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Alcoholism and the Brain

Alcohol consumption has obvious short-term consequences on brain function. For example, most people are familiar with the slurred speech and loss of memory associated with binge-drinking. You could forget anywhere from a few minutes to several hours after a night of moderate alcohol consumption. The side effects of having only a few drinks are temporary and generally fade the following morning. However, long-term alcohol abuse can cause permanent changes to the brain. These permanent effects of alcohol can cause a significant decline in a person’s overall quality of life.

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Short-Term Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Drinking alcohol consistently for a short period or binge-drinking even once can lead to serious side effects. For example, if a pregnant woman partakes in excessive alcohol consumption even once, she places her unborn baby at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome. This is a serious birth defect that can affect a child’s ability to learn and communicate and even presents with physical abnormalities.

Even one night of binging can lead to a temporary change in brain cells that can damage your memory and lead to blackouts. Blackouts are periods where you can’t recall what happened and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a whole night. 

Long-Term Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Persistent alcohol addiction can lead to permanent brain damage. The longer chronic alcohol consumption continues, the greater the risk of brain damage. Permanent memory issues, including alcohol-related dementia, can happen after extended use. 

There are other forms of alcohol-related brain damage. One example is Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), caused by a thiamine deficiency in alcoholics. WKS is an alcohol-related brain damage disease consisting of two separate syndromes. The first syndrome (Wernicke’s encephalopathy) is a short-lived but severe syndrome that can cause cognitive impairment and problems with the central nervous system. The second syndrome (Korsakoff’s psychosis) is a chronic, debilitating syndrome that causes significant brain damage. Brain shrinkage causes forgetfulness and coordination problems. 

Alcohol-related brain damage is often related to liver disease. Long-term damage to the liver from an alcohol use disorder is called cirrhosis, and it can cause damage to the brain as well. The mental effects of cirrhosis after chronic alcohol use can include:

  • Sleep problems
  • Mental health issues (like anxiety and depression)
  • Attention span issues
  • Coordination difficulties
  • Coma

While some effects of excessive alcohol use can be aided by therapies and medication, some are difficult to treat. In addition, if left untreated while a person continues to drink alcohol in excess, some brain damage can become fatal. 

developing bipolar disorder because of alcohol abuse

The Dangers of Binge Drinking

Binge-drinking is when you drink too much alcohol at once, usually for several hours. Even if done only once, binge-drinking has several serious side effects. For example, if you drink heavily on an empty stomach and your blood alcohol content goes too high, you could suffer from alcohol poisoning. 

Alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening if you don’t receive immediate medical attention. In some instances, an alcohol overdose can cause permanent brain damage and other physical or mental effects. It’s essential to know the signs and symptoms of poisoning from alcohol use, which include:

  • Confusion
  • Nausea, with or without vomiting and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Seizures, which can vary in length and intensity
  • Slowed breathing (eight or fewer breaths a minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 or more seconds between breaths)
  • Pale or blue-tinted skin
  • Abnormally low body temperature 
  • Loss of consciousness, usually with an inability to wake

Alcohol overdose or poisoning is a medical emergency. If you think you or someone you know might have alcohol poisoning, you should seek immediate medical attention or call 9-1-1. 

Although the most significant risk of binge-drinking is alcohol poisoning, it isn’t the only one. Other hazards include increased dependency, depression, anxiety and severe withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol leaves your bloodstream. 

The Brain During Alcohol Withdrawal

The body effects of alcohol withdrawal are relatively well-known. They may include gastrointestinal issues, shakes, cold sweats and even seizures in some. However, the mental effects of withdrawal after extensive periods of heavy drinking are harder to overcome. The battle for sobriety is usually more mental than physical. A few of these mental symptoms include:

  • Short-term mental disorders like anxiety and depression
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • A persistent sense of impending doom
  • Anger, irritability or restlessness
  • Hallucinations (usually visual or auditory but can also be olfactory)
  • Inability to sleep or stay asleep
  • Sleeping too much or excessive fatigue even after rest

The mental effects of withdrawal are intense, but they’re only temporary, unlike those of chronic heavy drinking. Since alcohol misuse can alter your brain structure, detoxing from excessive drinking can feel impossible. However, detoxing in a facility under the supervision of a medical professional is your best first step towards recovery. 

Group therapy session for alcohol abuse - alcoholism and the brain

Early Intervention is Key

Clinical and experimental research consistently show an increased risk of brain damage correlates with the length of time someone battles alcoholism. The longer a person’s drinking history is, the greater their chances of suffering permanently impaired cognitive function and mental health problems, along with physical health risks.

Early intervention is key if you want to stop drinking and improve brain function. While help at any stage is beneficial, the best chance of reversing memory problems and preserving brain tissue is before too much damage has happened. 

Behavioral Health Centers is Here to Help

Behavioral Health Centers is here to help you overcome alcohol abuse and alcoholism with our comprehensive addiction treatment services. Our alcohol dependence program begins with detoxing and provides a uniquely tailored sobriety program designed for your special needs. 

Get help for your substance abuse and increase your brain health by calling 855-299-4472 today. You can also fill out our online contact form if preferred and one of our caring rehab specialists will be in touch as soon as possible. 

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.

CHECK INSURANCE

If you have coverage of any kind from a major insurance provider, your treatment is likely covered. We promise to keep your information confidential.

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Unity Behavioral Health, Unity Recovery Center and Behavioral Health Centers have consolidated treatment and alumni programs. If you or a loved one are looking for help, please contact us to receive the same excellent treatment and beautiful locations you have come to know and love.
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