When it comes to the American social scene, alcohol has become an integral part of how people interact and celebrate. In fact, some may say the prohibition era’s failure proves the demand Americans have for consuming alcohol on a regular basis. In addition, the United States is known around the world for harboring a culture of binge drinking, or the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time. And while advertisements caution that alcohol is meant to be enjoyed responsibly, many consume alcohol in such high quantities they lose control over their ability to think responsibly. Knowing what alcoholism does to the brain may prevent some individuals from getting to that point of addiction.
In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health made the following estimated findings concerning alcohol consumption in the United States:
- About 52.2 percent of Americans aged 12 or older were current alcohol users.
- Approximately 6.3 percent of the population aged 12 or older (16.5 million) were heavy alcohol users.
- In the past 30 days, 22.9 percent of the population aged 12 or older (60.1 million) reported binge drinking behavior.
- About 10.9 percent of Americans aged 12 or older reported that they had driven a car under the influence at least once in the past year.
- Approximately 8.7 million Americans under the legal drinking age (12-20 years of age) were current alcohol users, which includes 5.4 million binge drinkers and 1.4 million heavy drinkers.
Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Despite the known dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, these statistics clearly reflect that many alcohol users engage in heavy use and binge drinking. Further, it is a well-known fact that alcohol impairs brain functioning triggering cognitive changes, such as a loss of inhibitions, confused or abnormal thinking, and poor decision-making. However, these statistics also suggest that many Americans disregard those facts. Typically recreational or social drinkers generally recover from the effects of alcohol without any long-term problems. However, those who abuse alcohol or are addicted to it, known as alcoholism, may suffer from severe long-term effects on both the brain and body.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is characterized by uncontrolled drinking and a preoccupation with alcohol in general. It is the most severe form of alcohol abuse and is commonly referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Individuals struggling with alcoholism often feel as though they cannot function normally without drinking alcohol on a regular and frequent basis. This can lead to a wide range of issues and impact professional goals, personal matters, relationships and overall health.
The warning signs of alcoholism are not always easily identified. However, when alcohol addiction is discovered in its early stages, the chance for a successful recovery increases significantly. It’s critical that an individual consuming alcohol recognizes the sign of addiction and can learn how to avoid alcohol withdrawal altogether. Common signs of alcoholism include:
- Inability to control alcohol consumption
- Craving alcohol when not drinking
- Putting alcohol above personal responsibilities
- A compulsive need to consume more alcohol even when already drinking
- Spending a substantial amount of money on alcohol
- Behaving differently after or while drinking
Over time, the severe side effects of consistent alcohol abuse can worsen or produce damaging complications. This is especially true when it comes to physical and mental health.
How Alcoholism Affects the Body
Sustained and heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to numerous health problems throughout the body in addition to effects on the brain, which are addressed below. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), alcohol overuse can negatively impact an individual’s heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system as well as increase the risk of developing certain cancers. Specifically, alcoholism can contribute to the following chronic conditions.
Drinking a lot of alcohol over a long period of time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart leading to significant health concerns such as cardiomyopathy, a stretching or drooping of the heart muscle; arrhythmias, also known as irregularities in the heartbeat; hypertension, or high blood pressure; and stroke. With every incident in which alcohol is heavily abused, the individual’s risk of developing these problems increases. Other factors, such as genetics or existing health conditions, can further exacerbate the risk of heart complications as a result of alcoholism.
Liver complications are one of the more commonly associated outcomes of prolonged alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking takes a significant toll on the liver, whose primary purpose is to rid the body of toxins, by increasing the stress put on the organ. Specific problems and liver inflammations which occurs from alcoholism include steatosis, or fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis, liver inflammation caused by the excessive intake of alcohol; fibrosis, the formation of an abnormally large amount of scar tissue in the liver; and cirrhosis, chronic damage to the liver leading to scarring and, ultimately, liver failure.
