Originally published: March 19, 2019
Updated: June 6, 2022
Alcoholism is a chronic disease that negatively influences the body and damages the brain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that alcohol consumption can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways, potentially impacting its function.
Excessive alcohol intake has consequences, including addiction and health disorders but becoming aware of the risks is the first step toward recovery.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- How alcohol affects the brain
- How alcohol impacts mental health
- Mental health disorders caused by alcohol
- Does alcohol destroy brain cells?
- Is brain damage from alcohol reversible?
- Alcohol and homeostasis
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Alcohol contains an ingredient called ethanol that can bind to different cell receptors in the organism. This accelerates dopamine levels in the small area of the brain connected to the feeling of satisfaction – the nucleus accumbens. This creates an addictive sense of pleasure, happiness, and relaxation.
When you drink continuously, your body begins to crave the substance daily. The body tries to maintain homeostasis and balance the concentration of ethanol which brings a sense of satisfaction.
The ethanol slows down neuron and brain activity. It influences the metabolism and increases the effects of vital neurotransmitters and amino acids, causing tiredness, reduced reflexes, and aggressive behavior.
Does Alcohol Impact Mental Health?
Alcohol is a depressant and has the power to disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. This affects your mood, thinking, and emotions. The chemical imbalance caused by alcohol can cause mental health disorders and severe damage to the brain’s healthy functions.
How Alcohol Affects Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers the nervous system uses to send signals to the brain. They are responsible for keeping the brain functioning and regulating our breathing, heartbeat, concentration, etc. Neurotransmitters also play a role in our emotions and reactions.
When alcohol causes an imbalance of neurotransmitters, it impacts healthy reactions and emotions like fear, pleasure, joy, and mood. Not receiving the proper balance of chemicals leads to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
Which Mental Health Disorders Can Alcohol Cause?
As mentioned above, alcohol is a depressant that impacts the neurotransmitters’ signals to the brain. Two of these affected chemicals are serotonin and dopamine, also known as the “happy chemicals.” When the brain doesn’t receive the needed amount of these two chemicals, depression can occur.
It may sound ironic as a depressant, but alcohol can cause anxiety. This is because alcohol changes serotonin levels in the brain, leading to anxiety.
It’s common for alcoholics to feel the effects of anxiety after the alcohol wears off. When you drink heavily, your body will begin to build a tolerance for the substance. When they aren’t binge drinking, their body will exhibit alcohol withdrawal symptoms, now needing the substance to reach homeostasis.
Less common than depression or anxiety, psychosis occurs when you lose touch with reality in some way, shape, or form—for example, hearing or seeing hallucinations and believing delusions. In extreme cases, alcohol can induce psychosis, making the user paranoid and exhibiting effects similar to schizophrenia.
Psychosis is a less common symptom of alcohol abuse. It is most common in men and women who drink excessive alcohol over several years.
Does Alcohol Destroy Brain Cells?
While it’s a myth that alcohol destroys brain cells, it can damage the brain in other ways. For example, alcohol impairs your neurons’ endings, which cuts off their ability to send important nerve signals.
Modern techniques allow us to record and compare research data from individuals with brain damage caused by alcohol. Data collected from this research provides information about significantly reduced brain glucose metabolism, the only source of brain energy. A barrier between the brain and blood protects the body from bacteria, viruses, and toxins.
As an excellent solvent, ethanol easily penetrates through this barrier, enters the brain, and accumulates mainly in the cerebellum, also called the small brain. Ethanol affects the small brain, responsible for movement coordination and balance. The brain cortex is responsible for the ability to plan something, think, and make decisions, among the many other neuro functions.
Health Problems Associated with Brain Damage Caused by Alcohol
- Poor coordination and balance
- Difficulty walking
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Poor decision making
- Slowed thinking and reaction time
- Impaired memory
- Constant sleepiness
- Loss of consciousness
Is Brain Damage from Alcohol Reversible?
There is a common misconception that damage to brain function caused by alcohol is permanent. However, scientists have concluded that the recovery of neurons is possible. During recovery, MRI scans of the brain show an increase in gray volume after seven and a half months of abstinence. This is in favor of a recent claim that the number of neurons may increase during a lifetime.
How Long Does the Brain Take to Heal from Alcohol?
The brain begins recovering the lost volume of grey matter within one week of abstinence from alcohol. Other areas of the brain damaged by alcohol can take several months or more to recover. These include parts like white matter in the pre-frontal cortex. What’s important to know is that recovery is possible.
You’re encouraged to keep a proper diet, enhance physical activity, and have an active social life to facilitate brain recovery. During alcohol abstinence, some medications, such as antidepressants, may be helpful.
Alcohol and Homeostasis
The human body is constantly trying to achieve or stay in homeostasis, the state of steady internal, physical, and chemical balance. Alcohol levels shift this balance by disturbing hormones. The body will begin to regularly process the alcohol through the liver, kidneys, and lungs. Heavy alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, bone disease, reproductive deficiency, and thiamine deficiency.
Physical and Mental Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
- Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat)
- Cardiomyopathy (when heart muscles struggle to pump blood)
- High blood pressure
- Indigestion and abdominal discomfort
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe dehydration
- Weight change
The body builds a tolerance to alcohol when used excessively, causing you to experience withdrawal each morning before drinking. You will begin to exhibit nervousness, confusion, anxiety, sweating, and tachycardia, to name a few.
Regular alcohol consumption leads to increased tolerance; the brain pushes to achieve a new balance with the presence of the substance. When an alcoholic stops drinking, the temporary balance within the brain breaks. The brain signals to the consumer that the only way to return to a “normal equilibrium” is by drinking alcohol. At the same time, this creates the effect of satisfaction in the brain.
Find Freedom From Alcoholism with Fountain Hills
Alcoholism is a widespread problem that society does not pay enough attention to. It’s essential to know how to identify alcohol use disorder and have that awareness before receiving treatment.
Fountain Hills Recovery is here to help you break free from the chains of alcoholism once and for all. To find out more about the treatment options we provide, please feel free to reach out to Fountain Hills Recovery. Call us now at 888.549.4037 to begin your journey to full recovery.