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How Alcohol Can Impact the Brain

a person with two empty beer glasses in front of them holds a half-full beer glass and looks pained to show alcohol and the brain

The effects of alcohol on our bodies are widespread and quite known, but what it does to our brain, the center of our thoughts, feelings, and actions, can often be underestimated. Let’s look deeper at how alcohol and the brain interact and how our alcohol rehab in Massachusetts can help you or a loved one recover and regain control over your life.

Call Evoke Wellness at Cohasset at 866.931.6429 to learn more.

Alcohol and The Brain: An Overview

The brain is a complex organ regulated by numerous biochemical pathways, and alcohol interferes with many of these. Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages, is a small molecule that easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Upon consumption, it impacts several neurotransmitter systems in the brain, such as:

  • GABA – One key neurotransmitter affected is gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Alcohol enhances the effects of GABA, leading to feelings of calm, sedation, and even sleepiness, especially with higher doses.
  • Glutamate – Conversely, alcohol inhibits the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Suppression of glutamate can slow brain activity, which further contributes to the depressant effect of alcohol.
  • Dopamine – In addition to GABA and glutamate, alcohol also increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, leading to the euphoria often associated with drinking. However, chronic alcohol use can disrupt this system, leading to a reduced response to rewards and potentially contributing to addiction.

The fact that alcohol affects all these neurotransmitters shows how powerful it is on the brain.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

In the short term, alcohol can cause noticeable behavioral changes, including impaired judgment, slowed reflexes, blurred vision, and difficulty walking – all symptoms of intoxication or being “drunk.” These effects are caused by alcohol’s depressant effect on brain function, slowing the communication between nerve cells.

One of the most critical short-term impacts of alcohol and the brain interactions is the risk of blackouts. A blackout is an episode of temporary memory loss due to alcohol impairing the brain’s ability to create new memories. High levels of alcohol consumption can lead to these blackouts, which are often associated with binge drinking.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Chronic, heavy alcohol consumption can lead to lasting changes in the brain. Over time, repeated interference with neurotransmitter systems can cause them to adapt to the presence of alcohol. When alcohol use is reduced or stopped, these adapted systems can overreact, leading to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, agitation, and even seizures.

Long-term alcohol use can also lead to brain damage, particularly in the frontal cortex and the hippocampus. The frontal cortex is responsible for higher-order functions like planning, decision-making, and impulse control. Damage to this area can lead to personality changes and reduced cognitive function. The hippocampus is responsible for memory, and damage to this area can lead to memory problems and even dementia.

Another serious, albeit rare, condition is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency caused by long-term heavy drinking. It can lead to severe memory impairments, mental confusion, and coordination problems.

Alcohol can also significantly impact mental health. While some people might use alcohol to relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, excessive drinking can increase the risk of these and other mental health disorders. Moreover, alcohol use disorder and mental health conditions often co-occur, each one exacerbating the symptoms of the other.

Alcohol Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Alcohol addiction often doesn’t exist in isolation; it frequently co-occurs with other mental health disorders, creating a complex web of interconnected challenges. Known as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnoses, these disorders interact synergistically, each amplifying the severity of the other, thus complicating treatment. The use of alcohol might be seen as a self-medication strategy, but it ultimately exacerbates the symptoms of mental disorders, creating a vicious cycle of increased dependency and worsening mental health.

To effectively break this cycle, an integrated treatment approach addressing both alcohol addiction and the co-occurring mental health disorder simultaneously is crucial. Understanding this interconnected relationship is critical to providing comprehensive care and promoting sustainable recovery.

Seeking Co-occurring Disorders Treatment? Discover Evoke Wellness at Cohasset

At Evoke Wellness at Cohasset, our specialized treatment approach simultaneously addresses addiction and mental health, giving you a chance at lasting recovery. With a team of experienced professionals and evidence-based therapies, we provide personalized care to meet your unique needs. You can call us at 866.931.6429 to learn more or fill out our online form.