Are you concerned about how alcohol is affecting your central nervous system?
Brain health is an important issue. The quality of our life experience depends on cognitive function. If we do not have proper brain function, we may not enjoy life to its fullest. How does alcohol affect the brain?
Clearly alcohol misuse and excessive alcohol intake can lead to brain damage, including brain shrinkage. Damage to the frontal cortex with excessive alcohol consumption can lead to long-term cognitive impairment.
The effects of alcohol on developing brain function in teenagers and young adults are even more serious. Young people must limit their alcohol intake, or even better, avoid alcohol use altogether. The adolescent brain can sustain permanent damage, limiting cognitive development due to ongoing alcohol misuse.
Memory impairment is one of the first signs of brain injury noticed with excessive alcohol use. It has been said that memory is like the canary in the coal mine when it comes to cognitive decline.
Memory is one of the brain’s higher functions that is most susceptible to damage. Long-term effects of alcohol include worsening short-term and long-term memory.
Brain scans that are performed to demonstrate alcohol’s effect on the brain show damaging changes in centers associated with memory and cognitive functioning. Alcohol exposure is toxic to the brain and can eventually lead to serious and irreversible mental illness as well as cognitive decline.
When a person has had a binge drinking episode and the brain cells are under assault from the effects of alcohol, there are temporary losses of memory that occur. After a night of heavy drinking, you may forget small details of the night, or you could have a full blackout, where you do not remember anything.
What are the long term effects of alcohol on brain function?
When scientists look at physical brains from people who have donated their bodies to science, they are able to see significant differences between the alcoholic brain and non-alcoholic brain. The differences between the two are clearly visible to the naked eye, without the need for a microscope or any special imaging.
Some people have described the brain of a person who has consumed large amounts of alcohol during their lifetime to look like swiss cheese, full of holes with a reduced brain volume. In addition to the obvious chronic changes due to damage from alcohol, there are many signs of damage from heavy alcohol seen on MRI and other forms of brain imaging.
Does alcohol kill brain cells? Yes, with each heavy alcohol drinking session, brain cells are lost to the damaging effects of alcohol.
In addition to the direct assault of alcohol on neurons, there is also the issue of brain damage due to malabsorption of vitamins. Alcoholics are at high risk for thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is vitamin B1.
The lack of Thiamine can lead to a serious form of brain damage known as Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome, also known as “wet brain.” This condition involves a lack of motor coordination, eventually leading to psychosis, memory loss, and hallucinations.
Hepatic encephalopathy is another condition that is caused by alcohol consumption and leads to harmful central nervous system effects. When the liver is damaged by alcohol overdose, toxins go from the liver to the brain. People with hepatic encephalopathy are irritable, depressed, confused, and can eventually go into a coma.
Alcohol can harm the brain at the level of the individual brain cells, all the way up to large structions, such as the frontal lobe and cerebral cortex, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex. Each brain region, when brain tissue in the area is damaged, exhibits different physical or behavioral signs.
Alcohol withdrawal can also lead to adverse effects on the brain.
Alcohol withdrawal is a potentially dangerous experience. Some drugs have withdrawal syndromes that are unpleasant, but not physically dangerous. This is not true for alcohol addiction. Quitting alcohol can lead to serious problems.
For example, the Dts, or Delirium Tremens, is a dangerous neurological condition that can occur when quitting alcohol. Symptoms include high blood pressure, confusion, shaking, fever, and hallucinations.
Treatment for Delirium Tremens includes sedatives, vitamins, and IV fluids. Additionally, there are other medications that can help with the agitation that results from alcohol withdrawal.
Acamprosate, or Campral, is a medication that works on the GABA receptor and the NMDA receptor to help with cravings and withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, and insomnia, by providing a general calming effect. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, are restored to balance with the help of acamprosate.
Can alcohol’s effect on the brain during occasional binge drinking cause a serious, long-term brain problem?
There are people who think they do not have a drinking problem because they only drink on the weekends, or maybe even once every month or two. The problem is that if they binge drink during those times, there can be long-term consequences, even if they do not drink regularly.
There is a category of heavy drinker known as gray area drinker. A person who identifies as a gray area drinker does not drink every day. They have not had serious consequences in their lives from their alcohol consumption getting out of control.
While gray area drinkers often think that they do not have a drinking problem at all, their occasional excessive alcohol intake can be harmful. There can be long-term cognitive impairment issues, even with gray area drinking.
Another issue with gray area drinking is that it often does eventually progress to full alcoholism. Consuming alcohol in excess, even on occasion, can lead to alcohol addiction.
Stopping gray area drinking early can reduce the risk of alcohol-related brain damage. Long-term alcohol effects on the brain are cumulative, so the sooner something is done to reduce alcohol consumption, the better.
