Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a leading illness in the United States. It affects 14.1 million adults — approximately 5.6% of the adult population — increasing their risk of accidents and disease, as well as reducing their quality of life.
Despite the fact that AUD is a chronic disease, there are lots of damaging myths about the condition. Some people believe that alcoholism is a character flaw — a problem that could easily be solved if only a person would take responsibility for their alcohol consumption.
This stigma is unhelpful because it can prevent a person from seeking the help they need. Many people struggle with AUD alone.
It also ignores the fact that drinking alcohol causes changes to the brain. These changes can impede a person’s ability to simply seize control of their drinking and quit, and these changes need to be taken into account if a person is to start and stay on a path towards sobriety.
How much alcohol is too much? If you’re wondering whether you or someone you love has an alcohol problem, the AspenRidge guide to signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction is a useful place to start.
Which Part of the Brain Does Alcohol Affect First?
Alcohol has an effect on the brain after just one or two drinks. Even people without an AUD are likely to have experienced the brain-altering effect of alcohol at some point in their lives.
As alcohol affects different parts of the brain, different symptoms of drunkenness emerge. That’s because different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions.
Alcohol affects the prefrontal cortex first. This part of the brain is responsible for judgment, reasoning, and suppressing impulsive behavior. That’s why after a few drinks you lose some of your inhibitions and feel more confident venturing out of your usual comfort zone.
Alcohol then affects the frontal lobe and parietal lobe, slowing your reaction time to sensory information.
The cerebellum controls your balance and coordination. When alcohol affects this part of the brain you may find it hard to walk in a straight line or speak without slurring your words.
If you continue to drink alcohol beyond this point, it affects the hippocampus. This part of the brain is responsible for learning and memory, which is why you may struggle to remember events the following day or might even experience a complete blackout.
For many people, alcohol’s effect on the brain is largely temporary. But excessive drinking — either steadily or in the form of binge drinking sessions — can have a more serious, long-term effect on brain function.
How Does the Brain Change When You Drink Heavily?
Alcohol doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. The extent to which long-term alcohol use affects the brain, depends upon:
- How much and how often a person drinks alcohol
- How long a person has been drinking alcohol
- Age, gender, genetics, general health, and any family history of alcohol addiction
However, it is widely agreed that the more you drink, the more likely you are to experience permanent brain changes.
The Brain and Addiction
Alcohol, along with other substances, activates dopamine reward centers in the brain. Dopamine is a “feel good” chemical that helps to establish a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement.
A link between alcohol and a positive mental response is established, making it more likely that we’ll seek out alcohol and a similar dopamine rush again. We may even do this to the detriment of other activities.
The link between alcohol and dopamine causes further problems. In response to the overstimulation of excessive alcohol or drug use, the brain cuts its production of dopamine or reduces its number of dopamine receptors. This means you have to drink more to experience the same effect.
The Brain and Alcohol Withdrawal
People who suddenly stop drinking after drinking heavily may experience alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms can include shaking, irritability, anxiety, hallucinations, and even seizures.
Withdrawal occurs because alcohol has caused an imbalance in the brain chemistry. This leads neurons to overreact in the absence of alcohol.
Whilst alcohol withdrawal is a temporary state, it causes discomfort and cravings that can prevent a person from attempting or achieving sobriety.
Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
People with a long-term alcohol addiction can experience permanent brain damage.
This brain damage can occur because of general poor health exacerbated by alcohol addiction.
It can also be caused by a thiamine deficiency. People suffering from an alcohol addiction are often deficient in thiamine — a vitamin essential to brain health. A lack of thiamine can lead to serious brain damage.
One other way in which alcohol causes long-lasting brain damage is by affecting neurons and neurotransmitters. Mental and physical abilities are impaired because neural pathways stop functioning properly, even in the absence of alcohol.
How Can You Reduce Your Risk of Alcohol-Related Brain Changes?
Some researchers have found evidence that no level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe for brain health. However, heavier, longer-term drinkers are more likely to experience adverse side effects. That’s why it’s important to stay in control of your alcohol consumption and recognize signs of an addiction.
Drink in Moderation
You can reduce your risk of alcohol-related brain changes by drinking in moderation. That might mean being more mindful of how you drink, withstanding peer pressure, or finding new ways to socialize and cope with stress.
Stop Drinking Altogether
If you suffer from an AUD, stopping drinking altogether will help to prevent further brain changes and may even lead to recovery. Around 75% of people show at least minor recovery from alcohol-related brain damage when they stop drinking and undergo treatment.
Get the Right Support
Because alcohol changes the brain, changing your relationship with this substance can be challenging. That’s why it’s a good idea to seek professional support.
AspenRidge is a leading provider of dual diagnosis treatment for mental health and alcohol abuse. We understand that alcohol use disorder exists on a spectrum, so we tailor our programs to each individual client.
With inpatient, outpatient, online, and in-person sessions available, we can provide support that suits your schedule and your level of addiction.