How Does Alcohol Affect the Central Nervous System

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol is the result of a fermentation process of sugars. In the case of alcoholic beverages, this fermentation results in the creation of alcohol or acid. It is a chemical substance found in various medicines, drinks, mouthwashes, and household products. However, not all alcohol types are the same. Once the fermentation occurs, 

the chemical substance alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) becomes the intoxicating element of alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer or spirits (liquors). Some alcoholic drinks may contain up to 21 percent alcohol (sherry, port, muscatel).

This liquid substance, alcohol, comprises small molecules that easily cross membrane barriers. These membrane barriers are used to protect the absorption of harmful substances into the muscles, tissues, and brain. Because alcohol easily crosses the membrane barriers, it is absorbed quickly into the body (faster in women than men), “contracts brain tissues, destroys brain cells, and depresses the central nervous system. Many diseases are directly related to or tangentially associated with consuming large amounts of alcohol. We will only focus this discussion on the impact of alcohol on the central nervous system.

What is the Central Nervous System?

The nervous system is a series of networks that coordinates our actions, reflexes, and sensations. This complex system is broken into two major systems the 1) Central Nervous System and 2) the Peripheral Nervous System. The Central Nervous System (CNS) comprises the brain and the spinal cord. The CNS contains the brain, the headquarters, and the processing center for the entire body. 

Understanding the delicate balance by which our bodies function can help one understand the trauma alcohol abuse and alcoholism have on the body. The brain is considered the most complex organ in the body and uses 20 percent of the total oxygen during breathing. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain, which connect to thousands of other neurons. The brain is broken into four main lobes, each with a specific function. The brain controls our thoughts, movements, emotions, desires, and intellectual capacities. It also regulates breathing, heart rate, the release of hormones, and body temperature, to mention a few.

The spinal cord, the second part of the CNS, is connected to the brain by 31 nerves. These nerves send the motor messages and sensory information from the brain to the muscles. Reflexes, including involuntary reflexes such as flinching from a flame, are channeled through the spinal cord and out to the body. 

Impact of Alcohol on the CNS

Slurred speech or the inability to walk a straight line while drinking happens when the consumption of alcohol hinders the brain’s messaging to the spinal cord and communications from the spinal cord to the muscles. Alcohol is considered a CNS depressant. Research demonstrates that the consumption of alcohol hinders the body’s ability to communicate and respond appropriately to stimuli being experienced.

Adverse effects of alcohol on the CNS include but are not limited to:

  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Memory loss
  • Osteoporosis
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood disorders
  • Decision making
  • Violent and anti-social behavior and domestic abuse

Additionally, continued excessive alcohol consumption can lead to:

  • Immunological changes in the internal organs
  • Irreversible brain injury
  • Neuronal injury (nerve injury) This is still being researched

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.4 million people suffered from alcohol use disorder with over 100,000 deaths attributable to alcohol. (These numbers may be higher since the onslaught of COVID)

The World Health Organization reports over 200 health conditions were attributed to alcohol consumption including:

  • Cancer
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Neurocognitive impairment
  • Unanticipated physical injuries
  • Sexual problems (impotence, premature ejaculation, infertility)

The effects of alcohol on a person’s body depend upon his/her/their body’s health, socioeconomic background, familial background, age, gender, and more. Women tend to succumb to the impact of alcohol faster and can suffer more quickly from related diseases because alcohol is absorbed more quickly than in men’s bodies. 

Alcohol Poisoning

The consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time can lead to alcohol poisoning. As explained above, alcohol crosses the membrane barrier quickly and has an immediate response on the CNS. It is not difficult to understand how the consumption of large amounts of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning and depression of the CNS.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Irregular breathing pattern
  • Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Unconsciousness and the inability to be awakened

Medication and Alcohol and the CNS

It is never a good idea to mix medications with alcohol. Alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of the medicine. The CNS will react quickly to the intake of alcohol and drugs and, in many cases, lead to harmful or deadly results. The conditions listed below exemplify what will occur when combining alcohol and medicine. Headaches, drowsiness, fainting, and loss of coordination are a few. Internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulty breathing are among the more severe results of mixing alcohol and medicine.

The adverse effects of combining alcohol with illegal substances are dangerous. For example, the more alcohol in the body, the less heroin needed to cause an overdose. Most fatal overdoses included poly-drug use.

One should always read the medication label before taking a drink. Over-the-counter and herbal remedies can also have harmful results when combined with alcohol. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that men and women who suffered from alcohol use disorders were more than 18 times more likely to report NONmedical use of prescription drugs than those who did not drink.

Coastal Detox

If you believe you or a loved one may have a problem with alcohol and it is affecting your life, call Coastal Detox to speak with one of our trained staff. They can answer your question and ease your concerns. Do not let fear stand in the way of taking control of your life. Even if you believe you or your loved one is recently exhibiting signs of alcohol abuse, do not wait. The way forward is available with our caring staff regardless of whether you need inpatient or outpatient treatment. We will work with you to create the best treatment program possible. Help is available now.

References:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23713737/#:~:text=Alcohol%20can%20affect%20several%20parts,problems%20with%20cognition%20and%20memory.

https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/central-nervous-system-brain-and-spinal-cord

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/307076#spinal-cord

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8222771/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386?p=1

https://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/public+content/sa+health+internet/conditions/drugs/dangers+of+mixing+drugshttps://archives.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2008/03/alcohol-abuse-makes-prescription-drug-abuse-more-likely

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