How does Alcohol Affect the Nervous System?Anna Ciulla
The physically and psychologically destructive effects of alcohol abuse are numerous and far reaching. Despite alcohol’s widespread social acceptance and universal popularity as a recreational beverage, it remains a potent neurotoxin—damaging to all levels of health and corrosive to the nervous system. All people, without exception, experience negative changes related to nervous system health and function as a result of alcohol abuse. Certain people who abuse alcohol excessively—especially long-term—experience severe corrosion of their nervous system to the point where healthy cognition and autonomous functioning are severely impaired or totally destroyed.
A GLOBAL PROBLEM
In decades past, the ubiquitous problem of excessive alcohol consumption was supported by a popular myth—that moderate drinking was actually beneficial to health. However, recent scientific research has shattered this illusion and conclusively revealed that any amount of alcohol is damaging to the body and mind. In order to fully grasp alcohol’s destructive impact, one must first consider the following evidence that reveals its neurotoxic nature and the severe socioeconomic burden it places on society:
- In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that alcohol was responsible for producing or contributing to over 200 diseases and medical conditions, many of which are debilitating and some of which are irreversible.
- Approximately 30 to 50 percent of people struggling with AUDs simultaneously suffer from depression. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), alcohol abuse worsens pre-existing depression while creating new physical, cognitive, and social deficits.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in approximately 30 percent of US suicides, blood alcohol levels (BALs) met or exceeded the legal limit.
- Approximately 10 percent of children in the US live with a parent suffering from untreated alcohol abuse or an officially diagnosed AUD, establishing a foundation for multi-generational alcohol abuse and behavioral dysfunction.
- Alcohol-related car crashes, DUI arrests, and insurance claims cost Americans an estimated $250 billion annually. The loss of productivity in the workplace and destructive effect on the family unit are so extreme that, in the opinion of many experts, exact figures are not quantifiable and projected to worsen
THE HUMAN NERVOUS SYSTEM
The human nervous system is analogous to a giant factory comprised of millions of mechanical parts, each integral to the healthy functioning of the whole. This factory is powered by vast, interconnected neural pathways and cells that facilitate mental and physical processes with the support of the central nervous system (CNS)—which includes the spinal cord and brain. The two primary components involved in CNS function are microscopic nerve cells known as neurons, and special chemicals known as neurotransmitters.
Neurons, in particular, are directly linked to the CNS’s communications network and their ability to send and receive messages depends upon the health of related neurotransmitters. Together, the flow of communication between these interactive chemicals depends upon the health of multiple related systems such as the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The PNS functions as a secondary nervous system that interfaces with the CNS, following its complex instructions and guiding future neurochemical activity. In healthy individuals, the interaction between these organisms is productive and forms the basis for successful neurological functioning. However, the neurotoxic effects of alcohol abuse are devastating to both—a reality that becomes painfully apparent over time.
SHORT AND LONG-TERM DAMAGE
Alcohol’s short and long-term effect on cognition and CNS function is overwhelming. When consumed in excess, alcohol disrupts interaction between numerous brain chemicals and seriously distorts perception. For example, alcohol’s effect on GABA and dopamine—two key neurotransmitters—is at best deleterious, and at worst catastrophic. Alcohol abuse triggers a surge in these naturally occurring chemicals that is initially perceived as highly pleasurable, even euphoric. Over time, this artificially elevated state vanishes as the nervous system experiences a widespread depletion of these same chemicals and, in many cases, resulting nutritional deficiencies. In certain users, the deficiency of vitamin B1, in particular, leads to serious changes in muscle function, eyesight, and cognition—the latter of which can lead to a coma and/or death.
This neurological and cognitive decline, known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, may eventually lead to another debilitating, potentially irreversible disease known as Korsakoff syndrome—or psychosis. Together this troubling cluster of symptoms, known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) by most physicians, or simply “wet brain,” dramatically lowers quality of life and interferes with healthy, autonomous functioning. In addition to the aforementioned consequences, immoderate alcohol consumption can lead to the following short or long-term complications that are associated with nervous system dysfunction:
- Memory impairment—when used over extended periods of time, alcohol can cause severe memory problems like amnesia, resulting in confusion and permanent memory loss.
