How drinking alcohol causes brain damage

How Drinking Alchohol Causes Brain Damage

Did you know drinking alcohol causes brain damage?

Within minutes of consuming alcohol, it gets into your bloodstream and travels to your brain. Hence, there are stages of intoxication. With subliminal intoxication, alcohol enters the brain and begins affecting the parts that control talking, walking, balance, memory, and the ability to make good decisions.

Neurotransmitters in the brain communicate through neurons, sending messages regarding emotions. For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter connected to happiness, dopamine produces pleasure, and endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers.

Euphoria is the second stage of intoxication, and dopamine is released in high amounts, making you feel relaxed, less inhibited, and with just a small “buzz.” The third stage is excitement. Alcohol affects multiple lobes in the brain, and you begin to lose control over bodily functions, such as motor skills, reaction time, blurred vision, slurred speech, and mood swings.

Confusion is the next stage when alcohol starts affecting your cerebellum. Coordination and movements are affected, and you may not be able to manage them independently. In the stupor stage, you lose control over most functioning. This is a difficult stage and can lead to the final two stages of coma and death.

Intoxication and Brain Damage

If you go out drinking for a night and drink too much, you may have a hangover, but after resting, your brain will quickly recover. And, if you maintain intoxication for long periods, your brain can be traumatized by the damage from alcohol misuse.

Recent research shows that one drink a day can reduce brain size. Below are a few other ways your brain can be damaged by alcohol.

Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

When you consume too much alcohol, your hippocampus, responsible for memory, stops functioning. In a sense, it stops recording data, and while you can still function, you won’t remember anything. You are experiencing an alcohol-induced blackout, also called alcohol-induced amnesia.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke encephalopathy is a severe brain dysfunction caused by alcohol misuse. It is usually followed by Korsakoff syndrome, another form of brain trauma and Dementia. Together, they create Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which develops due to the body’s inability to get proper nutrients due to alcohol misuse. Specifically, thiamine or vitamin B-1 is lacking in those with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Mental Health Disorders

Alcohol changes the communication pathways among neurotransmitters and neurons, leading to mental health disorders. Symptoms include personality changes, mood swings, lack of impulse control, and difficulty concentrating and staying focused.

Mental health disorders associated with alcohol include:

When both an alcohol use disorder and a mental health disorder exist, it is called a co-occurring disorder. To overcome an addiction, both must be treated at the same time.

Physiological Damages

There is a long list of physiological damages from alcohol misuse. Below are a few of the most common.

  • Inhibits neurogenesis 
  • Damages white and gray matter
  • Volume loss in the prefrontal cortex
  • Inhibition of the hippocampus (controls memory), amygdala (controls emotional responses), cerebral cortex (controls judgment), and the cerebellum (controls coordination)
  • Dysfunction of the mesolimbic system
  • Reduced blood flow to the brain
  • Reduced number of newly formed brain cells
  • Increased risk of Dementia

Head Injuries

Because alcohol inhibits reasoning and judgment, many people make poor decisions that can lead to head injuries. For example, drinking and driving can lead to an auto accident. Alcohol can also make you feel more confident like you are invincible. You may take part in stunts that can end in injury.

Alcohol inhibits motor skills, balance, and coordination. Therefore, falls, slips, trips, stumbles, staggers, and sways can have negative results.


There is a gut to the liver to brain interaction when misusing alcohol due to damaged tissues and forming of diseases. Alcohol conditions cause inflammation throughout the body. Additionally, when it reaches the central nervous system, the brain is affected. Alcohol suppresses the central nervous system, and consuming too much alcohol can lead to an overdose.

Alcohol Overdose

Binge drinking or chronic heavy drinking can overwhelm the central nervous system and brain parts that control organ functioning. It is like your brain is over-sedated or over-dosed by alcohol. So, even if it wants to help you function, it can’t. Eventually, it will shut down and stop working altogether.

Symptoms of an alcohol overdose include:

  • Going in and out of consciousness
  • Slowing or stopped heart rate 
  • Slowing or stopped breathing
  • Vomiting, dry heaving, or nausea
  • Being unable to walk or use motor skills
  • Being unable to talk, think, or remember
  • Losing color or turning blue on the lips, fingers, or toes
  • Having seizures
  • Decreasing body temperature

If you suspect an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately and follow the operator’s instructions.

Reversing Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Once you quit drinking alcohol, new brain cells start to develop. The brain is amazing because it has neuroplasticity and the ability to change. This can be a good or bad thing. When you have an alcohol use disorder, it has negative neuroplasticity. But, when you enter recovery and participate in recovery activities, that is positive neuroplasticity.

The more activities you can do to change the brain positively, the better.

Recovery Activities to Heal the Brain

Healing your brain involves working your brain and retraining it to function correctly. Behavioral therapies are an excellent way to do this. Thus, behavioral therapies for alcohol recovery include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy that trains your brain to process thoughts differently.

CBT is based on the fact that thoughts influence feelings and behaviors. Therefore, if you think negative thoughts, you are more likely to behave negatively. By replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, your behaviors will improve, like avoiding a relapse on alcohol.

There are numerous forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and when combined with peer support groups, individual counseling, and for some, medication, your brain can make a full recovery.

To learn more about alcohol and the brain and to find out if drinking alcohol has affected your brain, call for an assessment today.