The Effects of Alcoholism on Brain Function

Alcohol and brain function

Alcohol is one of the most used drugs in the western world, with about 85% of people in the United States reporting that they have drunk alcohol in their lifetime and over 25% reporting that they have engaged in binge drinking (achieving a blood alcohol content level (BAC) of 0.08 g/dL or higher)1.

Though alcohol is considered socially acceptable to consume in most parts of the world, heavy alcohol use can prove detrimental to a person’s physical and mental wellbeing and the overall physiological health of their brain. Heavy and/or long-term alcohol use can result in learning and memory issues and can also eventually lead to the development or exacerbation of mental health conditions.

The brain is a delicate and intricate organ that must maintain a careful balance of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, for a person to function properly. Alcohol intoxication can disrupt this fine balance, disturbing the brain’s natural equilibrium and long-term, chronic use forces a person’s brain to adapt in order to compensate for the effects of alcohol.

Alcohol and wet brain

Perhaps one of the most alarming long-term effects of alcohol use on the brain is the potential development of physiological dependence, a state and condition in which a person experiences physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms and cravings if they cease drinking or significantly lower the amount of alcohol in their body.

A person who is dependent on alcohol is at risk of developing an AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder), a brain disease characterized by a struggle to limit drinking, despite experiencing significant negative impacts on their personal health, relationships, finances, and overall social functioning (see Long Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain, below).

While some of alcohol’s physical and mental effects fade once someone stops drinking, others may persist for longer periods of time and have long-term health consequences.

alcohol brain function

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol intoxication is a result of short-term effects on the central nervous system with symptoms that can vary drastically depending on how often someone drinks, the amount of alcohol they consume, their unique bodily makeup, and their weight. Symptoms of alcohol intoxication, such as mild cognitive and physical impairment, may become evident after just 1 or 2 drinks, but heavier use can result in alcohol overdose if someone ingests too much alcohol during any given period.

The immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are due to its influence on the organ’s communication and information-processing pathways. Unfortunately, drinking too heavily or too rapidly can result in several adverse mental effects, such as confusion, impaired motor coordination, and declined decision-making ability. Continuing drinking despite recognizing signs of this can lead to alcohol overdose, sometimes referred to as “alcohol poisoning”.

Short term alcohol abuse

Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous and potentially deadly consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time.

Alcohol poisoning symptoms may include:

  • Difficulties remaining conscious.
  • Respiratory suppression.
  • Heart rate slowing.
  • Permanent cognitive disruption or impairment.
  • In the worst cases, death.

long term alcoholism

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Those who drink more heavily are at increased risk for adverse alcohol-related complications, especially if they drink excessively over long periods of time.  Long-term health risks of chronic alcohol use include heart, liver and digestion problems, cancer, immune system weakening as well as mood and sleep disturbances, and the development of other mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

Alcohol can inflict lasting harm on your brain and result in shrinkage of the organ’s region known as the hippocampus.

In one study by the University of Oxford, researchers followed participants for 30 years, tracking their drinking patterns and brain health. Participants in the study who drank 4 or more drinks a day had almost 6 times the risk of hippocampus shrinkage compared to nondrinkers2. The study concluded that brain shrinkage was proportional to the amount of alcohol the participants consumed, and even mild and moderate drinkers showed more shrinkage of the hippocampus than those who abstained from alcohol completely.

Those who use alcohol excessively and for long periods of time also risk thiamine deficiency because of poor nutrition, which may result in the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), sometimes commonly referred to as “wet brain”. This condition can cause persisting mental confusion, eye movement disturbances, difficulty with coordination, and persistent learning and memory problems.

Alcoholism side effects

Lastly, long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which may sometimes be referred to as having an “alcohol addiction” or “alcoholism”. An AUD is a compulsive, problematic pattern of alcohol use that persists despite negative consequences to a person’s health, job, and personal relationships. In the United States, for a mental health professional to diagnose someone with an AUD, a person must meet at least two of the following criteria within a 12-month span:

  • Spending a significant amount of time trying to obtain alcohol.
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol.
  • Drinking while in situations where it is dangerous to do so, such as while driving or operating machinery.
  • Continuing to drink despite familial and relationship issues caused by alcohol use.
  • Being unable to fulfill obligations at work, home, or school because of alcohol use.
  • Using higher or more frequent amounts of alcohol than originally intended.
  • Tolerance, or needing higher amounts of alcohol to achieve previous effects.
  • Being unable to cut down on drinking.
  • Continuing to drink despite negative physical or mental health consequences.
  • Avoiding activities that you once enjoyed so you can drink.
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop drinking.

If you meet 2 or more of the above (within the last 12 months), then it is important to recognize that you may have an AUD and you should seek help immediately.

For excessive and regular drinkers who meet the criteria above, stopping drinking on your own is not recommended and to do so can be dangerous and even life threatening.

The Lighthouse Bali is one of only a few rehabs in Bali that can carry out a medical detox from alcohol. A medical detox is necessary to prevent potentially fatal complications. Shaking, sweating, seizures, hallucinations and even fatality are all very possible alcohol withdrawal symptoms. A medical detox is by far the safest and most comfortable way of withdrawing from alcohol.

Alcohol brain damage

Inpatient Care and Rehab

The Lighthouse Bali’s proven combination of an initial Primary Inpatient Program3  followed by Outpatient Care and Ongoing Therapy has helped alcohol addicts from around the world get their lives back on track. Through individually tailored treatment, professional therapy, medically assisted detox (if required), and compassionate support, you will be given the tools you need to ensure the best possible chances for long term recovery.

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, we urge you to reach out and contact us in confidence. Our private programs are tailormade to suit individual needs and our doctorate level clinical staff have extensive experience in the field of addiction.

If you are not currently in Bali but would like to begin a recovery program immediately, contact us as we are able to arrange a VISA for entry into Indonesia.

We also have online recovery options available which can be taken should you not wish to travel.

To talk to one of our team members, contact us on WhatsApp or by Phone. Alternatively, send us an email and we will either answer your questions in writing or call you back, according to your preference: Contact Us.

We understand how difficult it can be to reach out for help but it is the first step towards recovery and a happier, healthier way of living.


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