how we make up with no memory of what happened — the excessive amount of alcohol has impaired the functioning of this brain region. Repeated blacking out is a very bad sign because it means your hippocampus has been damaged to quite a severe degree.
What kind of alcohol damage is there?
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)
This is a disease that involves dementia. People who suffer from an alcohol use disorder usually also have a poor diet and are often malnourished. This can result in a deficiency of vitamin B1, which is also known as thiamine. How this occurs is because alcohol inhibits the ability to absorb the vitamin. Almost 80% of people suffering from alcohol use disorder also have a vitamin B1 deficiency and eventually develop some form of brain damage. The common signs that someone has WKS are being consistently confused, suffering from eye muscle paralysis, poor muscle coordination, lowered learning, and a propensity to forget.
This is the well-known liver damage that alcohol causes. Alcoholic hepatitis occurs when the liver gets inflamed as a result of years of over-drinking. The liver’s function is to filter out toxins in our blood, and when the liver is damaged, the blood does not get filtered properly and hence our brains receive contaminated blood. This will result in hepatic encephalopathy which is also known as a buildup of toxins in the brain. Some common signs of hepatic encephalopathy are sudden shifts in mood or personality, a decreased attention span, shakiness of hands, impaired coordination, depression, and variable sleeping patterns.
How to Diagnose Someone with Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage?
Brain damage caused by alcohol use disorder usually develops after ten to twenty years of excessive alcohol consumption, although people can certainly develop it in a much shorter time. Women are more vulnerable to developing brain damage faster because of their smaller frames. Typically, a person will start to show signs of brain damage after the age of 40. By the time one gets medically diagnosed with brain damage from alcohol, the damage is often permanent.
What Treatment is Usually Given?
Brain damage is a very severe and life-threatening condition, and of course, preventive measures are the best way to limit the damage done. There are presently no cures to reverse the effects of alcohol-induced brain damage. However, if it is detected early enough, there are some treatments that can reverse and stop the deterioration of the brain cells. Rehabilitating an alcohol use disorder is the most effective preventive measure and is the first step to being alcohol-free. Apart from therapy and psychological help, you can also get medications such as Naltrexone that will help to prevent relapses and alcohol cravings. These medications help to rewire the brain by making it less dependent on alcohol and are hence quite effective at curbing one’s alcohol use disorder during recovery.
The overconsumption of alcohol is not at all a joke. Your body can be irreversibly damaged by excessive drinking. So know your facts, and limit your drinking. It can save your life in the future.