In both the short- and long-term, the effects of alcohol on the brain and the body can be profound. Potential long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can contribute to cognitive decline and damage. The good news is that it is possible to reverse some of the brain and mental effects of alcohol.
The Immediate Effects of Alcohol On Your Body
When you drink, you begin to notice the alcohol’s effects almost instantly. Even if you can’t consciously notice the effects, they’re happening.
Alcohol has psychoactive effects that interfere with the communication pathways in the brain.
When you have alcohol, your bloodstream carries it quickly to your brain, lungs, kidney, and liver. It takes your liver about an hour to break down a single unit of alcohol.
As alcohol enters your bloodstream, it widens the blood vessels. That may lead to flushing of the face because there’s more blood flow to the surface of your skin. You might feel temporary warmth and a drop in blood pressure.
Other temporary, short-term effects of alcohol use and excessive drinking include:
- Feelings of drowsiness or relaxation
- Mood changes
- Lowered inhibitions
- Slow or slurred speech
- Nausea or vomiting
- Changes in vision or hearing
- Loss of coordination
- Problems with decision-making or focus
- Gaps in memory known as a blackout
After just one drink, many people will notice lowered inhibitions or a relaxed mood. Other symptoms like blacking out may occur after several drinks.
Mental health effects can occur even with moderate drinking because alcohol affects neurotransmitters. You’re more likely to develop mental health conditions like depression and anxiety if you drink, especially regularly.
You might also use alcohol to deal with mental health issues and self-medicate in the short term. Unfortunately, that worsens them in the long term.
Long-term alcohol effects on the body:
The following are a few of the adverse effects long-term alcohol abuse can have on the body.
- The liver plays a pivotal role in processing the alcohol that is consumed. In turn, the liver plays a heavy price for continued alcohol use and heavy drinking. As you continue to drink heavily, the liver becomes more impaired and increases the risk of developing liver disease, cirrhosis, and even cancer.
- The communication system of the brain is vast and extensive. Excessive alcohol consumption can impair this delicate network and how the brain processes information.
- Increases the risk of certain cancers.
- The impacts of alcohol abuse on the heart are tremendous. Developing high blood pressure, strokes, and other cardio-related illnesses are more prevalent among those who increase their alcohol intake on a regular basis.
- The immune system is less effective with continued alcohol use. A weakened immune system may not harbor the ability to fight off infection.
- Gastrointestinal discomfort is commonly experienced by chronic drinkers. Bloating, gas, ulcers, and digestive issues can stem from alcohol dependence
- Long-term heavy drinking may lead to disruption of normal pancreas function and the serious life-threatening disease of pancreatitis.
Alcohol and Mental Health
Alcohol makes it harder for most parts of your brain to function the way they should. In particular, alcohol can affect the areas of your brain controlling speech, memory, balance, and judgment.
How much alcohol and heavy drinking affect someone in the short and long term depends on many individual factors.
How much and how often you drink play a role. The age you began drinking is relevant, your current age, gender, and health status also impact the short- and long-term effects of alcohol on the brain.
Blackouts and Lapses in Memory
After just a few drinks, someone can have impairments in their memory. The more they drink, the more the level of impairment will go up.
Having large amounts of alcohol at one time, known as binge drinking, can produce blackouts.
Blackouts are periods of time where someone who’s intoxicated can’t remember details of events or blocks of time.
Gender and the Effects of Alcohol
Women appear to be more vulnerable to all negative medical consequences of alcohol use.
Women are more likely to develop cirrhosis, damage to the heart muscle, and nerve damage after fewer years of heavy alcohol use, compared to men.
Currently, researchers are looking at how men and women compare in terms of brain damage from alcohol use. There may be more similarities in the levels of brain damage between men and women than there are in the other effects of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol’s Effect on Intimate Partner Violence
According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
“Alcohol consumption, especially at harmful and hazardous levels is a major contributor to the occurrence of intimate partner violence and links between the two are manifold.”
That means that alcohol increases the risk and severity of domestic violence. Although not all domestic abusers are alcoholics, and not all alcoholics are domestic abusers, there is a strong two-way correlation between the two. However, there is no substantial causation found between alcohol and domestic abuse, as there are numerous other factors at play.
