Harmful Effects of Alcohol on the Brain


If you want to understand how alcohol affects the brain and nervous system so that you have valuable information to help you change your habits, read carefully.

Table of contents

Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slow reactions, impaired memory: Clearly alcohol affects the brain.

Some of these impairments are detected after only one or two drinks and resolve quickly when drinking is stopped. On the other hand, a person who drinks large amounts over a long period of time may have some impairment that persists long after getting sober.

Exactly how alcohol affects the brain and the possibility of reversing the impact of heavy drinking on the brain are still hot topics in alcohol research today.

We do know that heavy drinking can have wide-ranging and far-reaching effects on the brain, from simple memory "lapses" to permanent and debilitating conditions that require a lifetime of guardianship. And even moderate drinking leads to short-term limitations, as demonstrated by extensive research on the impact of drinking and driving.

A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain, including

  • how much and how often a person drinks
  • the age when you started drinking, and how long you have been drinking
  • the person's age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism
  • whether you are at risk as a result of prenatal exposure
  • your general state of health

Dopamine and the Brain

The brain contains neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that transmit signals between brain cells and send information throughout the body.

Dopamine is one of those chemical messengers and is strongly impacted by the presence of alcohol. Centered in the motivation, pleasure, and reward center of the brain, dopamine levels influence our mood.

Higher levels of dopamine make us feel happier and more motivated and raise our self-esteem. When dopamine levels are low, we may feel depressed and unmotivated.

Dopamine levels naturally increase when we experience something pleasurable, like eating something delicious, exercising, spending time with friends, or receiving positive feedback on a work or school project.

Higher levels of dopamine make us feel happy and motivate us to re-experience what made us feel that way. Alcohol and other addictive substances trigger a much higher than normal increase in dopamine levels, causing an even more intense desire to repeat the behavior.

As alcohol use continues, the brain adjusts to the high levels of dopamine present and begins to produce less dopamine naturally. As natural dopamine levels drop, the brain demands a greater amount of alcohol to keep dopamine production artificially high.

This pattern is called tolerance, which means the body has become dependent on alcohol. At this point, if an individual stops consuming alcohol, they will experience withdrawal symptoms, as the brain attempts to recover from a constant state of overstimulation and regain balance.

Studies have confirmed that even small amounts of alcohol cause an increase in dopamine levels. One such study, published in the journal Alcohol Health and Research World, states, β€œThis dopamine release may contribute to the rewarding effects of alcohol and may thereby play a role in promoting alcohol consumption.”

Momentary loss of consciousness and memory lapses

Alcohol can produce impairments that can be detected in memory after only a few drinks, and as the number of alcohol increases, so does the degree of impairment.

Large amounts of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a momentary loss of consciousness, or a period of time when the drunk person cannot remember key details or even entire events.

Momentary loss of consciousness is much more common in social drinkers than previously thought and should be considered a potential consequence of acute drunkenness, regardless of age or clinical alcohol dependence.

A survey conducted among 772 college students about their experiences of momentary blackouts asked, "Have you ever woken up after drinking the night before and can't remember what you did or the places you went?" Among students who had consumed alcohol:

  • 51 percent reported having momentary loss of consciousness sometime in their lifetime,
  • and 40 percent reported experiencing a loss of consciousness during the year prior to the survey.
  • Among those who reported drinking in the two weeks prior to the survey, 9.4 percent reported that they had a blackout during that time.

Students reported later learning that they had engaged in a wide range of potentially dangerous activities that they could not recall, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving.

Excessive alcohol consumption and momentary loss of consciousness

People who drink and experience blackouts generally drink too much too fast, causing their alcohol levels to rise too quickly.

College students, in particular, may be at risk of experiencing a momentary loss of consciousness, as an alarming number of college students engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking, for a typical adult, is defined as consuming five or more drinks over two hours or so for men, or four or more drinks for women.

Equal numbers of men and women reported experiencing blackouts, despite the fact that men drank much more frequently and in larger quantities than women.

This finding suggests that regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed, the females-a group not often studied in the momentary unconsciousness literature-are is at greater risk than males of experiencing momentary unconsciousness.

A woman's tendency to experience a momentary loss of consciousness more readily probably results from differences in alcohol metabolism between men and women.

Women may also be more susceptible than men to milder forms of alcohol-induced memory impairment, even if both men and women consume comparable amounts of alcohol.

Are women more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on the brain?

Women are more vulnerable than men to many of the consequences of alcohol use. For example, female alcoholics develop cirrhosis, alcohol-induced heart muscle damage (i.e., heart disease), and nerve damage (i.e., peripheral neuropathy) after fewer years of heavy drinking than male alcoholics. However, studies comparing men's and women's susceptibility to alcohol-induced brain damage are not definitive.

