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If you don’t drink alcohol, there’s no reason to start, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Drinking alcohol in moderation or not at all is key to avoiding related negative health consequences—including those that affect your brain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports there are a number of factors that influence the extent to which alcohol affects the brain, including the amount and frequency a person drinks, and a person’s general health status.
If someone you care about is drinking heavily or suffering from alcohol addiction, connecting them with professional treatment at an alcohol rehab center may help minimize the effects of alcohol on their brain and overall health.
Here are seven ways alcohol abuse can affect brain health.
1. Lowered Inhibitions
Alcohol interacts with several brain neurotransmitter systems in ways that lower social inhibitions, reports the NIH. These effects can make people more sociable, emotional, and compulsive when drinking and can lead to risky behaviors such as driving while drunk and having unsafe sex.
2. Increased Tolerance
Those who drink heavy amounts of alcohol can develop tolerance when their brain functioning adapts to compensate for the behavioral and physical disruptions triggered by alcohol, reports the NIH. A person with increased tolerance due to heavy drinking will experience lesser effects when drinking their usual amount of alcohol or need higher amounts of alcohol to achieve desired effects.
3. Memory Blackouts
Drinking high amounts of alcohol within a short time can trigger changes in the hippocampus region of the brain that can lead to memory blackouts. The hippocampus plays a role in the formation of new memories, which is why people who experience blackouts often cannot remember events past a certain time despite remaining conscious.
4. Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome
Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a neurological disorder that contributes to serious forms of alcohol-induced brain injuries including cognitive impairment and dementia, reports the NIH. WKS is typically caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine), which is associated with heavy alcohol use. The brain damage caused by WKS can sometimes be irreversible and lead to death.
5. Cognitive Decline
Alcohol abuse can gradually lead to cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers found that men who drank excessive amounts of alcohol experienced cognitive decline at a significantly faster rate than men who drank light to moderate amounts of alcohol.
6. Mental Illness
Chronic drinking changes levels of certain brain neurotransmitters to increase the risk of mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are common mental illnesses experienced by those who suffer from alcohol abuse, reports the NIH. Many alcohol and drug rehab centers offer dual diagnosis therapy for patients with both a substance use disorder and mental illness due to the way these behavioral disorders commonly co-occur.
7. Alcohol Dependence and Addiction
Drinking high amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can eventually lead to physical dependence and psychological addiction. Alcohol dependence is mainly characterized by alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which is a set of symptoms people experience when they abruptly stop drinking after becoming dependent (such as nausea, vomiting, and tremors). Alcohol addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive alcohol seeking and continued alcohol use despite negative consequences, reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Alcohol dependence and addiction can be safely and effectively treated using alcohol detox and behavioral therapy—both of which are available at many alcohol rehab centers. If someone you care about is abusing alcohol, consider helping them find alcohol addiction treatment at a facility like Dana Point Rehab Campus.