How Does Alcohol Affects the Brain?
Overall, alcohol is linked to over 200 diseases, conditions, and injuries. While it can take years of heavy drinking for diseases like alcohol-related brain damage to appear, negative effects on the brain materialize after only a few drinks.
As an individual consumes alcohol, he or she will begin to feel the depressant effects it has on the brain. As the body’s control center, the impairing effects of alcohol quickly impede the normal function of areas all over the body.
Short-term symptoms indicating reduced brain function include difficulty walking, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, and compromised memory. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can permanently damage the brain and nervous system .
Multiple studies have found a link between excessive alcohol use and damaged brain function, resulting in such conditions as dementia, deficits in learning and memory, mental disorders, and other cognitive damage. Without intervention, the brain can be permanently impaired by chronic alcohol use or alcoholism. With treatment, it’s possible to reverse this damage and heal the brain.
What part of the brain does alcohol affect?
Alcohol interacts with three powerful neurotransmitters–chemical messengers that are responsible for communication.
The Nucleus accumbens: the nucleus accumbens is an important structure in the middle of the brain that is part of the reward pathway. The nucleus accumbens maintains motivation, pleasure, satiety, and memories. Alcohol enhances the release of dopamine, which then produces feelings of euphoria and well-being. This is also why alcohol can be so addicting.
Glutamate receptors: Glutamate is a chemical that excites neurons. Alcohol binds to glutamate receptors and blocks them, or keeps them from being activated.
GABA receptors: GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the chemical that slows the brain down. Alcohol also binds to GABA receptors and activates these receptors .
Between alcohol’s interaction with GABA and Glutamate, the net effect is a depression of brain activity and all the nerves in your spinal cord (also known as the Central Nervous System). This effect doesn’t just result in general drowsiness, but it also slows your breathing, thinking, and even suppresses the gag reflex.
You may think that suppressing the gag reflex isn’t a big deal, but it is. A decreased gag reflex prevents your ability to swallow and increases the chance of choking, airway obstruction, aspiration, and other respiratory complications.
Other brain structures affected by alcohol include:
- The Frontal Lobes: The frontal lobes of our brain are responsible for cognition, thought, memory, and judgment. By inhibiting its effects, alcohol impairs nearly every one of these functions.
- The hippocampus: The hippocampus forms and stores memory. Alcohol’s impact on the hippocampus leads to memory loss.
- The cerebellum: The cerebellum is the center of movement and balance. This is why people experience loss of balance and uncoordinated movements.
- Hypothalamus and pituitary: The hypothalamus and pituitary coordinate automatic brain functions and hormone release. Even though sexual desire increases, sexual performance decreases.
- Medulla: The medulla oblongata acts like you body’s powerpanel. This little segment of your brainstem controls basic vital life functions such as breathing, body temperature, consciousness, heart rate. Alcohol’s depressant effects on the medulla is often responsible for the fatal signs of overdose: extremely slowed breathing and a slowed heartbeat .
If alcohol was an army general plotting a way to take over your brain, it could not have picked a more strategic plan. GABA and glutamate affect the function of the entire central nervous system (including vital life functions and your ability to think), and dopamine causes you to like the substance that’s causing these dangerous effects. Even if you ignore alcohol’s effect on the other major organs in your body, it’s still a pretty thorough takeover.
Alcohol Effects on the Brain
When alcohol enters the body, it travels from the stomach and intestines through the bloodstream to various organs. In the liver, spikes in blood alcohol content caused by heavy drinking overload its ability to process alcohol. So, excess alcohol journeys from the liver to other parts of the body, like the heart and central nervous system. Subsequently, alcohol moves through the blood-brain barrier, affecting the brain’s neurons directly. There are over 100 billion interconnected neurons in the brain and central nervous system. As a toxic substance, drinking alcohol can damage, or even kill neurons.
Alcohol is often described as a “downer” because it slows down signals sent between neurons. Additionally, certain automatic brain processes controlled by the cerebellum and cerebral cortex are impaired or slowed (i.e. breathing, balance, processing new information). It also slows GABA neurotransmitters, resulting in slurred speech, lethargic movements, and reduced reaction time. Conversely, alcohol causes the rapid release of glutamate neurotransmitters (responsible for dopamine regulation in the reward center of the brain). This creates the “warm, fuzzy” feelings many associate with drinking.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol intoxication is a result of short-term effects on the central nervous system with symptoms that can vary drastically depending on how often someone drinks, the amount of alcohol they consume, their unique bodily makeup, and their weight. Symptoms of alcohol intoxication, such as mild cognitive and physical impairment, may become evident after just 1 or 2 drinks, but heavier use can result in alcohol overdose if someone ingests too much alcohol during one sitting.
The immediate effects of alcohol on the brain are due to its influence on the organ’s communication and information-processing pathways. Unfortunately, drinking too heavily or too rapidly can result in several adverse mental effects, such as confusion, impaired motor coordination, and declined decision-making ability. Continuing drinking despite recognizing signs of this can lead to alcohol overdose, sometimes referred to as “alcohol poisoning”.
Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous and potentially deadly consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol can cause reversible and irreversible brain damage, particularly with heavy or persistent use. Of the approximately 20 million alcoholics in the United States, as many as half of them have various degrees of brain damage.
In studies, alcoholics have exhibited brain shrinkage and deficiencies in the white brain matter that carries information between cells. Brain scans of heavy drinkers indicate that alcohol negatively affects neurotransmission, brain cell metabolism, and blood flow within the frontal lobes and cerebellum.
Chronic drinkers may develop permanent brain damage that results in severe medical conditions such as:
- Impaired learning, memory, movement, coordination.
- Psychological disturbances such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia
- Dementia, which affects memory and mental abilities such as language, reasoning, and problem-solving
- Wet brain, a persistent amnesic disorder, results from vitamin B1 deficiency
What Effect can Alcohol Have on my Mental Health?
Alcohol and depression
Drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect. This means it’s not always clear whether drinking alcohol causes a person to experience symptoms of depression.
What we do know is that alcohol affects several nerve-chemical systems within our bodies which are important in regulating our mood. Studies show that depression can follow from heavy drinking. And that reducing or stopping drinking can improve mood.
Medications prescribed for depression should not be mixed with alcohol. Some commonly prescribed antidepressants tend to increase the risk of relapse to heavy drinking in people who are trying to cut down or abstain from alcohol, so antidepressants should be only taken with great caution and only when prescribed by your doctor.
Alcohol and self-harm
Alcohol can cause people to lose their inhibitions and behave impulsively, so it can lead to actions they might not otherwise have taken – including self-harm and even suicide. There is a strong association between drinking heavily (either chronic or acute alcohol misuse) and suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and death from suicide.
Extreme levels of drinking (such as drinking more than 30 units per day for several weeks) can occasionally cause psychosis, which is a severe mental illness where hallucinations and delusions – of persecution, for example – occur. Psychoses can be caused by both acute intoxication and withdrawal and can be more common in cases when drinkers who are dependent on alcohol suddenly stop drinking.
Alcohol and anxiety
If you experience anxiety, alcohol can give you a very short-lived feeling of relaxation – but this quickly disappears. If you rely on alcohol to cover your anxiety, you may soon find yourself drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence. You may also find a hangover makes your anxiety worse.
If you use alcohol to unwind, think about other ways you can find to relax: meditation, yoga, exercise or making time for things you enjoy, for example.
Alcohol and psychosis
It’s possible to experience psychosis if you regularly drink a lot of alcohol. Psychosis can also be triggered if you’re a heavy drinker and suddenly stop drinking.
Consequences of Alcohol Damage
Digestive and endocrine glands
Drinking too much alcohol may cause inflammation of the pancreas, resulting in a condition called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can activate the release of pancreatic digestive enzymes and cause abdominal pain.
Your liver helps break down and remove toxins and harmful substances (including alcohol) from your body. Long-term alcohol use interferes with this process. It also increases your risk for alcohol-related liver disease and chronic liver inflammation:
- Alcohol-related liver disease is a potentially life threatening condition that leads to toxins and waste buildup in your body.
- Chronic liver inflammation can cause scarring, or cirrhosis. When scar tissue forms, it may permanently damage your liver.
The pancreas helps regulate how your body uses insulin and responds to glucose. If your pancreas and liver don’t function properly due to pancreatitis or liver disease, you could experience low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. A damaged pancreas can also prevent your body from producing enough insulin to use sugar. This can lead to hyperglycemia or too much sugar in the blood.
Central nervous system
Slurred speech, a key sign of intoxication, happens because alcohol reduces communication between your brain and body. This makes speech and coordination — think reaction time and balance — more difficult. That’s one major reason why you should never drive after drinking.
The connection between alcohol consumption and your digestive system might not seem immediately clear. The side effects often only appear after the damage has happened. Continuing to drink can worsen these symptoms. Drinking can damage the tissues in your digestive tract, preventing your intestines from digesting food and absorbing nutrients and vitamins properly. In time, this damage can cause malnutrition.
Chronic drinking can affect your heart and lungs, raising your risk for developing heart-related health issues.
Circulatory system complications include:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty pumping blood through the body
- Heart attack
- Heart disease
- Heart failure
We are hoping that this article helped you shed some light in answering the question of how alcohol affects the brain? it will give us a new idea and perspective on how to deal with people struggling with alcohol use disorder. If you or someone you love is struggling with alcoholism, get them the safest help they need and deserve. Inpatient alcohol rehab might offer an environment where initiating sobriety feels more manageable. We Level Up FL offers a safe and medically assisted Dual Diagnosis Alcohol and Mental Health Disorder Treatment. Contact our team today!
 NIAAA – https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
 NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625995/
 NIH – https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-brain-energy-patterns-provides-new-insights-into-alcohol-effects#:~:text=In%20previous%20studies%20they%20and,through%20changes%20in%20blood%20oxygenation.