5 Ways Drinking Alcohol Can Change Your Brain

Updated on 3/8/2023

Alcohol changes your brain chemistry in many ways. This blog explores the changes it makes in the brain’s reward pathway and what happens when we build up a tolerance to alcohol. It also explores how alcohol changes our cognitive function and sleep patterns and increases our potential for dementia and brain damage. Luckily, there is treatment to help your brain recover from alcohol use, which is further explored in this blog.

Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach

Alcohol can have long-term effects on the body. Not only can it cause damage to the organs and essential systems, but alcohol can also cause long-term and even permanent changes to the brain.

Here are five ways heavy drinking and chronic alcoholism can change your brain.

#1. Alcohol Changes the Reward Pathway

When you drink alcohol, that relaxed sensation that initially comes over you is caused by the release of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine gives the sensation of pleasure, and when the brain senses bliss, it craves more. This activates the reward pathway, which demands or craves more alcohol, the perceived source of pleasure.

Over time, however, more alcohol is required to create the same sensation. Tolerance builds up to alcohol, then a dependence, as the reward pathway is gradually altered to seek only alcohol instead of other sources of pleasure. This becomes the source of the powerful cravings and the driving force behind chronic alcoholism as your brain’s reward pathway is physically altered. The longer you drink and the more you drink, the more permanent the changes in your brain’s reward pathway will become.

#2. Alcohol Decreases Cognitive Function

Cognitive functioning includes the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information. The short-term effects of alcohol impair cognitive function, but chronic alcoholism can damage and decrease cognitive function over time.

Continued alcohol use can lead to a number of issues, including memory lapses and poor academic or job functioning. Such learning and memory problems are pervasive and impact daily life. Alcohol is particularly damaging to the cognitive function of those under the age of 25, as the brain is not fully developed until that time. The development of executive function—judgment and decision-making, in particular—can be significantly affected by chronic drinking.

#3. Alcohol Disrupts Sleep Patterns

It is well known that alcohol has sedative effects, so how can it disrupt sleep? Just like the sense of pleasure, the body develops a tolerance for the sedative powers of alcohol. Studies have found that both chronic alcoholism caused by long-term or heavy drinking as well as withdrawal cause sleep disturbances, even after long periods of abstinence.

Those with an alcohol use disorder are also more prone to sleep apnea, and reciprocally, those with sleep disorders are more prone to chronic alcoholism. Another related problem is that disrupted sleep patterns can put you at increased risk for relapse once you are sober and in recovery.

#4. Alcohol Has Been Linked to Dementia

Alcohol impacts the brain and central nervous system. Over time, degeneration in both the brain and nerves can occur, which can lead to the development of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Current research indicates that heavy drinking, particularly chronic use, can lead to a significantly increased risk of dementia. Chronic alcoholism can put you at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia later in life.

#5. Alcohol Causes Permanent Brain Damage

One of the most devastating side effects of chronic alcoholism is permanent brain damage. Heavy drinking can lead to irreversible damage caused by thiamine deficiency and other causes. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 80% of people addicted to alcohol have a thiamine deficiency.

Of those with a thiamine deficiency, some will develop a permanent and serious condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). Symptoms of this disorder include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Paralysis of the nerves that control eye muscles
  • Difficulty with muscle coordination
  • Persistent learning and memory problems
  • Becoming easily frustrated
  • Difficulty assimilating new information

Developing WKS is devastating and will change your life forever. Fortunately, this condition is avoidable. Stopping alcohol consumption before it develops or seeking treatment for alcohol addiction is the most effective prevention method.

Can Treatment Help My Brain Recover?

The good news is that some of the changes can be reversed with treatment. Through alcohol addiction treatment, you can slowly retrain your brain to sleep better and repair from the effects of chronic alcohol consumption. You may have cravings for alcohol while in recovery, but over time and with diligent effort in recovery, those cravings will lessen and occur less frequently.

The sooner you seek help for your drinking, the less likely you are to develop dementia or other permanent or lasting changes in your brain. Seeking treatment today will help stop the damage from progressing and prevent any further damage in the future.

DiscoveryMD is committed to outpatient treatment of drug and alcohol addiction and co-occurring mental health diagnoses. We offer the highest quality and accessible care, so you don’t have to struggle alone. Contact us today to find out how we can help. 

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