How Alcohol Affects The Brain
Ever wonder exactly how alcohol affects the brain? There are numerous effects that alcohol can have on the brain, depending on factors such as the amount of alcohol consumed and even the genetic makeup of the person drinking the alcohol. You may be asking yourself How does genetics have anything to do with how alcohol affects the brain?
In order to understand how alcohol affects the brain, it helps to know some basics about genetics and the chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters. Each one of us is born with a predetermined amount of each type of neurotransmitter, neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and so forth. Some of us are born with a deficit in these neurotransmitters. It just so happens that alcohol can momentarily undue that deficit making people feel great or for some, just making them feel normal.
Maybe now youre beginning to see why alcohol is more addictive for some individuals as oppose to others. You can find more information about alcohol and the brain the effects of alcohol on the brain in Dr. Von Stieffs new book Brain in Balance: Understanding the Genetics and Neurochemistry behind Addiction and Sobriety. To learn more about genetics role in addiction, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, you can watch part of his lecture entitled: Genetics and the Inheritance of Chemical Dependency.
What Happens When You Get Drunk
First off, alcohol is a depressant. Its a drug, and regardless of the fact that you see it advertised all around you on a constant basis, it is still a potentially dangerous substance.
Of course, while alcohol or rather its active ingredient, ethanol is a depressant, it actually works in phases. In the first stage, you feel great. Thats because drinking releases dopamine to your brain. Dopamine is the reward substance in your brain that makes you feel good about what youre doing. This is a big part of the reason why alcohol and other drugs seem as pleasant as they do.
While your brain is feeling a high off of your drinking, your stomach and liver are working overtime to process the alcohol and prevent it from getting into your bloodstream. In small quantities, your body can do that, which is why drinks with low alcohol content never get you drunk.
The initial rush usually lasts about a half-hour, and is a big reason why people never stop at just one drink. if youre still drinking consistently, the depressive effects kick in. These effects are the ones that slow movement and reaction speed, and blocks the parts of your brain that work as behavioral inhibitors. This is why people are more prone to making decisions while drunk that they wouldnt have normally.
In extreme cases, drunkenness may lead to a blackout and memory loss. But why is that, and how big of a problem is it?
Alcohol Poisoning & Overdose
According to the CDC, an average of 6 people die every day in the U.S. from alcohol poisoning. Many of those deaths are as a result of binge drinking and are not from long-term alcohol use. Just one instance of excessive alcohol intake can result in an overdose, which may lead to brain damage or death.
Binge drinking means to consume a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time and is one of the most common causes of alcohol poisoning. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states binge drinking occurs when an individuals blood alcohol content is at .08 or higher, which is the threshold for legal intoxication in many states.
An overdose happens when more alcohol is consumed than the body can process, causing a toxic build-up. The extreme depressant effect of this much alcohol can cause irregular heartbeat, dangerously low body temperature, and slowed or stopped breathing.
The Mayo Clinic website lists possible indications of alcohol poisoning including confusion, vomiting, seizures, extremely slow breathing , irregular breathing , bluish or pale skin, hypothermia, and unconsciousness. An alcohol overdose is a medical emergency. If suspected, summon help immediately.
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What Are The Long
Alcohol can cause reversible and irreversible brain damage, particularly with heavy or persistent use. Of the approximately 20 million alcoholics in the United States, as many as half of them have various degrees of brain damage.
In studies, alcoholics have exhibited brain shrinkage and deficiencies in the white brain matter that carries information between cells. Brain scans of heavy drinkers indicate that alcohol negatively affects neurotransmission, brain cell metabolism, and blood flow within the frontal lobes and cerebellum. Chronic drinkers may develop permanent brain damage that results in severe medical conditions such as:
- Impaired learning, memory, movement, coordination.
- Psychological disturbances such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia
- Dementia, which affects memory and mental abilities such as language, reasoning, and problem solving
- Wet brain, a persistent amnesic disorder, which which results from vitamin B1 deficiency
Factors That Influence How Alcohol Affects The Brain
A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol impacts the brain, including the following:
- FrequencyHow much and how often a person drinks.
- Age and HistoryThe age at which he or she first began drinking, and how long he or she has been drinking.
- Genetics and Family HistoryThe persons genetic background, and family history of alcoholism.
- HealthA person’s general health status may be affected with heavy alcohol use.
- GenderWomen are more vulnerable than men to many of the medical consequences of alcohol use, such as cirrhosis, heart damage, nerve damage, and brain shrinkage.
- Prenatal alcohol exposureProblems in general intellectualfunctioning, academic skills, deficitsin verbal learning, memory, reasoning,reaction time, balance, and other cognitive andmotor skills. Some deficits, like problems withsocial functioning, appear to worsen as theseindividuals reach adolescence and adulthood,possibly leading to an increased rate of mentalhealth disorders.