Uncontrolled alcohol intake can also affect the pancreas, whose primary function is to secrete digestive enzymes and hormones into the intestines that help digestion and regulate the way your body processes sugar (glucose). When this happens, the digestive hormones are activated while still in the pancreas leading to irritation and inflammation of the pancreatic cells which may eventually lead to pancreatitis. Once pancreatitis develops, the pancreas begins to function poorly and can cause digestion problems and diabetes.
The Immune System
Drinking too much will also weaken the immune system, making the body increasingly vulnerable to other diseases including viruses, bacteria, or other infections. Chronic drinkers and alcoholics are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who drink more moderately. Heavy drinking on a single occasion will also slow the body’s ability to ward off infections even up to 24 hours afterward.
Alcoholism will also increase an individual’s risk of developing certain cancers including those of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, and breast.
How Alcoholism Affects the Brain
In addition to the physical effects seen on the body, an alcoholic will suffer effects on the brain, both physiological and psychological. Simply put, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways which affect the brain’s physical appearance as well as its chemistry. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, make it harder to think clearly, and decrease coordination.
Physical Changes in the Brain
Alcohol causes significant damage to the central nervous system (CNS) which consists of the brain and spinal cord. The sole function of the CNS is to interpret communications sent from the nerve endings throughout the body and act on them. The CNS helps control automatic bodily functions like breathing and heart rate as well. When excessive alcohol is consumed, the communication pathways within the CNS slow down and may cause an individual to experience numbness and tingling sensations in their feet and hands.
Excessive drinking will also make it difficult for the brain to create long-term memories and it is possible for an individual to wake up with no recollection of the hours prior. This is known as a blackout and occurs as alcohol suppresses CNS functioning. Alcohol also impacts a person’s ability to think clearly and make rational choices due to the frontal lobe damage which can occur over a period of time. This area of the brain is responsible for emotional control, short-term memory, judgment, in addition to other vital roles.
Chronic and severe alcohol abuse may also cause permanent brain damage which can lead to a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). WKS is a brain disorder that affects memory and is specifically caused by a deficiency of vitamin B-1 and thiamine. The prominent symptoms of WKS include:
- Double vision
- Ptosis, or a drooping upper eyelid
- Up-down or side-to-side eye movements
- Ataxia, a loss of muscle coordination
- Confused mental state
- Amnesia for events that happen after the onset of the disorder
- Difficulty understanding the meaning of information
- Difficulty putting words into context
- Confabulation, or exaggerated storytelling
Prompt treatment of WKS can delay or halt the progression of the disease, and some treatments may be able to reverse nonpermanent brain damage. Early treatment will dramatically improve the outlook for those diagnosed with WKS. However, mortality rates are high if the condition is left untreated.
Given that alcohol decreases CNS functioning, it is known as a depressant and this may contribute to a number of major depressive disorder occurring at high rates for those who abuse alcohol. While some alcoholics drink to self-medicate existing depression, research shows that long-term, excessive intake of alcohol can also cause a major depressive disorder. Alongside general feelings of depression, alcoholics may also experience changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia; changes in mood and personality, like irritability or aggression; anxiety or other psychiatric condition such as paranoia; and cognitive effects like a shortened attention span.
More serious cases of alcoholism have been associated with more dangerous psychological effects including hallucinations, delusions, panic disorders, and an alcohol-induced psychotic syndrome which can be further associated to the onset of schizophrenia or schizophreniform disorder. If alcohol-related depression is left untreated, it may lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.
What alcohol dependence does to the brain should not be taken lightly and treatment should be sought out as soon as possible to avoid long-term effects. The earlier the disease can be addressed, the better the chance for mitigating the effects seen on both the individual’s body and brain cells.
If you or a loved one are looking for an alcohol treatment and detox center, please call Haven House today. Alcoholism affects family, friends, and anyone close to an individual suffering. If you are ready to take the step towards sobriety, we are here to help you.