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Alcohol and brain: This is how alcohol affects our brain

Jeevitha Ramesh


More than 75% of adults drink alcohol at some point in their life. 3 million deaths every year result from harmful use of alcohol, representing 6.3 % of all deaths. On average 5.8% of the global burden of disease is due to alcohol. There is a relationship between alcohol consumption and a range of non-communicable diseases. Beyond physical health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings considerable damage to our brains as well.




The current blog brings an understanding of the effects of alcohol on our body and brain.


Alcohol has played its role in almost all human cultures since 4000 BC. All societies, without exception, make use of intoxicating substances: alcohol being by far the most common one. Alcohol is a psychoactive (affecting the mind) substance. It is addictive because of its extremely high dependence-producing chemical properties.


Some studies back in the 1990s suggested that moderate drinking is linked with reduced stress, enhancing creativity, and improving productivity. Nevertheless, recent studies with the use of modern technologies have said that alcohol is a neurotoxin (the substance that has a deteriorating effect on the nervous system). It can disrupt communications between neurons in the brain. Further, overdoing it can lead to severe health issues including organ failure. Some effects of alcohol consumption may be immediate and last only a while; others accumulate over time and may significantly affect our physical and mental health.


Too much alcohol consumption can raise the levels of some fats in the blood known as triglycerides. A high triglyceride level combined with high LDL (bad) cholesterol or low HDL (good) cholesterol has been associated with fatty buildup in the artery walls. This, in turn, may lead to the risk of heart attack and stroke.


Excessive drinking can also lead to high blood pressure, cardio issues and even death from alcohol poisoning. Additionally, it can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways, affecting the way the brain works. Binge drinking may increase the risk for atrial fibrillation, which can lead to blood clots, stroke, and heart failure.


Heavy drinking may also prematurely age arteries over time. Further, the extra calories from consuming alcohol can lead to obesity and a higher risk of developing diabetes.


Let's investigate how alcohol consumption affects our brains.


Most people with alcohol dependence experience memory problems and slow thinking. Alcohol has a profound effect on the complex structures of the brain such as the cerebral cortex(responsible for movement coordination, decision making and thinking), hippocampus(responsible for long term memory and attention), hypothalamus (responsible for, heart rate, hunger, thirst and body balance) and cerebellum(responsible for coordinating daily movements such as walking, running, and cooking). It blocks chemical signals between brain cells (called neurons), leading to the symptoms of intoxication, including impulsive behaviour, slurred speech, poor memory, and slowed reflexes.





Effect of alcohol on our brain



In addition to all of these, brain matter also gets damaged by heavy alcohol use. There can be "brain shrinkage," which is a reduced volume of both grey matter (cell bodies) and white matter (cell pathways) over time.





Magnetic Resonance of the brain shows shrinkage of the brain region due to alcohol consumption.


Subsequently, alcohol may also generate problems with fluency in speech, short term memory, attention span, and problem-solving capability among heavy drinkers.


Parts of the brain responsible for memory (hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex) and "higher functions'' (for example, problem-solving and impulse control) are more susceptible to damage than other parts of the brain. Cognitive impairment left untreated may grow worse, eventually developing into a lasting syndrome known as alcohol-related dementia. Almost 10% of all dementia cases are due to over-consumption of alcohol!


Cognitive impairments are made worse by malnutrition, especially due to the deficiency of vitamin B (a common deficiency in alcohol-dependent individuals). Combined, they can cause serious impairments in memory and language over time and can potentially result in a permanent cognitive disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which causes amnesia and if left untreated this can also lead to coma.


In recent times the useful effects of red wine on human health have been extensively studied. Red wine is made by mashing and fermenting grapes, it has an alcohol content ranging between 12–15%. The study by A M Hodge at Yale University showed that consuming moderate amounts of red wine may help in improving cardiovascular function, increasing red blood cells count, and reducing the risk of several cancers. However, the risk of health degradation is not worthy of encouraging alcohol consumption. There are many alternative and effective ways to improve our health that don’t require us to consume something that can be harmful.


Finally, if alcohol addiction has been a major concern, it's never too late to turn our life around, no matter how dire our situation may feel at the moment. Reaching out for help today and getting care is needed. By seeking addiction treatment, we can take back our life and prevent or reduce many of the risks associated with alcohol abuse. Clinicians consider a variety of treatment methods to help people stop drinking and to recover from alcohol addiction.


The bottom line is that no amount of alcohol is good for our physical or brain health. Over time, excessive drinking can lead to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, increased risk for cancer, and brain damage. Hence, it is always important to follow healthy habits for our overall well being and not depend on addictive things like alcohol.




Reference

  • The Global status report on alcohol and health 2018.

  • The concept of “harmful use of alcohol” in this context is different from “harmful use of alcohol” as a diagnostic category in the ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (WHO, 1992).

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  • Welch KA (2017) Alcohol consumption and brain health.BMJ 357: j2645. [Crossref]

  • Yang H, Spence J, Briggs R, Rao U, North C, et al. (2014) Interaction between early life stress and alcohol dependence on neural stress reactivity. Addict Biol 20: 523-533.

  • 2021 Copyright OAT. All rights reserved

  • Oscar-Berman M, Marinkovic K (2007) Alcohol: Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and the Brain. Neuropsychol Rev 17(3), 239-257.

  • Brower K (2001) Alcohol’s Effects on Sleep in Alcoholics. Curr Addict Rep 25: 110-122.

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