Affects of Alcohol on the Brain

What is the Brain?

The brain is one of largest organs in the body. It is comprised of billions of neurons, which communicate together sending messages to the body regulating breathing, thinking, feeling, sensing, temperature, hunger and all the processes that regulates one’s body.

There are three main sections of the brain: the cerebrum, cerebellum, and the brain stem. These sections are broken down into other areas, each with specific functions but for the purpose of this piece the discussion will remain with the basic brain sections.

The cerebrum is comprised of two hemispheres known as the cortex (the outer layer is called grey matter) and the deeper inner layer (called white matter). There are four lobes that comprise the cortex: the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. All of these areas serve to help a person, think, feel, interpret, communicate, and move.

The subcortex is below the cortex and continually interacts with the cortex to send messages about emotions. It is responsible for more primitive responses. Many psychiatric disorders are associated with abnormalities in the subcortical structure.

“The brain sends and receives chemical and electrical signals throughout the body…The brain stem sends signals to the spinal cord, while the cerebellum controls voluntary muscles movement, balance, and equilibrium.”  “New studies are exploring the cerebellum’s roles in thought, emotions, and social behavior” which may include addiction, autism, and schizophrenia.

The above is a simplified explanation of the brain structure and function. As one of the largest organs in the body, responsible for communications of every type, however, occasional, or chronic drinking involves a complex series of disruptive synaptic responses. Cells in the brain (or neurons) communicate with each other using chemicals exchanged at a synapse site. This exchange is called neurotransmission. 

Alcohols Impact on the Brain

The addictive use of any substance placed into the body has profound and widespread negative impacts on the brain and the organs, which translates into one’s emotional, intellectual, and physical functioning. Abuse of alcohol can change the brain’s ability to send appropriate signals to the body’s organs. Years of brain/alcohol studies indicate that significant changes do occur in the structure and functioning of the brain under the influence of alcohol. 

What does Alcohol do to the Brain

Alcohol is absorbed into the body quickly (more rapidly in women than men.) Alcohol reaches the brain within five minutes of consumption. Not only does alcohol impede communication pathways, but it also creates deficits in the brain’s ability to process information.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the amount of alcohol consumed determines the effects of alcohol on the brain. These other influences include:

  • How often and how much one drinks
  • The age at which one first began drinking and how long he or she has continued drinking
  • Gender and genetic background
  • Prenatal alcohol exposure
  • General health status

People who drink over long periods can develop persistent, adverse changes in the brain. These changes can cause:

  • Sleep changes
  • Mood shifts
  • Personality changes
  • Anxiety and Depression
  • Shortened attention span
  • Coordination problems

New types of brain scans reveal information on the impact of alcohol on the brain, whether for an occasional drinker, moderate drinker, heavy drinker, or chronic drinker. According to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania, which analyzed data from 36,000 adults, concluded that “light to moderate alcohol consumption was associated with reductions in overall brain volume… (the grey and white matter). The link grew stronger the greater the level of alcohol consumption.” The impact was dramatic leading researchers to conclude that those who increased alcohol consumption from 1/2 a beer a day to a pint of beer or a glass of wine showed changes in aging two years.

Additionally, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the government’s National Institute of Health) states that drinking a lot over time or drinking a lot on a single occasion can cause:

  • Cardiomyopathy (stretching or drooping of heart muscle)
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
  • Stroke
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Steatosis (fatty liver)
  • Fibrosis
  • Cancer
  • Damage to the Pancreas

A False Sense of Well Being

Many people enjoy drinking a beer or two, a cocktail or two, several glasses of wine, or other types of hard alcohol. The initial feelings associated with drinking are ease and a reduction in tension due to psychological influences. But very quickly, as alcohol is absorbed into the body and crosses the blood barriers into the brain within minutes, that feeling of ease is replaced by a host of other feelings. Reaction times, decision-making, and behavior are negatively altered and slowed. Sloppy movements, slurred speech, falling, and loss of focus, are some of the immediate side effects of drinking alcohol.

Continued drinking can cause what is known as an alcohol-induced blackout. A person who blacks out from alcohol may still be walking around, talking, and engaging in behaviors that will not be remembered in several hours. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and stops new memories from being formed—thus the blackout.

Finally, alcohol is a depressant; it depresses the central nervous system. It hinders, as stated above the body’s ability to regulate temperature, mood, breathing, etc. So, while one who is drinking may initially feel elated, the end result is the opposite.

Initially, upon consuming alcohol, part of the brain releases more dopamine, which then travels to the reward centers of the brain. That is why one feels good. Over time, that feeling is pushed aside. And the desire to drink more replaces the feel-good impulses. The sad reality of alcohol abuse is the body’s need for more. Ironically, over time the body’s ability to produce dopamine and serotonin (serotonin is needed to regulate mood, blood clotting, healing, sleep, and more) is reduced. Disrupting the normal production of dopamine and serotonin has profoundly negative results on the body’s mental, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. It can take years or as little as a month to become addicted to alcohol.

Getting Help

Your behavior has changed. You grow belligerent while drinking. You blackout after drinking. You cannot seem to function without a drink. Nothing feels right. Coastal Detox’s treatment facility offers professional detox, which enables you to prepare for a life-affirming treatment plan. Caring, knowledgeable staff can help you determine the best treatment approach for your needs. Don’t be afraid to reclaim your life. Call now.

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