With that said, there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate a clear relationship between the two. This is a summary of the WHO’s findings.
Alcohol affects cognitive function, which makes it harder to exhibit self-control. It also makes it harder to negotiate and prevent physical violence with the drinker.
Excessive drinking can cause marital troubles. That includes the financial burden of purchasing alcohol, childcare issues, and potentially infidelity. This increase in conflict and tension increases the likelihood of violence.
There are both societal and individual believes that alcohol causes aggression. Therefore, if a person is drinking, this can encourage violent behavior as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, many alcoholics will use alcohol as an excuse for violence.
Violence in a relationship can lead to alcohol abuse as a means of self-medication and coping with stress.
Children with family issues, especially experiencing violence between their parents, are likely to develop poor drinking habits as they grow older.
And, depending on the country, alcohol is consumed before 10-65% of domestic abuse incidents. That’s quite a lot!
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain?
Many studies show an association between chronic, excessive alcohol use and the risk of developing damage to brain functionality.
Alcohol affects key regions of the brain and the health of the entire central nervous system. The central nervous system controls not only the brain but the nerves and spinal cord.
Specific parts of the brain alcohol misuse can affect include:
- The cerebral cortex—this part of the brain is where we process information, create judgments and make decisions. Drinking in the short- and long-term depresses the function of the cerebral cortex, slowing down how we process sensory information. Other effects include the reduction of inhibition and impairment of the thought process. With long-term use, there can be permanent damage from alcohol.
- Cerebellum—The cerebellum is the center of movement, balance, and coordination. Alcohol impairs the region, causing issues with balance and increasing the risk of falls and similar accidents.
- Hypothalamus—this brain area works with the pituitary, linking the endocrine and nervous systems. The brain region stimulates and also stops hormonal processes. When you drink, it disrupts the balance, affecting sexual performance and desire.
- Medulla—this is the brain area that controls automatic functions like breathing. Alcohol depresses these functions, leading to slower breathing, drowsiness, and potentially life-threatening effects.
What Happens to the Brain with Long-Term Alcohol Use?
Different types of alcohol-related brain damage can occur over a period of time, with varying reasons for each.
Some of the long-term side effects of alcohol on the brain are direct, and others are indirect.
- Long-term alcohol use can slow down communication between various areas of the brain due to neurotransmitter damage.
- Brain shrinkage can occur over time, even with moderate alcohol use. The brain shrinkage from alcohol use appears to be due to a loss of gray matter.
- Cognitive impairment can affect concentration, memory, learning, processing, and verbalization. The brain areas most at risk of damage from long-term alcohol use include the parts that control impulses and problem-solving. Impairment in these parts of the brain can increase the risk of alcohol-related dementia.
- Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be an example of a long-term effect of heavy drinking. Withdrawal occurs because your brain chemicals can’t function normally without alcohol, as they once did. Withdrawal develops after you form a tolerance to alcohol and physical alcohol dependence.
Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD)
Alcohol-related brain damage is a diagnosable brain condition caused by long-term alcohol misuse. The condition affects people between the ages of 40 and 50 most often.
Unlike other causes of dementia, ARBD doesn’t necessarily have to continue to get worse or mean permanent brain damage. If someone stops drinking and has supportive care, they can regain their thinking and memory skills.
- ARBD stems from damage to nerve cells. Over time, alcohol abuse leads your brain cells to die. Then, brain tissue shrinks. Fewer cells are available to carry messages to the brain that carry out tasks.
- When you drink regularly, it also damages the blood vessels in the brain, causing high blood pressure. This increases your risk of having a stroke.
- Another reason heavy drinkers develop brain damage is low levels of thiamine. Thiamin is vitamin B1. Your body can’t get enough vitamins when you have a lot of alcohol because of malnutrition and absorption problems.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a brain disorder similar to dementia. This condition specifically relates to a lack of thiamine stemming from chronic drinking.
Alcohol prevents your body from getting enough. Then, when you have Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, your brain swells due to inflammation because of nutrient deficiencies. This part of the disorder is known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy.
