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What Alcohol Does to Your Brain

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on March 7, 2024

When we think of how alcohol affects our brain, we tend to focus on how it slurs our speech, blurs our vision, and slows our reaction times. This is all because of the direct physical and chemical impacts that alcohol consumption has on our bodies and brains. What’s more? Some of the other health conditions of excessive or ongoing alcohol consumption can also lead to brain damage.

On the flip side, it’s normal for our brains to desire alcohol and crave the effects and euphoric feelings that alcohol provides. New research gives us groundbreaking information about how alcohol affects the brain, both long-term and short-term.

When Does Alcohol First Impact Your Brain?

Within 10 minutes of the first sip, the alcohol absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach will reach the brain. At the same time, the liver is working overtime to process the alcohol consumption but has limitations – it can only metabolize one ounce each hour. This creates increased blood alcohol content until the metabolization process is complete.

One ounce of alcohol equals: 

  • Two 12-ounce beers

  • Two glasses of wine

  • One shot of distilled alcohol product

  • One pour of a distilled product into a mixed drink

Until the liver metabolizes alcoholic drinks, the brain can be affected. The liver uses enzymes to break down alcohol during metabolization. At first, the byproduct is acetaldehyde – a toxic carcinogen. Another enzyme arrives to battle acetaldehyde and turn it into acetate. That acetate then makes its way to the brain and starts wreaking havoc. 

What Exactly Does Alcohol Consumption Do To the Brain? 

Each person’s brain is like a massive “group chat,” with neurons being the messengers, always sending messages back and forth. Everything from blinking our eyes to climbing a mountain is controlled by the neurons in our brains. 

Alcohol consumption blocks some of the important messages in that group chat. Then neurons are paralyzed or disabled. When the neurons can’t properly communicate, initially, a person will notice slurred speech, blurring vision, or balance issues. Heavier drinkers might notice regular blackouts, which are lapses in memory due to the part of the brain that controls memories having its chemical neuron process interrupted.

Even “The Buzz” Is In Your Brain 

Alcohol initially creates a dopamine rush, which is the “feel good” chemical in our brain responsible for motivation and reward. Studies show there are two tiers of a dopamine rush. The first happens because of alcohol’s direct impact on the dopamine neurons, and the second comes as a domino effect of all neurons facing communication challenges during this process.

People who drink often will notice it takes more alcohol to get that buzz, which is the reward system wanting more of the substance triggering the “feel good” moments. This is a simple way of explaining how addiction forms. We are simply fueling a malfunctioning section of our brain’s reward system. 

Is Dopamine Necessary in Brains if It Leads to Addiction Risk? 

The purpose of this chemical is innately survival. Think of a caveman tending to his cavewoman and cave children. When he needed to hunt for food, he needed motivation so his family could be nourished. Dopamine rushes come with intense and competitive activities. 

As the cave family sat down to eat, they all felt a dopamine rush as their bodies got the nourishment needed. To keep the cave family community growing, dopamine was necessary to encourage people to have intercourse and reproduce. As the cave community learned about things like fire, they needed dopamine to keep them focused while learning how to cook with a flame. 

A Hangover is All In Your Head

Even the dreaded hangover from binge drinking is because of the impact alcohol has on the brain. Since alcohol is a diuretic, it causes fluid loss, which leads to dehydration. Remember this – when someone experiences a headache due to a hangover, it means the brain has actually shrunk. 

The brain is still processing the byproducts as the liver works overtime to metabolize the alcohol, even the next day if the person drank a large amount of alcohol. You are also on the downside of that dopamine surge from binge drinking, which has caused a neuron mess in your head as the communicators try to re-organize the group chat with less fluid and nutrients needed to keep a healthy brain active. This causes an emotional roller coaster and mood swings. 

Does Trying “The Hair of the Dog that Bit You” Really Work?

Yes and no. “The hair of the dog” theory is that to get rid of a hangover, you should just start drinking alcohol again. It works in that it gives the communication catastrophe in your head the alcohol it is craving, but it only delays the hangover. It doesn’t cure it. Adding more alcohol to the system can also increase the risk of alcohol poisoning.