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Problem Solving And Cognitive Control Processes: Then And Now
A striking feature of alcoholics is their continued drinking despite their knowledge of the untoward physiological or psychological consequences of their behavior. This characteristic became one of the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition . It also fits the description of people with lesions of the frontal lobes, who are characterized as impulsive, inconsiderate, uninhibited, inflexible, or ill-mannered…. . As a group, alcoholics share this constellation of behaviors characteristic of frontal lobe dysfunction, which also can include impaired judgment, blunted affect, poor insight, distractibility, cognitive rigidity, and reduced motivation.
Originally described clinically, most of these behaviors now have received empirical support through creative behavioral testing and currently through functional imaging studies. A subgroup of these behaviors are considered executive functions . These include processes such as working memory , problem solving, attentional focus , and sequencing and temporal ordering .
A Change In Body Temperature
Alcohol widens your blood vessels, making more blood flow to your skin. That makes you blush and feel warm and toasty. But not for long. The heat from that extra blood passes right out of your body, causing your temperature to drop. On the other hand, long-term, heavy drinking boosts your blood pressure. It makes your body release stress hormones that narrow blood vessels, so your heart has to pump harder to push blood through.
The Impact Of Alcohol
Overall, alcohol is linked to over 200 diseases, conditions, and injuries. In 2010, alcohol abuse was responsible for 2.8% of all deaths in the US. While it can take years of heavy drinking for diseases like alcohol-related brain damage to appear, negative effects on the brain materialize after only a few drinks.
As an individual consumes alcohol, he or she will begin to feel the depressant effects it has on the brain. As the bodys control center, the impairing effects of alcohol quickly impede the normal function of areas all over the body. Short-term symptoms indicating reduced brain function include difficulty walking, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, and compromised memory. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can result in permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
The Steps To Liver Disease
Your liver breaks down almost all the alcohol you drink. In the process, it handles a lot of toxins. Over time, heavy drinking makes the organ fatty and lets thicker, fibrous tissue build up. That limits blood flow, so liver cells donât get what they need to survive. As they die off, the liver gets scars and stops working as well, a disease called cirrhosis.
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A Weaker Immune System
You might not link a cold with a night of drinking, but there might be a connection. Alcohol puts the brakes on your immune system. Your body canât make the numbers of white blood cells it needs to fight germs. So for 24 hours after drinking, youâre more likely to get sick. Long-term, heavy drinkers are much more likely to get illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
What Part Of The Brain Does Alcohol Affect
Alcohol interacts with three powerful neurotransmitterschemical messengers that are responsible for communication.
- The Nucleus accumbens: the nucleus accumbens is an important structure in the middle of the brain that is part of the reward pathway. The nucleus accumbens maintains motivation, pleasure, satiety, and memories. Alcohol enhances the release of dopamine, which then produces feelings of euphoria and well-being. This is also why alcohol can be so addicting.
- Glutamate receptors: Glutamate is a chemical that excites neurons. Alcohol binds to glutamate receptors and blocks them, or keeps them from being activated.
- GABA receptors: GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the chemical that slows the brain down. Alcohol also binds to GABA receptors and activates these receptors.
Between alcohols interaction with GABA and Glutamate, the net effect is a depression of brain activity and all the nerves in your spinal cord . This effect doesnt just result in general drowsiness, but it also slows your breathing, thinking, and even suppresses the gag reflex.
Other brain structures affected by alcohol include:
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The Serious Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain
Most Americans drink, with about a third having at least one drink a day. The ubiquitous nature of alcohol in social life conceals an important fact: alcohol is a drug, and a potentially lethal one. In fact, alcohol contributes to 2.6 percent of American deaths each year.
While moderate alcohol consumption may offer some health benefits, compulsive or binge drinking can damage the brain. Alcohol brain damage symptoms vary from person to person, and are often similar to other symptoms, such as dementia. Here’s what you need to know about how drinking might damage your brain.
What Alcohol Really Does To Your Brain
What happens once that vodka cranberry works its way through your bloodstream and hits the control center behind your eyes?
We hear many different things about how alcohol affects the brain and body, most notably that it is a depressant. That’s only part of the story. Alcohol is a depressant, but it’s also an indirect stimulant, and plays a few other roles that might surprise you.
Alcohol directly affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters — the chemical messengers that transmit the signals throughout the body that control thought processes, behavior and emotion. Alcohol affects both “excitatory” neurotransmitters and “inhibitory” neurotransmitters.
An example of an excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate, which would normally increase brain activity and energy levels. Alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate, resulting in a slowdown along your brain’s highways.
An example of an inhibitory neurotransmitter is GABA, which reduces energy levels and calms everything down. Drugs like Xanax and Valium increase GABA production in the brain, resulting in sedation. Alcohol does the same thing by increasing the effects of GABA. This, by the way, is one reason you don’t want to drink alcohol while taking benzodiazopenes the effects will be amplified, and that can slow your heart rate and respiratory system down to dangerous levels.
