The Effect of Alcohol on the Brain

Edited by Paul Alexander

Last updated January 21, 2020

Alcohol can affect the brain even after one drink. How much the brain changes depends on how long a person has been drinking and how much is consumed. For example, a person who drinks one or two times per month won’t experience as many side effects or damage to the brain as someone who drinks heavily on a daily basis or partakes in binge drinking

How specifically does alcohol affect the brain? It causes blurred vision, slurred speech, and slower reaction times. It can cause a person to experience short-term memory loss, spatial processing, and blackouts. The brain is responsible for how well your body functions. When it’s impaired by alcohol, there are various ways you’ll see how deeply it’s affected. 

Change in tolerance levels is also considered an alcohol effect on the brain. The more alcohol you consume, the more damage it does to not only the brain but the rest of your organs as well. The brain starts to adapt to being able to function despite high levels of alcohol and worsens over time. Eventually, it leads to alcohol addiction when a person is unable to stop drinking because of how much the brain has been affected. Once alcoholism sets in, you can expect a decline in cognitive function as well as further complications with the liver, heart, and pancreas. 

As much as alcohol abuse seems like a tangible problem to handle, it’s more of a mental health issue because of how it changes the way you think, act, and feel. The action of not drinking seems like it would be enough to remedy alcohol dependency or addiction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t begin to uncover the complex nature of how alcohol affects the brain and what’s required in order to return to its regular state without it.

Blackouts and Binge Drinking

Blackouts are severe because they erase entire moments or hours of events from the memory. It is one of the most extreme effects of alcohol on the brain and can be especially dangerous if it happens when behind the wheel of a car. Binge drinking is one of the leading causes of  blackouts.

When a person’s blood alcohol level rises rapidly, a blackout may occur. Binge drinking is typically defined as consuming more than five drinks in two hours for men and more than four drinks in the same amount of time for women. Gender affects how fast a person is able to metabolize alcohol. Other factors include height, weight, genetics, and how much alcohol the person is used to consuming on a regular basis. 

Signs of alcohol use disorder can occur at any age but is often prevalent among young adults ages 18 to 21. Binge drinking, in particular, is common among this demographic and causes degeneration of the brain. This type of drinking often occurs in the company of others in a party atmosphere and therefore, often seem like less of a threat. However, drinking too much alcohol in too short of time can lead to other side effects in addition to blackouts, such as vomiting, seizures, and other harmful consequences. 

However, just because a person doesn’t reach the point of blackouts when drinking doesn’t mean there’s not addictive behavior present. People respond to alcohol differently and some are able to hide their use or function relatively normal even when intoxicated. Binge drinking itself may not be a sign of addiction, but it’s an action that starts down that path. 

Excessive Drinking Limits Cognitive Function and May Lead to Addiction

Any level of excessive drinking puts your health at risk on all levels. How alcohol affects the brain is determined by how often and how much you drink. Drinking to the point of intoxication  causes delayed reaction times, blurry vision, and difficulty with other motor skills that are controlled by the brain.

In addition to how you act, alcohol also affects your mood and how you feel, which can lead to problems at work, with your family, and among your other interpersonal relationships. Because alcohol can alter your rational judgment, it can be difficult to see these clearly. 

Since the alcohol effect on brain activity is progressive, it builds up slowly and in small ways before it takes over completely. To determine what constitutes excessive drinking, consider these questions: 

  • How many drinks do you have per day? 
  • How many years have you been drinking alcohol? 
  • Have you ever experienced blackouts or memory loss due to alcohol? 
  • Has your work or personal relationships suffered due to alcohol? 

These are tell-tale signs that alcohol has a greater effect than you might have originally thought and you may be developing an alcohol dependency. It doesn’t take long for the brain to adapt and become damaged once you start drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption will not only lead to an addiction, but also cognitive decline as well. 

How Detox Helps to Heal the Brain

Once the brain is addicted to alcohol, it becomes nearly impossible to abstain from use without the help of others. There are painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that occur which makes it challenging to continue with the detox process. The timeline may last a few days or a few weeks, depending on how much alcohol you’ve consumed over the years and how much you regularly drink per day.  

Withdrawal symptoms differ from person to person in terms of quantity and severity. Common symptoms include body aches and pains, nausea, increased anxiety, and trouble sleeping. More severe reactions may include tremors, seizures, and heart palpitations. Addiction means your body has adapted to having alcohol in the system and “requires” it to function. Detox eliminates alcohol from the body without replenishing it, in order to bring balance back to the body. 

Due to the intensity of detox, many people relapse, especially when trying to go through the withdrawal symptoms on their own. It’s safer to detox in a treatment facility that’s designed to make you feel as comfortable as possible and has the resources available to monitor your health and mental well-being. You’ll have continuous access to therapists and other care providers whose sole focus is your recovery. They’re prepared to provide the emotional support you need to prevent relapse and complete the detoxification process.

Detox is a challenging time to say the least, but with every day that passes, the symptoms become less severe and the body is able to adapt a little bit better. The care required for your body and brain to fight alcohol addiction takes time. Continuous abstinence from alcohol allows your body to reverse much of the physical damage that has been done and start to repair itself. 

Planning a Personalized Treatment

Acknowledging alcoholism as a disease is the first step to recovery. If it’s causing disruptions to your daily life and putting your health in danger, it’s likely time to seek help. Detox is the first step in a substance abuse treatment program because the body must be rid of all alcohol before you can start with the next phases. 

After detox, there’s the option of residential (inpatient), outpatient care, or a combination of both. The recommended allotment of time for residential treatment is 90 days based on what works best for your goals and individual needs. Outpatient care is the follow-up to residential treatment or it can be used alone for anyone who is returning following a relapse or who may want to prevent a relapse from occurring.

A personalized alcohol treatment plan is about finding what will be most impactful for your recovery and healing. Both residential treatment and outpatient care include working with licensed counselors and therapists who will work with you to understand your addiction more fully. This allows you to identify triggers that lead to your desire to drink and how to handle these situations or eliminate them in the future. 

In addition to learning about your addiction and tools to maintain sobriety, your dedicated care team will guide you on how to reacclimate to your life once your program is complete. This may include applying to colleges, working on your resume to reenter the workforce, or other crucial milestones that may have been neglected.

Looking Toward the Future 

The stages of recovery are the same, but the way they’re approached and the time it takes for you to go through each step is determined by your own progress and needs. Not everyone follows the exact same path or structure. The important thing to focus on is if it feels right for you. 

Alcoholism presents such a cloud over the brain. It can be difficult to see what the future looks like, let alone if it will be one that’s free of addiction. Once alcohol is no longer in control of how you think, feel, or function, progress will become clearer. Even if addiction has currently grabbed hold of your state of mind, it doesn’t have to be that way forever.

There is treatment available and caring people who are ready to stand by you at every stage of your recovery. At times, it may feel frustrating and overwhelming, but you’ll receive the tools, strength, and support you need to overcome addiction and start to reverse the negative effects of alcohol on the brain.

If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol use disorder, do not wait to seek help. Our team of experienced staff members will help you fight your disease so you can go back to living a clean and sober life. If you’re ready to treat your alcohol abuse problem once and for all, visit our website or talk to one of our trusted medical staff members today. 

Source:

“ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 2004, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm

Article Reviewed by Paul Alexander

Paul AlexanderPaul Alexander is the founder and CEO of Northbound Treatment. He received his Certified Addiction Treatment Specialist training at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA, and was awarded Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 2002. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Law and Society, Summa Cum Laude, from University of California, Irvine, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. He believes wholeheartedly in transformational leadership, organizational health and effective, fully integrated substance use disorder treatment.

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