Long-Term Brain Damage

The more a person drinks, whether in the amount of alcohol or frequency of use, the more the brain’s reward system craves a dopamine rush. When a person feels a craving for alcohol, it’s the brain that’s sending the message. This can lead to heavy drinking due to alcohol withdrawal symptoms and a desperate desire fueled by a malfunctioning emotional control center in the brain.

As alcohol abuse becomes more common or more intense, the neurotransmitters become less likely to bounce back to normal. This is called brain atrophy or brain shrinkage. While it’s a fallacy that alcohol kills brain cells, it certainly can render them quite useless. 

Stroke Risk Increase

A stroke can happen when there is a lack of oxygen in the brain. Various side effects of alcohol abuse can increase stroke risks:

  • High Blood Pressure: Alcohol raises blood pressure, which is a significant contributing factor to stroke risk.

  • Irregular Heart Beat: Excessive drinking can lead to atrial fibrillation – a heart that doesn’t beat correctly – and this can produce blood clots that travel to the brain, causing a stroke.

  • Liver Damage: The liver produces the chemicals that allow blood to clot. When the liver is damaged by alcohol, there’s a greater risk that bleeding in the brain will lead to a stroke. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a type of dementia related to too much alcohol use over time. The brain needs vitamin B1 (Thiamine) to function properly, and alcohol blocks the body from getting enough of it.

This thiamine deficiency can lead to swelling of the brain, known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. If the inflammation goes untreated, then Korsakoff Syndrome can set in, causing dementia. A person can experience memory loss, slowed reflexes, and decreased focus.  

Other alcohol-related brain damage and disorders (ARBD) also result from damage to the emotional regulation part of the brain. This can make people struggling with abuse more emotional or irritable. This can make it hard for loved ones to get help or reason with the addict, even when expressing compassion for their well-being.

How Adolescents Are Impacted By Binge Drinking

Mind development happens into a person’s mid-to-late 20s, and the impulsive control portion of the brain is the last to reach full development. Excessive alcohol use or periods of binge drinking can damage parts of the brain that aren’t fully developed. Poor decisions can also increase anxiety and depression during these emotional years.

Alcohol abuse can have lasting effects on mental health emotional regulation, attention span, and learning ability. Mental health problems can last well into adulthood if not treated.

New Research About Enzyme Breakdown In the Brain

Clinical and experimental research from March of 2021 shows us a potential breakthrough in treating alcohol misuse disorders. Remember that enzyme that breaks down the toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism into acetate? Until this research was done, scientists believed all byproducts of alcohol impacting brain function came from the liver, through the bloodstream, and into the brain. 

We now see there is a possibility that part of the mind is actually assisting in a smaller version of alcohol metabolism. As the enzyme works in the brain, it’s focused on protecting the “group chat” of neuron transmission. This means there could be a way down the road to control the release of dopamine and lessen the potential for addiction and any related alcohol use disorder. A mental health professional can use this information and addiction therapy to better treat patients.

This initial research was done on mice, so there’s a lot of work to be done to see the human impact, but there’s hope. Anyone who deals with an addiction or a loved one battling addiction needs all the hope they can get. 

Alcohol Addiction and Withdrawal

Who is afraid of the side effects of alcohol on the brain refusing a drink.

As the dependency to alcohol increases, it becomes more and more difficult to quit. Furthermore, if the addiction becomes severe, then quitting alcohol can potentially be fatal if not adequately supervised by medical professionals. Within the first few days, you can begin to develop what is known as delirium tremens, DT. These symptoms include confusion, high blood pressure, shaking, fever, and hallucinations in addition to fever and high blood pressure, both of which can trigger strokes, seizures, and other life-threatening medical events.

A medical detox is recommended for individuals who are ready to quit drinking alcohol so that a doctor can safely and comfortably guide them through the withdrawal process in a structured living environment. This is often paired with therapy to address any underlying mental health, case management, and life skills so that when you discharge you are ready to begin aftercare towards long-term sobriety.

Addiction Treatment is Available Now

If you or someone you love is struggling with binge drinking or excessive alcohol use, help is available. Clear Behavioral Health’s medical detox and dual diagnosis outpatient programs offer 24/7 support where a member of our care team can guide you through your treatment options. Our compassionate team is standing by to offer help in a judgment-free zone. Call us today 877.799.1985.

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