Futures Recovery Healthcare

Alcohol, Addiction, and The Brain: What You Should Know



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Alcohol, in one form or another, has been around for thousands of years. Many who have consumed alcohol over the years have at one time or another had ‘too much to drink’. Sometimes this overindulgence leaves the drinker with a fuzzy memory of the night. For anyone with alcohol dependence, these memory lapses have probably happened a few times. This is just one of the ways alcohol negatively impacts the brain.

Millions of people across the globe consume alcohol. Many of these millions consume moderate amounts of alcohol and have little to no negative health impacts or ongoing brain problems. However, for millions, alcohol is their ‘drug of choice’ which leads to devastating health consequences even including brain damage for some. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in middle-income countries, alcohol is the greatest risk for disease and disability. In addition, alcohol is blamed for a startling nearly 4% of all deaths worldwide. Despite all of the associated problems with alcohol, it continues to be one of the most heavily consumed mind-altering substances in the world and nation.

When it comes to alcohol and the brain, the consequences of both short-term and long-term drinking can be severe. It’s vital for anyone who is regularly consuming alcohol—particularly anyone with alcohol dependence—to clearly understand the risks being taken. It’s also important to know that the sooner you get help for an alcohol use disorder (AUD), the better chance you have of not only lessening the damage but even reversing it. 

Futures Recovery Healthcare addresses the healing of the body, mind, and spirit through our evidence-based treatment programs. 

Alcohol and The Brain: Short-Term Impact

Anyone who has consumed alcohol can attest to the almost immediate effect it has on the body and brain. This depressant brings on feelings of relaxation, being more outgoing, slowed reaction times, impulsive behavior, slurred speech, blurred vision, and balance issues in the short-term.  If more alcohol is consumed, this can lead to memory loss and even blackouts. Alcohol clearly impacts the brain once it’s consumed. 

Alcohol immediately acts on the brain by blocking or slowing chemical signals between neurons (brain cells). In addition, other brain functions or processes controlled by the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex are also impaired resulting in compromised abilities to process information, balance, and breathing. GABA neurotransmitters in the brain are also slowed by alcohol. This causes slurred speech, decreased reaction times, and slow movements or lethargy. 

While many of these short-term effects of alcohol can be less detrimental, research shows that long-term heavy drinking can cause more serious problems in the brain. 

The way that alcohol impacts the brain is different for everyone. Just as each person’s addiction story varies, so too does how alcohol changes the brain. There are some factors that play a role in how this works. They are:

  • Gender
  • Age of first consumption of alcohol regularly
  • Overall health status
  • Family history of alcoholism or alcohol dependence
  • Age and education level

These, as well as other factors like having other mental health issues, play into an individual’s risk for having both short and long-term brain issues from alcohol consumption. And while the short-term effects of alcohol on the brain can lead to serious issues such as violence and motor vehicle accidents, the long-term effects can be devastating. 

This is one of the reasons that getting help for AUD sooner rather than later is essential. Futures understands how difficult taking that first step and reaching out for help can be. Our outreach and admissions teams, some of whom are in recovery themselves, are caring, compassionate, and dedicated to finding the best fit for addiction treatment for all who reach out for help. 

Alcohol and Long-term Impact on the Brain

As discussed, the short-term use of alcohol immediately impacts the brain, however, long-term effects of alcohol can result in serious, life-changing consequences. From severe memory loss to brain damage, heavy drinking, alcohol dependence, and AUD can cause serious brain issues. 

When drinking goes from occasional or moderate to heavy and continues for extended periods of time the brain makes adaptations to the slowed or blocked messages or neurotransmitters. The brain begins to ‘over-respond’ in order to overcome the blockages. When alcohol is then removed from the system, the brain doesn’t quickly adapt back and continues to overreact. This can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms some of which can result in damaged brain cells. 

As heavy drinking resumes or continues, neurotoxicity can result. In this instance, when neurons overreact to neurotransmitters for extended periods of time, neurons can ‘burn out’. When this happens there is a more permanent ‘slowing’ in the pathways of certain parts of the brain. 

In addition, research shows that actual brain matter can be damaged from heavy, ongoing alcohol consumption. The amount of brain matter that is damaged depends on age and the amount of alcohol consumed. Here are some of the more common issues found from long-term alcohol use. Decreases or issues with any of the following: 

  • Verbal skills
  • Processing skills
  • Working memory
  • Spatial processing
  • Attention span
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Impulse control

When regular and heavy alcohol consumption begins in adolescents, the consequences to the brain can be severe. Since during adolescents the parts of the brain that are most impacted by alcohol are still developing, these permanent damages or impaired performance abilities can be serious. In addition, malnutrition can also cause more serious brain damage in someone who has AUD. 

As time and alcohol use goes on, the damage can be worse. In very serious situations, a permanent cognitive disorder, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can occur. This syndrome results in memory issues such as amnesia and can even lead to coma. In this condition, there are two parts; one is short-term and the other long-term. 

In the short-term part of this syndrome, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and muscular coordination problems are all common. In the second part, Korsakoff’s psychosis, patients can develop severe and lasting memory issues as well as learning problems. A deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), which it is estimated that 80% of alcoholics have, is the cause. 

However, with the proper treatment, these cognitive declines can stop and even reverse. For most people, with the right treatment and stopping the consumption of alcohol, the brain will heal. When this happens in time, complete recovery of both the body and mind is possible. 

At Futures, we know how interconnected the body, mind, and AUD are. Led by our full-time medical director, our entire team is dedicated to healing all parts of the individual. Our Physical Therapy program helps so many who come to Futures to heal and regain the health of their youth. 

Evidence-based Treatment Heals the Body and Mind

Research utilizing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reveals that the brain begins to heal as soon as two weeks after the consumption of alcohol stops. This is why it’s critical to get help for AUD as soon as possible. In addition, research shows that when an individual relapses early in recovery the brain’s regeneration reverses. The most notable brain growth was found at around one year of complete abstinence from alcohol. 

When it comes to AUD, putting down the drink is the first step. But, as anyone in recovery knows, there is more work and growth to come after that. Evidence-based treatment programs, good nutrition, community connections, strong aftercare programs, and healing the body are the next essential steps for lifelong recovery. 

Futures’ caring staff understands just how vital each of these is to build a solid recovery foundation. From our chef catering to each individual’s unique nutritional needs and our chronic disease management programs to programs specifically tailored to meet the needs of first responders and those with co-occurring mental health disorders, Futures treatment programs attend to the whole person. 

If you or someone you love has an AUD or a substance use disorder (SUD) we are here to help. Contact us online or call 866-804-2098.


Experience lasting change and receive the support you need now and over the years to come.

call now CALL NOW
(866) 351-7588
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