Alcohol’s devastating effects on the brain and liver have been well documented, with the implication that chronic heavy drinking is an almost sure-fire path to eventual organ failure and premature death. But can you reverse alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain and liver?
The answer is a qualified “yes.” Depending on the length and severity of an untreated drinking problem and the degree of damage already done, you can reverse some if not all of alcohol’s effects on the brain and liver.
Here are four prospects for reversing brain and liver damage from alcohol, backed by the latest groundbreaking science.
1. Aerobic Exercise
Studies have shown that heavy alcohol consumption significantly reduces white matter tissue in the brain, which is critical to key cerebral functions like higher-level cognition, memory recall, concentration and impulse control. But on the heels of a slate of promising new research into the brain-boosting benefits of aerobic exercise, University of Colorado-Boulder researchers wondered, “Can aerobic exercise also help prevent and even reverse such brain damage from heavy alcohol consumption?”
Their findings were encouraging: Regular aerobic exercise in the form of walking, running or bicycling correlated with less damage to the brain’s white matter in heavy alcohol users.
In the wake of the study (which was co-sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), a CU-Boulder psychologist authoring the study, Dr. Angela Bryan, was optimistic about “the possibility that exercise might be able to either buffer against or undo some of the damage that heavy alcohol use does to the brain.”
2. Coffee Drinking
Advanced liver disease, or cirrhosis, is a notorious killer with an alcohol use disorder. Once cirrhosis strikes a liver that’s over-taxed by excess alcohol, the disease is irreversible; in the absence of a liver transplant, it’s also fatal.
But a January 2016 study found that drinking coffee cuts heavy alcohol users’ risks of cirrhosis and may be a buffer against the disease. Researchers found that the greater the amount of coffee consumed daily, the lower the risk of developing cirrhosis. One, two, three or four cups of coffee per day correlated with a 22, 43, 57 and 65 percent reduction in risk of cirrhosis, respectively.
Drinking just two cups of coffee per day meant a 45 percent reduction in the risk of dying from cirrhosis.
Whether that means drinking coffee can actually reverse alcohol damage to the liver, or is just one way to slow down the progression of liver disease, remains open to debate and further study. Still, these results are promising, pointing to at least one way that recovering alcoholics can lessen the long-term blow of alcohol to the liver, in combination with other interventions, such as abstinence and long-term residential treatment.
3. Abstinence from Alcohol
Abstaining from alcohol is another way to reverse alcohol damage to the brain and liver—depending on the severity of damage already incurred. In the early stages of alcoholic liver disease, for example, abstinence can help reverse liver damage, by normalizing liver enzymes that become elevated by excess alcohol. (Chronic elevation of liver enzymes tends to precede further inflammation and scarring of the liver, as untreated liver disease progresses in its severity.)
Abstinence presents similarly encouraging prospects for reversing brain damage caused by alcohol. A study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found evidence of rapid brain recovery as early as two weeks after detox from alcohol (assuming abstinence during those two weeks). The encouraging results, visible in brain scans, suggest that longer periods of abstinence yield even rosier outcomes for the brains of recovering alcoholics.
4. Long-Term Residential Treatment
The same researchers also concluded that such findings favor long-term, supervised alcohol abstinence—or at least a minimum of two weeks’ alcohol treatment—as a way to reverse brain damage from alcohol. (Indeed, subsequent studies have confirmed that the gold standard for long-term residential treatment is at least 60 to 90 days.)
Stanford University professor of neuropsychiatry Dr. Natalie May Zahr hailed the study for the hope it offers recovering alcoholics: “Hope that even within two weeks of abstinence, the recovering individual should be able to observe improvements in brain functioning that may allow for better insight and thus ability to remain sober.”
The implication? The longer the alcohol treatment, the better the recovery outcome—and the better one’s chances of reversing alcohol’s detrimental effects on both brain and liver.