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Does Drinking Cause Brain Damage?

Drinking alcohol is an adult recreational pastime with no health benefits. If consumed in excess, alcohol can ravage the brain and body. Some people get hooked on the buzz and drink to the point of alcohol addiction. Gradually, this can change the drinker’s entire personality.

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Short-term Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol goes straight to the brain once it enters the bloodstream. The effects of alcohol are almost immediate, especially for light drinkers and people new to alcohol. After 2-3 drinks, the following effects take hold:

  • Loss of inhibition – Alcohol makes people lose their sense of shame and better judgment. Whereas someone might have reservations about talking loud or brash while sober, they might get crass, vulgar and belligerent while intoxicated.
  • Disorganization – People get messy and disorderly when under the influence. Whereas someone might be neat, tidy and fastidious when sober, they might let it all go when drunk. As alcohol overtakes their lives, their house and wardrobe could fall into disarray.
  • Mood swings – People get moody when intoxicated. A person who tends to be sentimental while sober is liable to get light-headed, teary and saccharin when intoxicated. By contrast, someone with a temper is liable to get obnoxious and belligerent when drunk.
  • Diminished concentration – People lose their focus after a few drinks of alcohol. If someone goes to a party intending to discuss businesses, they might forget what they planned to say or lose sight of the event if they drink too much. This is one of the main reasons why drunk people shouldn’t drive.
  • Reduced memory – When intoxicated, people often forget simple, everyday things like their ATM PIN number and apartment entry code. This can be dangerous when people get drunk at parties and run out of cash or get locked out of their building. Sometimes, drunk individuals lose track of their friends and get stranded.
  • Fatigue – Alcohol makes people light-headed and lazy. Symptoms like slurred speech and incoherent statements are tell-tale signs of inebriation, which also causes fatigue. In a sense, drunkenness and fatigue are similar in that both reduce a person’s ability to walk straight or talk and think clearly.
  • Depression – Alcohol can make people light-headed and complacent about their problems but it can also cause people to dwell on sad topics in an over-emotional way. When drunk, a person might get teary over a sad incident that happened decades earlier (loss of a dog, teenage heartbreak). Hangovers can also be depressing.
  • Reduced energy – People lack energy and motivation when drunk. If a person drinks in the daytime when they’re supposed to file their income taxes, they might toss it aside and zone out on the sofa. 
  • Poor judgment – People’s decision-making skills are seriously reduced when under the influence. A drunk individual might not know what he/she is doing when intoxicated and let a stranger take the keys to an automobile. This can lead to grave danger.
  • Reduced motor skills – People can’t reliably operate a vehicle, machine or firearm when under the influence. Alcohol diminishes cognition and hand-eye coordination. People are unable to hold proper balance and notice peripheral activity when drunk.

For moderate drinkers, none of these effects are permanent. Most people can resume normal activities 5-6 hours after a round of drinks. These symptoms become more problematic when a person increases his/her drinking and the effects become regular.

Long-term Effects of Heavy Drinking

The body grows tolerant to alcohol through constant use and abuse. Once alcohol addiction takes hold, the user must drink more and more to get the same buzz. This puts the individual at risk of harsh physical reactions that can be discomforting, serious and possibly fatal, including:

  • Vomiting – This becomes more common as the drinker fills his/her body with impurities. The stomach loses its ability to hold things down as the person grows more accustomed to regurgitating what they put in.
  • Seizures – Alcohol abuse causes people to have sudden interruptions in brain activity. This can cause temporary blackouts and moments of involuntary movement. Seizes can have a cumulative impact on the brain.
  • Slowed heart rate – Alcohol is a depressant that slows the heart and respiratory system. When consumed in excess quantities, alcohol can slow both to dangerous levels, especially when drinks are mixed with depressant drugs like heroin.
  • Constant fatigue – The more dependent someone gets on alcohol, the less energy that person will have for anything; even the most basic activities. Alcohol renders people lazy, cloudy headed and complacent. It makes people catatonic and drains them of their interests.
  • Fainting – When people regularly get intoxicated, fainting is a more likely occurrence. It rarely happens to healthy, sober individuals. People can lose consciousness from severe drunkenness because the alcohol slows breathing and causes dizziness and nausea.
  • Low body temperature – This can happen when people get addicted to drugs and alcohol. When there’s no supply, the user goes into withdrawal symptoms, which may include shakes, shivers, cold sweats and other signs of anxiety.
  • Reduced gag reflex – This increases the likelihood that the person will vomit when drunk. This poses more danger than one might associate with a flu. Drunk vomiting typically occurs when the person is too fatigued and disoriented to handle the situation. The person could lose balance, fall over and die from pulmonary aspiration.

Alcohol abuse usually has a cumulative effect on a person’s organs and brains. Excess alcohol destroys the liver, which normally protects the body from impurities like alcohol. When overwhelmed, it loses its ability to protect the heart and brain from the toxins of alcoholic drinks.

Wernicke’s Syndrome

Alcohol-related encephalopathy (damage that affects the brain) is known as Wernicke’s syndrome. It develops in people whose excessive drinking habits exacerbate co-occurring problems like vitamin B-1 deficiency, poor eating, immune deficiency and cancer. Wernicke symptoms include:

  • Ongoing confusion – People with Wernicke feel confused and disoriented long after the drunkenness and hangover period has passed. Even when the alcohol has cleared the body, part of the effect stays with them, as if the mind has lost its resilience.
  • Drastic weight loss – Wernicke sufferers typically have a malnourished appearance caused by loss of appetite. People who abuse alcohol often use drinks as substitutes for food. The daily spells of intoxication (and clouded judgment) leave little time for proper nutrition.
  • Strange eye movements – Wernicke often causes people to move their eyes in strange, unintended ways. Some people have trouble moving their eyes while others have jerky eye movements that they can’t control.
  • Poor balance – People with Wernicke often have impaired motor skills and poor coordination, long after Alcohol has cleared the body.  

