Alcohol and its effect on the Brain

Nobody plans on becoming addicted to alcohol. For some, what started as something to help us relax or have a good time became something more. Drinking wasn’t something we chose to do; it became something we had to do. Let’s take a closer look at alcohol and the brain and why it’s essential to seek treatment if you’re experiencing alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol and the Brain: Short-Term Effects

It’s important to note that alcohol doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Several factors impact how alcohol impacts the brain, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). They include:

  • A person’s overall health
  • How much someone drinks
  • How often someone drinks
  • When someone first started drinking
  • How long someone has been drinking
  • Someone’s age and genetic background

Alcohol has an effect on the brain as soon as we start drinking. According to Northwestern Medicine, alcohol starts by increasing the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it sends messages between nerve cells. It impacts our ability to feel pleasure, which is why we might feel relaxed and happy when we first start drinking. Our reasoning and memory begin to be impaired soon after drinking.

If we continue drinking and our blood alcohol content increases to (BAC) 0.05 or more, our happy feelings may shift to depression. We may also experience disorientation and memory loss. As our BAC increases to 0.09 or higher, more parts of our brain start to be impacted, including the occipital lobe, frontal lobe, parietal lobe, and temporal lobe. This causes a lack of control, blurred vision, slurred speech, and difficulty hearing. We also experience a slowed reaction time and a loss of fine motor skills.

Continued drinking causes further impairment. Once your BAC reaches 0.18, the cerebellum starts to be impacted, which is why we might lose coordination and need help with walking or standing. This is also when blackouts are likely to occur. Blackouts are when someone can’t remember the details of an event or entire events. According to the NIAAA, research indicates that women may have a higher risk of blackouts due to how they metabolize alcohol. In any case, blackouts are frightening, and some have learned after the fact that they participated in dangerous activities during their blackouts like driving under the influence or unprotected sex.

Alcohol and the Brain: Long-Term Effects

Alcohol use disorder also has long-term, permanent effects on the brain. Thiamine deficiency is one effect. Thiamine is a nutrient that’s required by all tissues. We typically get enough thiamine from our food, but long-term drinking can interfere with our ability to absorb thiamine. Nerve cells in the brain need thiamine, and without it, some people develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).

WKS is a disease that has two components. One is Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Encephalopathy is a word that refers to a brain disease that alters brain function. The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include mental confusion, difficulties with muscle coordination, and an inability to move the eyes. Some people only develop one or two of these symptoms.

Eighty to 90% of people with Wernicke’s encephalopathy go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. People with Korsakoff’s psychosis have memory and learning difficulties. They may experience both retrograde amnesia, which means they can’t recall old information, and anterograde amnesia, which means they can’t retain new information. They may also have difficulties with walking and coordination.

When to Seek Treatment

Given how alcohol and the brain interact, if you’ve realized that your drinking has become excessive, it’s essential to seek treatment as soon as possible. Early intervention is critical.

If you’re not sure whether you need treatment for alcohol use disorder, consider the following questions:

  • Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink?
  • Do you have to drink more to experience the same effects?
  • Do you drink more than you planned to?
  • Is drinking interfering with your life?
  • Do you crave alcohol?

If you’re answering yes to any of these questions, it’s time to seek help. New Life Addiction Counseling & Mental Health Services has helped countless people find recovery. New Life offers outpatient addiction treatment, including detox.

Outpatient treatment means that you live at home. You can continue with work or school and care for loved ones while getting the help you need. You’ll develop strategies for staying sober and connect with others in recovery.

Paying for treatment is often a barrier to getting help. At New Life, we accept most commercial insurance plans, including Maryland Medicaid. We believe that recovery is possible, and we work with you through the process as you begin your new life. Contact us today to learn more about what we have to offer.

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