Even moderate drinking can be considered a problem. There is no safe level of alcohol use. Moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of serious health risks.
What is the best way to stop alcohol abuse to prevent alcohol-related brain damage?
The traditional way to quit drinking is to get involved with Alcoholics Anonymous. This worldwide organization provides local groups and meetings in nearly every town and city in the world.
Since 1935, AA has been serving people who want to get sober and start a new way of life. In order to get the most out of the program, members find a sponsor to help them work through the 12 steps. And, they go to meetings regularly.
When the alcohol dependence problem is severe enough that a person is at high risk for serious consequences of alcohol withdrawal, going to detox and rehab may be the best and safest way to go.
Many rehab programs are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous program, providing moderated group meetings regularly. The rehabs also send clients to local AA meetings to get used to the AA program, so they will continue after graduating from the rehab program.
Quitting alcohol at home, cold turkey, can lead to serious problems, such as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Alcohol detox should be performed under medical supervision.
Can alcohol detox be done at home?
It is possible to work with a concierge alcohol detox doctor who can supervise their patient in the comfort of their own home. With home detox, it is best done with a supportive loved-one or family member available.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, going to an inpatient detox or rehab program can be worrisome, particularly with new, highly contagious variants, such as the delta variant. You may be able to work with a concierge telemedicine doctor to stay home and complete a full program without having to worry about unnecessary exposure in an inpatient facility.
When working with a home detox doctor, it is important to have full access to contact your doctor at any time for questions or support in getting through the detox process. Your doctor will provide the necessary medications and nutritional supplements needed, and also the ongoing support that you are going to need.
Interestingly, many detox and rehab programs provide very limited access to an actual doctor. You may get a brief physical from the medical director upon admission, but after that, you will probably not even see a doctor of psychology, let alone a medical doctor.
Concierge home detox, on the other hand, makes it possible for you to work closely with your doctor throughout the entire process. While you may not have the experience of being pressured to share your innermost feelings in a group session with complete strangers, you will be able to call your doctor for support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Are there alternatives to full alcohol detox?
In recent years, an alternate way of quitting alcohol has become more popular. This alternate protocol is commonly known as The Sinclair Method. A more scientific description might be harm reduction through pharmacological extinction.
What this means is that, instead of quitting alcohol cold turkey, the patient continues to drink a small amount of alcohol, but always preceded by taking medication.
The patient takes a naltrexone tablet one hour before having a single drink. Naltrexone blocks opioid receptors in the brain, breaking the endorphin reinforcement of the alcohol habit.
Over time, the brain is reset to no longer have the habit of wanting to drink to excess. Interestingly, research so far has revealed that The Sinclair Method (TSM) may have a much higher success rate than traditional treatment methods.
There are even residential rehab facilities that use TSM to treat alcohol use disorder. TSM is gradually becoming accepted more by the mainstream addiction treatment community as a legitimate way to treat alcoholism, and even gray area drinking.
Naltrexone is a relatively safe medication, comparable in safety to many over-the-counter medications. Doctors are learning how to provide better treatment to patients who would benefit from reducing their alcohol consumption.
If I have been drinking alcohol and binge drinking for a long time now, is it too late to save my brain?
You should not think of reduced cognitive function as being a permanent, life-long problem. If you have overcome alcoholism, and you are ready to live a sober lifestyle, your brain will heal and adjust over time.
While damage to a brain region may be irreversible to some extent, the brain has ways of compensating for minor damage. And, the brain may have an ability to heal and grow beyond our current scientific understanding.
People have made incredible improvements in mental functioning, including memory function, over the months and years after quitting alcohol. In order to maintain brain health, it is of the utmost importance that you do not go back to your previous drinking habits.
Supplements may also be helpful in bringing the brain back to optimal functioning. There are brain healthy supplements that support neurotransmitter production, including amino acids and various cofactors.
Speak to your doctor about what supplements are best to support brain health and brain healing. For example, there are supplements that support production of dopamine, a vital neurotransmitter that is important for normal brain functioning.
Even if you have been drinking for many years to excess, and you have experienced many blackouts, you can still recover and improve your health status. Your brain and cognitive function can improve significantly.
The important thing is that you should plan to quit as soon as possible. The sooner you stop drinking, the sooner you put a stop to progressive damage to your brain and other organ systems. And, the sooner you can get your life back on track and start the healing process.
Now is the best time to schedule an appointment to see a doctor about your options in quitting alcohol, or at least reducing your alcohol intake to a minimum. You should not be afraid of taking this first step in getting help. There are safe and effective treatments available that your doctor can provide to you right away.
Alcohol is a toxic substance that is harmful to various organ systems of the human body, especially the brain. We only get one brain in life, and we should do whatever we can to protect it. You can make the decision to get help with alcohol dependence and make the call to schedule an appointment with your doctor.