Below is a useful summary from the website HowStuffWorks explaining how alcohol affects different parts of the brain:
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Alcohol Consumption In The Us
Alcohol is considered socially acceptable in the United States, and many Americans consume alcohol on a regular basis. Drinking too much, however, can be harmful to your health. Between the years of 2011 and 2015, alcohol abuse was responsible for about 95,000 deaths, and excessive alcohol use also caused the death of 1 in 10 adults between the ages of 20 and 64.3
The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 139.8 million Americans aged 12 or older currently drink alcohol, 67.1 million were considered binge drinkers in the past month, and 16.6 million were classified as heavy drinkers.11
The NIAAA defines binge drinking as consuming enough alcohol to raise your BAC to 0.08 g/dl in a single occasion. This generally translates to 4 drinks for women and 5 for men within a period of about 2 hours. 2 Binge drinking can lead to the development of an AUD, and in 2018, 14.1 million adults ages 18 and older were reported to have an AUD. 11
Which Parts Of The Brain Does Alcohol Affect
Alcohol can have an adverse effect on many vital parts of the human brain that control essential functions like emotions, memory, motor control, senses, body temperature, and breathing.
This is the think tank of the brain. It processes information and helps us make decisions and judgments. Alcohol use slows the input of information and functioning in this area, leading to clouded thinking, slurred speech, and lowered inhibitions. Long-term heavy drinking can lead to permanent damage to the cerebral cortex.
This is the part of the brain that controls movement, balance, and coordination. Drinking alcohol affects the cerebellum, causing staggering, unsteadiness, falls, and shakiness.
Hypothalamus and Pituitary
These brain regions link the nervous system and hormonal processes in the body to maintain an internal balance. Alcohol use disrupts this balance, thus impacting things like sexual desire and performance.
This region of the brain controls vital functions like breathing, body temperature, and consciousness. By depressing signals in the medulla, alcohol can cause potentially life-threatening effects like slowed breathing, sleepiness, lowering of body temperature, and even coma.
This brain region controls memory. The effect of alcohol on the hippocampus causes memory loss, blackouts, and learning deficits. Chronic alcohol consumption can have a permanent effect on memory and may contribute to alcohol-related dementia.
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Growing New Brain Cells
For decades scientists believed that the number of nerve cells in the adult brain was fixed early in life. If brain damage occurred, then, the best way to treat it was by strengthening the existing neurons, as new ones could not be added. In the 1960s, however, researchers found that new neurons are indeed generated in adulthooda process called neurogenesis . These new cells originate from stem cells, which are cells that can divide indefinitely, renew themselves, and give rise to a variety of cell types. The discovery of brain stem cells and adult neurogenesis provides a new way of approaching the problem of alcoholrelated changes in the brain and may lead to a clearer understanding of how best to treat and cure alcoholism .
For example, studies with animals show that high doses of alcohol lead to a disruption in the growth of new brain cells scientists believe it may be this lack of new growth that results in the longterm deficits found in key areas of the brain . Understanding how alcohol interacts with brain stem cells and what happens to these cells in alcoholics is the first step in establishing whether the use of stem cell therapies is an option for treatment .
So How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain
Alcohol directly affects neurotransmitters, which control behavior and thought. It is both a depressant and a stimulant. Alcohol depresses your movements, speech, and thoughts. The effects are directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed. However, like many drugs, alcohol also stimulates the release of dopamine in your body, which tricks your body into feeling pleasure and can in turn make you associate drinking alcohol with feeling great. The tricky part here, is that the more you drink alcohol to get that feeling, the less dopamine your body releases. Over time, you end up being mentally hooked, forever in search of that pleasurable feeling you think that alcohol gives you. This is where addictions take hold.
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Sexual And Reproductive Health
You may think drinking alcohol can lower your inhibitions and help you have more fun in bed. But the reality is quite different. Men who drink too much are more likely to experience erectile dysfunction. Heavy drinking can also prevent sex hormone production and lower your libido.
Women who drink too much may stop menstruating. That puts them at a greater risk for infertility. Women who drink heavily during pregnancy have a higher risk of premature delivery, miscarriage, or stillbirth.
- learning difficulties
Does It Help You Sleep
Alcoholâs slow-down effect on your brain can make you drowsy, so you may doze off more easily. But you wonât sleep well. Your body processes alcohol throughout the night. Once the effects wear off, it leaves you tossing and turning. You donât get that good REM sleep your body needs to feel restored. And youâre more likely to have nightmares and vivid dreams. Youâll also probably wake up more often for trips to the bathroom.
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Long Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain
Many long-term effects of alcohol use can cause permanent damage to the brain, as well as to various organs. With intervention, brain damage may be reversible. Alcohols long-term brain impacts include:
- Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and can damage brain cells. Some of the most dangerous symptoms may include hallucinations and seizures. About 5 percent of those going through withdrawal will experience delirium tremens , the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal.
- Damage to neurotransmitters slows communication between different areas of the brain and reduces energy levels.
- Brain shrinkage is caused by a loss of gray matter, which contains cell bodies, and white matter, which controls cell pathways. A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal is one of many that has identified a correlation between high alcohol consumption and brain shrinkage.
- Cognitive impairment may affect verbalization, mental processing, memory, learning, concentration, and impulse control. Studies find areas of the brain related to problem solving and impulse control have the highest risk for damage from alcohol. Impairment in this area of the brain may result in alcohol-related dementia.