- Impaired reactions, eye-hand coordination, and reaction times—alcohol affects the cerebellum area of the brain as well as the inner ear which is responsible for coordination and balance, affecting the ability to walk and react in a timely manner to critical sensations. This leads to impaired driving due to delayed reaction times—one of the leading causes of fatal car accidents involving alcohol.
- Behavioral changes—brain neurotransmitters are damaged by the ethanol content in alcohol, even in mild to moderate doses. Unrelenting alcohol abuse causes extreme mood changes such as anxiety, depression, and even seizures.
- Sleep disturbances—although small amounts of alcohol seem to have a sedative effect, alcohol consumption wreaks actually havoc on sleep by disrupting duration and causing sleep disorders, leading to potential health problems. Although one may fall to sleep initially, the second, most important half of the sleep cycle is severely disturbed causing the person to frequently awaken. Obstructive sleep apnea—a disorder in which a person suddenly stops breathing due to the closure of the upper air passages—can occur hundreds of times a night, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, arrhythmia, and sudden death.
- Peripheral neuropathy—a debilitating neurological disorder caused by chronic alcohol abuse. The primary area of damage involves the peripheral nerves in the feet and legs, resulting in malfunctioning. Peripheral neuropathy causes lack of sensation in the feet, which leads to unsteadiness and imbalance.
- Alcoholic blackouts—blacking out while drinking alcohol doesn’t mean that the person falls asleep, becoming unconscious. In fact, they are completely able to interact with others and engage in normal and potentially dangerous behaviors including continuing to drink. They are simply unable to remember what they are doing as the brain does not translate these experiences into memory. It is possible to pass out while being in a blackout due to the excessive amounts of alcohol consumed, which can lead to choking on vomit, falling, and suffering a head injury, or incurring alcohol poisoning, which requires immediate emergency medical attention. Alcoholic blackout increases the risk of alcoholic poisoning by 70 percent. Some people may also experience a “brownout,” where they remember some, but not all events.
Immoderate alcohol consumption at any age leads to irresponsible or criminal behavior, impulsivity, and serious social, medical, and professional problems. However, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), early alcohol abuse starting in adolescence can prove particularly insidious, damaging delicate brain structures such as the prefrontal cortex which are charged with executive functioning. Considered a human supercomputer by many researchers and scientists, the prefrontal cortex represents a critical cognitive asset that, once damaged, leads to serious and lasting harm. Unfortunately, this brain region is only one of many that are adversely affected.
RECOVERY AND PROGNOSIS
The very first step required in minimizing or eliminating the neurological effects of alcohol abuse is to immediately stop drinking. The body is naturally re-generative and the brain equipped with a self-healing mechanism known as neuroplasticity, which allows it to gradually re-structure damaged neural pathways or form new ones in relationship to environmental stimuli. This process, in turn, can help erase or improve the effects of even moderate to severe alcohol damage.
At any stage of the alcohol withdrawal and recovery process, professional intervention is a necessary step. Clients who elect to attend a treatment facility may choose between various options including inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, or, in severe cases involving acute alcohol poisoning or dangerous interactions with other mind-altering substances, short-term hospitalization. All of these options are popular methods of treatment and an excellent starting point for those beginning their journey to recovery. In addition to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) combining appropriate therapeutic modalities with specific pharmacological interventions, certain clients may require further physical or neurological rehabilitation by trained specialists depending upon the extent of damage sustained.
Although alcoholism is an extremely difficult disorder to treat, recovery is entirely possible, and there are now more treatment options than ever before. Even in cases where treatment is delayed, significant benefits can be expected in a medically managed setting. If you or someone you love are suffering from alcoholism and in need of help, call a substance abuse professional today. The sooner you take action, the greater your chances are of making a full recovery and living a happier, healthier lifestyle.
For more about alcoholism and recovery, check out these related articles:
- What is Alcohol Poisoning and its Link to Addiction
- The Complete Guide to Drug and Alcohol Intervention
- Prenatal Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
- The Long-Term Health Effects of Too Much Alcohol
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- American Journal of Public Health. Key Findings on Alcohol Consumption and a Variety of Health Outcomes from the Nurses’ Health Study. September, 2016
- Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. Alcohol and the nervous system. Sept, 2004.
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Brain Studies Point to Perils of Adolescent Alcohol Use. May, 2018.