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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Toller

The Devastating Effects of Alcoholism on the Brain

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Alcoholism can profoundly affect the brain, including changes that may lead to deterioration and long-term health consequences. Chronic heavy drinking is linked to a range of neurological problems, from blackouts and cognitive impairment to severe mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Understanding these effects can help those who suffer from alcoholism or are close to someone with an alcohol problem to understand the consequences of their drinking better and make changes for a healthier future.

Let’s take a closer look at how alcoholism impacts the brain.

Understand the Impact of Heavy Drinking on the Brain

Chronic heavy drinking can significantly alter the chemical balance of the brain. It decreases serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation and reduces stress levels, leading to depression and anxiety. Alcohol also increases levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) an inhibitory neurotransmitter which has calming effects but can be damaging in high concentrations. Over time, these changes can lead to structural brain damage, affecting memory, concentration, and decision-making ability.

In addition to affecting neurotransmitters, alcohol also disrupts the balance of water in your brain, which can cause further cognitive impairment and memory loss if left unchecked.

These damaging effects on the brain reinforce the need for alcohol when faced with stress or other challenging emotions. Therefore, many people struggling with alcoholism often reach for another drink even though they know it's not good for them. Their brains have adapted to seek this type of comfort when faced with challenging situations.

Chart on how alcoholism effects the Brain
Effects of Alcoholism on the Brain

How Alcoholism Can Progress to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is the scientific term for an alcohol-induced brain disorder, one of the most severe forms of physical and mental deterioration that can result from alcoholism. In addition to changes in mood, affected individuals will typically experience a variety of cognitive deficits, including impairments to memory, attention, language, and executive functioning. Long-term drinkers may eventually develop liver cancer, stroke, seizures, and neurological disorders.

Identify Warning Signs of Early Dementia or Memory Impairment.

The brain damage outlined can increase an individual's risk of developing dementia later in life. Memory problems, confusion, and disorientation are often the first signs of alcohol-induced brain damage. If you suspect someone you know is drinking heavily, ask them whether they have experienced changes in their memory or an ability to think clearly. It's also important for heavy drinkers to be aware of warning signs, such as difficulty finding the right words, thinking more slowly than normal, or having trouble focusing on complex tasks.

Alcoholism Can Cause Changes in Mood and Behavior

Alcoholism can lead to mood and behaviour changes and difficulty controlling impulses or inhibitions. This is because alcohol affects specific brain areas related to emotional regulation and self-control. When these areas are damaged due to excessive alcohol consumption, individuals may experience changes in their mood or behaviour and difficulty controlling their impulses or inhibitions. These changes may be noticeable even after periods of abstinence from alcohol use. However, they tend to improve over time with proper treatment and support from family members or friends who understand what it takes to overcome alcoholism.

Lastly, alcoholism can cause depression due to disruptions in neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine caused by excessive drinking. When these neurotransmitters become unbalanced due to ongoing substance abuse, it can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness. These feelings can lead to a cycle of using drugs or alcohol as self-medication for depression symptoms without really understanding why they're feeling so down in the first place.

As outlined, the effects of prolonged alcohol use on the brain can be severe. But we know that once someone stops drinking and can maintain sobriety, the brain can, in part, repair itself. Within 24 hours and continuing up to 5 years after quitting drinking, brain size can increase, motor function can improve, and neurochemical levels can begin to stabilize.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction problem, now is the time to seek professional help before further damage occurs. With proper care from experienced professionals specializing in addiction recovery services like Nōmina Wellness, you or your loved one can get back on track toward healthier lives free from substance abuse issues!



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