Wernicke’s syndrome is named after German physicist Carl Wernicke (1848–1905), whose studies on encephalopathy led to groundbreaking realizations on brain damage and its various causes. 

Korsakoff’s Syndrome

Drinkers with Wernicke’s syndrome sometimes develop a more severe form of brain damage known as Korsakoff’s syndrome, a type of dementia marked by the following symptoms:

  • Impaired memory – Korsakoff causes long-term memory problems that extend beyond the drinker’s inebriated states. It especially affects one’s ability to retain new information. The subject will member lifelong facts but forget recent names, plans and encounters.
  • Poor judgment – Korsakoff impairs a person’s ability to make sound judgments. This could cause bad buying decisions and poor judgment on the types of people the subject might bring into his/her life.
  • Disorganization – Korsakoff diminishes people’s ability to make plans and retain order in their personal and professional life. A sufferer might be incapable of maintaining a clean house/apartment and constantly fail to honor plans with other people. 
  • Personality changes – Korsakoff changes people, sometimes to the point where the individual loses his/her identity. A person who was once outgoing and full of interests might now be mute, withdrawn and unfriendly. It can also leave people prone to abrupt mood changes.
  • Hallucinations – People with Korsakoff sometimes see and hear things that don’t exist. They might see ripping waves on walls or hear ringing sounds. Some of these visions could be disturbing and possibly dangerous, such as when someone visualizes a pathway leading outside their tenth-story window.
  • Cognitive decline – Korsakoff diminishes a person’s ability to think clearly and form coherent sentences. A subject who was once smart and gifted might now be a shadow of his/her former self due to Korsakoff, which makes it difficult to store information and fathom complex concepts.

Korsakoff’s syndrome is named after Russian neurologist Sergei Korsakoff (1854–1900), known for his breakthrough research on alcoholic psychosis. The combination of alcohol-induced encephalopathy and dementia is also known as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.

Prenatal Alcohol Brain Damage

Alcohol-related encephalopathy can pass from mother to child in utero. Pregnant women who abuse alcohol put their prenatal children at risk of brain damage. A child born to a mother who drinks is more likely to suffer lifelong:

  • Intellectual impairment – Children exposed to alcohol in the womb are more likely to have learning disabilities and suffer academically. They could face difficulties on tests and need tutors to get passing grades and get into college. Their future prospects may be limited.
  • Hyperactivity – Some children with prenatal alcohol exposure may have behavioral issues due to faulty neurological wiring. If the part of the brain that controls impulses doesn’t work properly, the child might act out in boisterous, vulgar and dangerous ways.
  • Subpar memory – Children with prenatal alcohol exposure are more likely to have issues with info retention. The child might have no trouble remembering basic, everyday things (home, pets, family members) but forget new names and the things they’re taught in class.
  • Poor concentration – This feeds into poor memory retention and restlessness. The child might space out constantly and roam from thought to thought, oblivious to the lecture in progress. The child might zone off during tests and get mentally distracted during reading assignments.
  • Poor coordination – Children with prenatal alcohol exposure might have stunted physical coordination. They might have an awkward walk and no athletic skills. They could also have trouble keeping balance and holding things properly.
  • Vision problems – Children exposed to alcohol in the womb are more likely to have retinal defects and underdeveloped optic nerves. Pregnant women who drink increase the likelihood of their children needing corrective lenses and Lasik surgery. 
  • Hearing issues – Prenatal alcohol exposure can also impact the eardrum. Children might have trouble hearing distant voices, which can be dangerous when parents and children get separated in large crowds.

Pregnant women should not consume alcohol. Women derive no health benefits from alcoholic beverages, which can cause prenatal brain damage and birth defects in children.

Alcohol-Related Head Injuries

Intoxication makes people more likely to engage in risky and foolish behavior. Consequently, people who abuse alcohol run a greater risk of head injuries. A drunk individual might drive recklessly or make a jaw-dropping leap from a two-story balcony. A group of angry, drunken people might have a brawl and suffer blows to the head. The long-term consequences include:

  • Dementia-like symptoms – When a person recovers from a blow to the head, he/she might find it difficult to retain new information. A person who was once sharp and resourceful might now have a surprising inability to remember vital names, dates and upcoming appointments.
  • Behavioral changes – After recovery, the individual might show odd and possibly disturbing changes in behavior. A person who was once active and full of interests might now be lazy, catatonic and disinterested in once-favored topics. 
  • Risk of Alzheimer’s – Head injuries put people at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, which causes a gradual decline in memory and cognitive function. It’s a condition that gets worse with age. By the end, Alzheimer’s sufferers don’t know themselves or their loved ones.
  • Blood-flow changes – Head injuries can alter the flow of blood to the brain and permanently impact an individual’s mental functions. 

Some people become violent and even homicidal after suffering brain damage.

Get Help for Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Get Help Today

Don't go through the process of recovery alone. There are people who can help you with the struggle you're facing. Get in touch with one today.

Make a Call

If someone you know has a drinking problem, get that person help before the alcohol causes brain damage. People who drink too much often don’t realize they have a problem, even as they undergo changes in mood, habits and personality. It’s often up to those around them to step in and take action.

Contact the alcohol rehab treatment centers in your area and ask about their treatment programs and financing options. Most of today’s rehab centers offer therapeutic programs for people with alcohol use disorder and co-occurring mental health problems. Your call could help restore someone special in your life.

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