If the swelling of the brain isn’t treated quickly, it leads to Korsakoff’s syndrome, which has symptoms similar to dementia.
As is the case with any other disease, addiction changes the function of a critical organ—your brain. The same can be said of heart disease or diabetes. Brain map reports show repeated drug or alcohol use changes the human brain and creates different pathways. Your brain structure goes through alterations, as does your cognitive function.
If you have a loved one struggling with addiction, understanding these chronic brain effects and differences in brain activity (blood flowing) can help you empathize with that person. It’s debilitating to deal with the disease of addiction, and it’s complex.
The effects of addiction on brain function are one reason that if you find advice for loved ones of addicts, you’ll often see the number one thing you can do is educate yourself.
Brain regions significantly affected by substances and play a role in driving addiction include:
- Basal ganglia: This part of our brain plays a role in motivation and helps us feel pleasure. We typically have a natural reward system, where something like sex or a great meal activates this part of the brain. When you use drugs or alcohol, your natural reward system is less sensitive. It’s difficult to feel pleasure without substances.
- Amygdala: Your amygdala creates emotions of anxiety and irritability. This part of the brain becomes increasingly sensitive to drug or alcohol use, and to avoid negative feelings, it will compel you to seek out substances.
- Prefrontal cortex: The frontal lobe of the brain plays a role in many vital functions, including planning and problem-solving. The prefrontal cortex also helps you have self-control over impulses. With drug and alcohol exposure, this part of the brain can contribute to compulsive use and a lack of control over your impulses.
What is Brain Mapping?
Brain mapping can help treatment providers and clinicians see patterns of dysfunction and mental health conditions in the brain. They can also take steps to alter brainwaves to balance the activity of your neurons.
- We increasingly see brain mapping can reduce cravings and be a positive part of recovery. Mapping the brain also helps customize treatment plans further.
- To map your brain, a clinician will use an electroencephalogram or EEG. There’s monitoring your brain’s impulses through a magnetic field, and then the data is turned into a visual format.
- The graphic shows your brain waves, and experts can then spot abnormalities that can indicate the effects of addiction or other mental health disorders.
- With the use of neurofeedback, it’s possible to pinpoint the best, most efficient ways to rebuild and retrain your brain. For example, the data is helpful to help break the habits that lead to drug use.
Brain mapping isn’t itself an addiction treatment; instead, it’s a collection of critical, personalized data points to guide treatment to ensure it’s as effective as possible.
Based on this information, your addiction treatment plan might include cognitive-behavioral and biofeedback therapy, relapse prevention training, and dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.
Avoiding the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Long-term alcohol use doesn’t just affect your brain.
Heavy drinking patterns can create risk factors for serious health conditions. For example, the risk of breast cancer, bowel cancer, heart disease, and liver disease are all higher when someone drinks heavily.
The best thing you can do to avoid the mental effects of alcohol and the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain is to get supportive care to stop drinking. Much of the damage alcohol inflicts on the brain can be reversed, but you have to stop drinking and get appropriate treatment.
How Do Brain Scans Help Addiction?
Researchers in health care are using different types of brain scan options to help learn more about addiction and maybe someday develop cures for it.
Brain scans help researchers compare the brain of an addict to the brain of someone who isn’t addicted.
They can see how there are differences in the different parts of the brain mentioned above. Along with being a crucial part of research now and going forward, other ways brain scans can be helpful include:
- Brain scans can help show the damage occurring because of drug or alcohol exposure. By learning more about the damage, it’s possible to know how to reverse or at least halt some of it. For example, a scan of your brain could show there’s damage to the areas of your brain that control your emotions. You can participate in therapy and activities that can help rebuild some of those pathways by seeing that.
- Learning about the disease of addiction and its effect on our brain reduces shame and stigma. For too long, an addiction we believed was an issue with willpower or a lack of morality. Thanks to looking at brain images and brain maps, we now know that that’s not the case. These images give us a powerful view of the effects on the brain of drugs and alcohol.
- When learning about brain imaging, family members and loved ones of people with a substance use disorder can feel more empathetic and supportive.
- Over time, you may be able to track your recovery progress by actually looking at your brain as it heals, which can be a powerful motivator.