What Alcohol Does to Your Brain

by Pete on January 5, 2016

in habits, health, Recovery

When Pete contacted me about writing a post on how alcohol affects the brain, I thought it would really complement my timeline about what happens to our bodies when we quit drinking. Some food for thought, folks.

Alcohol is the “most commonly used addictive substance in the U.S.,” according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Over 17 million people suffer from alcohol dependence or abuse. And about 88,000 lives are lost each year, making alcohol the third leading cause of death in the country.

With these alarming figures, it’s no surprise that the use of alcohol has been the subject of numerous scientific studies, as researchers attempt to probe more closely at not only the effects of this substance on health and lifestyle but also on how the brain works.

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For many, this is an important starting point on their attempt to live an alcohol-free life.

1. Brain Chemistry

In order to function properly, the brain uses chemical messengers called neurotransmitters to send signals throughout the body. As the brain’s main communication system, these are in charge of regulating behavior, emotions and thought processes.

Neurogistics explains that there are two types of neurotransmitters: excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory work by stimulating the electrical activity in the brain while inhibitory does the opposite, decreasing electrical activity.

Alcohol alters the levels of neurotransmitters, particularly by triggering the effects of GABA inhibitory neurotransmitter. This results in slurred speech and sluggish body actions.

While at it, alcohol also decreases the glutamate excitatory neurotransmitter, which in turn causes some type of a “physiological slowdown.” Stimulating GABA and inhibiting glutamate has an effect on the dopamine chemical, the brain’s reward center, producing a sense of pleasure upon intake of alcohol.

To put it simply, creating changes in the chemical messengers wreaks havoc on the way the mind thinks and the way it controls body functions and actions. Common hallmarks of intoxication like loss of coordination, drowsiness, slurred speech and peculiar behavior are all effects of throwing the levels of neurotransmitters out of balance.

2. Different Brain Areas

Alcohol does not only affect the brain’s communication system but also its different regions, which include:

  • Cerebral cortex – This is where thoughts are processed and consciousness is regulated. Alcohol affects the cerebral cortex by slowing down the processing of information coming from the different parts of the body including the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands. It also decelerates the brain’s thought processes, which explains why it’s hard to think clearly when you’re intoxicated.
  • Cerebellum – This is the region responsible for balance and movement. Excessive consumption of alcohol affects this part of the brain, making it a challenge to maintain proper balance and to walk straight.
  • Hypothalamus and Pituitary –These two work hand in hand to regulate the automatic functions of the brain and the production of hormones. Alcohol slows down the hypothalamus in charge of libido and sexual performance. This is why, although it feels like you have a stronger sexual urge after drinking, sexual performance dwindles.
  • Medulla oblongata – Other automatic bodily functions like body temperature and breathing are all controlled in the medulla oblongata. Alcohol inflicts life threatening changes in the body by lowering body temperature and slowing down the rate of breathing.

3. Blackouts and Memory Loss

Alcohol drinkers often experience what they call “blackouts”, which are short-term memory lapses that make them forget what happened the previous night. The intoxicated person fails to recall the series of events that have transpired even though they appear conscious at that time.

In the short term, these blackouts do not leave permanent damage to the brain. But over time, alcohol can impair long-term memory. Researchers have found that this substance hinders the brain from forming new long-term memories while leaving previous long-term memories intact.

It also prevents the brain from keeping newly acquired information active in the memory. It does all this by disrupting the proper functioning of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain tasked in forming and keeping memories. And as the person consumes more alcohol, the greater are its effects on long-term memory.

4. Shrinks the Brain & Causes Permanent Damage

Overtime, drinking alcohol permanently damages the brain by causing it to shrink and creating deficiencies in the fibers in the brain cells. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that about 80 percent of people dependent on alcohol develop a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a deficiency in thiamine, a form of B vitamin needed by the brain.

As researchers have found, alcohol is capable of preventing the body from absorbing B vitamins. This leads to memory impairment, learning problems, mental confusion and loss of muscle coordination.

The (NIAAA) calls alcohol the “sledgehammer” of tools as only few of the brain’s cognitive functions and behaviors can escape its wrath.

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It affects brain chemistry, causes blackouts and memory loss, disrupts formation of new memories, inhibits logical thinking, and impairs the brain’s ability to control the body, among others. It makes you think, do you really need this kind of sledgehammer in your life?

Pete is a health enthusiast who loves healthy living and spreading the word.

Photo Credits: Gerd Altmann

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Barnes January 11, 2016 at 5:11 pm

The UK Government have recently reduced the recommended weekly intake of alcohol from 21 units to 14 (for men; women’s has stayed at 14). the backlash has been really interesting and pretty vicious, and I say that as a 30-year old who’s generally prone to having boozy sessions that can last months. What I find most interesting about alcohol is the denial of addiction: any comment related to it which isn’t one of it being a relaxing bit of fun is immediately attacked but for no apparent reason. It’s like the weird hatred lots of people hold for vegetarians.

On another note, I did 100 days without alcohol at the end of 2014 and found it really beneficial started another last week, with loads of help from your great blogging!

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Rebecca A. Watson January 31, 2016 at 12:55 pm

Hey Jon, Thanks for stopping in! I have noticed that some people aren’t really into me not drinking or me talking about it being an addiction, but I don’t spend a lot of time with folks like that, only because I find they tend to be the types that have their own issues with booze and drunk people can be pretty repetitive. I’m glad you’re finding my blog helpful and am super happy to hear that you’re finding the time without alcohol so beneficial. It’s nice to have a clear head 🙂

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Furtheron January 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm

It isn’t just the brain… Alcohol is understood to affect GABA receptors throughout the Central Nervous System – so the damage alcohol does is CNS wide along with the heart and liver etc. issues.

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Rebecca A. Watson January 31, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Unbelievable isn’t it, the amount of damage alcohol can cause, and we just don’t really hear about it.

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