5 Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain

By Ken Seeley, Founder, Ken Seeley Communities

People do enjoy the mild effects that alcohol has on the brain when they have a drink or two on occasion. With occasional use of alcohol, the impact on the brain is minimal. While a couple of drinks provides a pleasant, feel-good effect, even limited consumption reveals the effect on the brain, with slurred speech, slowed reactions, and coordination problems evident.

While most people are aware of the damage alcohol can do to the body, such as liver disease, heart problems, and increased risk for some types of cancer, it is not so well known that alcoholism is indeed a disease of the brain. When alcohol use becomes disordered, resulting in alcoholism, the impact on the brain can be pronounced.

Damage to the brain is apparent in both the physical aspects of the brain as well as in cognitive functioning. Gaining a better understanding of the impact of alcohol on the brain can improve overall awareness about the dangers associated with drinking.

What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

An alcohol use disorder is diagnosed when chronic excessive drinkinghas resulted in impairment in functioning. Despite the negative consequences of the drinking, which impact all aspects of life including relationships, parenting, career, and health, someone with an alcohol use disorder is unable to quit without treatment.

As a starting point, the CDC has provided safety guidelines for alcohol consumption. According to these guidelines:

Excessive drinking is 8 or more drinks* in a week for women and 15 or more drinks in a week for men.
Binge drinking is 4 or more drinks in a single occasion for women and 5 or more drinks in a single occasion for men.

*A “drink” is defined as a 12-ounce beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

When problem drinking develops, there will be the signs of alcohol use disorder, which include:

Experiences increased tolerance for alcohol, resulting in higher consumption
Neglecting obligations and responsibilities at home or at work
Begin to obsess about drinking, plan the day around drinking, and looking for opportunities to drink
A decline in work performance
Loss of a job due to absences or being intoxicated at work
Telling lies about their drinking; hiding alcohol around the house or at work
Waking up sick
Getting into an auto accident or a DUI arrest
Relationship problems
Continues to drink regardless of the negative consequences
Attempts to quit drinking but cannot stop
Experiences withdrawal symptoms when alcohol wears off

Alcohol has been termed a disease of the brain. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines alcohol use disorder as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when now using.”

5 Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain

Chronic alcohol abuse can take a heavy toll on the brain. Consider these five ways that alcohol can damage the brain:

1. Brain matter shrinkage. MRI imaging studies show that the hippocampus literally shrinks as a result of alcoholism. This is the region in the brain that is associated with reasoning skills and memory.

2. Neuropsychological effects. Alcohol-related cognitive impairment can be significant. These include short-term blackouts and memory lapses, as well as the long-term effects on cognitive functioning, such as difficulty concentrating and memory loss.

3. Increased impulsivity. This is caused by changes in the brain’s frontal lobe, where executive functions like decision-making and self-control are regulated.

4. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Thiamine deficiency due to alcoholism can result in a serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). WKS is an acute neurological condition that features encephalopathy, or brain lesions that cause mental confusion and paralysis of the nerves in the optic region. It can also lead to psychosis.

5. Dementia. Alcohol dependency can slow brain cell development and accelerate dementia.

Other Health Risks of Alcoholism

In addition to the damage alcohol can do to the brain, this toxic substance has been found to be associated with myriad health conditions, including:

Heart disease. Heavy drinking over an extended period takes a heavy toll on the heart. Signs of serious cardiac issues that could result in death include atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia, or alcoholic cardiomyopathy.

Gastrointestinal problems. Alcoholism can cause excess acid, such as acid reflux, in the stomach that can lead to gastritis. It also causes irritation and inflammation of the stomach lining, which can cause ulcers and internal bleeding.

Liver disease. Excess alcohol consumption is highly toxic to the liver. Cirrhosis of the liver, which often begins as fatty liver disease, is fatal without a successful liver transplant.

Cancer. Alcoholism causes an increased risk of developing multiple types of cancer. Types of cancer associated with heavy alcohol consumption include oral, throat, esophageal, colon cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, rectal cancer, and breast cancer.

5 Ways the Brain Heals in Recovery

Although the damage sustained to the brain can be significant, the organ is able to regenerate with sustained abstinence from alcohol. However, not all brain damage will be immediately restored, and some effects of alcohol abuse on the brain may be permanent. Regardless, the brain has an amazing capacity to heal in these five ways:

1. New cell growth. Although a certain amount of neuronal destruction is permanent, sustained abstinence can result in new brain cell growth within the hippocampus.

2. Restored brain volume. Within as little as two weeks of abstinence, there is a dramatic increase in brain matter volume. Brain imaging tests clearly show this result.

3. Improved motor skills. As sobriety progresses, executing particular motor skills towards predetermined movement outcome will improve.

4. Improved visual-spatial abilities. While visual-spatial abilities will not recover completely in recovery, there is some improvement seen with prolonged abstinence.

5. Improved cognitive abilities. As the brain heals over time, cognitive functions and most executive functions will improve.

Thanks to the restorative capabilities of the body and brain, it is possible to arrest the damage to overall health, including brain health, with a commitment to sobriety and a comprehensive treatment approach to recovery.

About the Author

Ken Seeley is an internationally acclaimed interventionist, having years of experience in this field. Certified as a Board Registered Interventionist-Level 2, Seeley has worked full-time in the business of recovery and intervention since 1989. He is a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and ABC on the topics of addiction and intervention. He was one of three featured interventionists on the Emmy Award winning television series, Intervention, on A&E. He is also the author of “Face It and Fix It,” about overcoming the denial that leads to common addictions while bringing guidance to those struggling with addiction. Ken Seeley is the founder and C.E.O. of Ken Seeley Communities
, a full spectrum addiction recovery program located in Palm Springs, California.


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