4 consequences of how alcohol affects the brain

Going out and socializing over a glass of wine, a beer, or another drink with your quad, co-workers, or partner is certainly something you do often. And it is the most common, culturally normalized because it is one of the ways we socialize and enjoy some of our free time.

However, we need to control the frequency and amount of alcohol we consume, because of its medium and long-term harmful effects on health in general, and on the brain in particular.

People who have consumed large amounts of alcohol over long periods of time are at risk of developing severe and persistent brain damage. The damage may result from the direct effects of alcohol on the brain or indirectly from general ill-health or severe liver disease.

The cause of everything is ethanol or ethyl alcohol, present in all alcoholic beverages, which can cause dependence that eventually degenerates into alcoholism.

Although it affects one person or another differently depending on factors such as gender, age, height, weight, emotional and health status, or degree of tolerance, the sensations associated with its consumption in large doses manifest themselves in the same way in everyone and include:

  • drunkenness, characterized by a state of euphoria and initial excitement, a feeling of bravery, inhibition, verbiage, etc., and taken to the extreme, can lead to intoxication or ethyl coma that causes loss of consciousness and requires urgent medical treatment. Ethylic comas can even end in death when the concentration of alcohol in the blood is so high that it causes cerebral edema or hemorrhages throughout the brain.
  • the loss of cognitive abilities (perception, logical reasoning, and knowledge).
  • the hangover, which is the discomfort experienced when the effects of drunkenness pass (in the form of a headache, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting) and is generated by dehydration of the brain. It improves with rest, drinking plenty of water, and eating fruit.

Among the effects that a continued and excessive consumption of alcohol has on the brain and the nervous system are these four:

1. Psychic disorders

People with alcoholism problems can develop serious mental illnesses such as psychosis, and experience hallucinations and delusions that lead them to escape from reality. Paranoias can make them think that they have people against them, and see, hear and feel things that do not exist.

2. Behavioral changes

Habitual and excessive consumption of alcohol is associated with changes in behavior and emotional disorders. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and frequent drinking modifies its levels, lowering them.

As a consequence of this alteration, the euphoria, impulsiveness, and joy experienced at the beginning of a drunken binge can end up degenerating into aggressiveness, violence, sadness, anxiety, stress, and depression.

3. Memory failures

Alcohol affects the brain, specifically the hippocampus, a small organ located in the brain that is associated with memory. They can start as small lapses or so-called gaps, which make it impossible to remember fragments hours after getting drunk. Over time and excesses, they can become a more serious problem that damages the brain and affects the ability to memorize, and medium and long-term memories.

If alcohol abuse at any age is very harmful, it is even more harmful during adolescence, a time when the brain is still developing because memory problems can be combined with concentration and learning problems, which affect school performance, and future cognitive function.

4. Dementia

Alcoholic dementia can be suffered not only by an alcoholic person but by anyone who abuses alcohol frequently. It manifests itself when the brain areas responsible for cognitive functions are damaged. The symptoms appear little by little, in the form of antisocial behavior (lack of empathy), personality and mood changes, confusion, lack of concentration, inability to organize and make decisions, etc.

Memory does not suffer as much as in other types of dementia, and that is why the possibility of recovery is quite high when the diagnosis is made early, alcohol intake is completely abandoned, diet is taken care of and good habits are restored.

In addition to the obvious effects on the brain, the consumption of alcoholic beverages can also damage other vital organs such as the liver, heart, stomach, kidney, or lungs, and cause diseases such as cirrhosis and cancer. But luckily this is something you can avoid because there are always options. Did you know that there are non-alcoholic drinks that can make your mouth water without your body and your brain suffering at all? Maybe it's time to start trying new things!

Knowing the risks of how alcohol affects the brain will help you not to expose yourself to habitual alcohol consumption and rethink your lifestyle if you think it is necessary.

Bottom line

Not all people with alcoholism are the same. They have different degrees of impairment, and the disease has different origins in different people.

Therefore, researchers have not found conclusive evidence that any single variable is solely responsible for the brain impairments seen in people with alcoholism. Characterizing what makes some alcoholics vulnerable to brain damage while others do not remain an active research topic.

The good news is that most people with alcoholism with cognitive limitations show at least some improvement in brain structure and function within a year of abstinence, although it takes some people longer. 

Clinicians should consider a variety of treatment methods to help people stop drinking and recover from alcohol-related brain impairments, and tailor these treatments to the individual patient.

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative, I have no authority to make a diagnosis or recommend treatment. I invite you to visit a psychologist to treat your particular case.