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.
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.
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.
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.