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Alcohol and Health

Can Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

Published:
October 4, 2023
·
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 4, 2023
·
18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 4, 2023
·
18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 4, 2023
·
18 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
October 4, 2023
·
18 min read

Every night after work, you plop down on the couch and enjoy a glass of wine. You find that it helps you unwind after a busy day. You think you’re doing your brain a favor by giving it a break. But wait: is this actually what’s going on? Or could it be that you’re actually causing it more harm by drinking alcohol? 

In this post, we’ll explore how chronic alcohol use impacts our brain and puts us at risk for developing alcohol-related brain damage. We’ll also share some tips for protecting our brain health. Let’s dive in!

What Is Brain Damage?

Before we look at how alcohol affects our brain health, let’s first get clear on what brain damage is. Brain damage is a broad term used to describe any harm to the brain, whether it's permanent or temporary. For instance, we might suffer a blow to the head that leads to a concussion, as happens with many professional football players. Or brain damage can come in the form of a tumor that results in a neurological illness, such as a stroke. 

These are usually the types of things we think about when we hear “brain damage.” But brain damage can also refer to changes in the way we think or behave resulting from substances we put into our body. These changes are perhaps a bit more subtle and develop over time, but they are no less serious than those caused by a traumatic accident or illness. 

Can Alcohol Cause Brain Damage? 

When it comes to the effect of alcohol on our brain, we typically think about the more immediate effects such as the slower reaction time, slurred speech, coordination problems, and lowered inhibitions. While it’s easy to wave these off as minor, temporary side effects, there’s a lot more going on in our brain than we might realize, especially if we’re drinking heavily over a long period of time. 

In fact, there’s something called alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), a brain disorder that is caused by regularly drinking too much alcohol over many years. Some people with ARBD experience a decline in their thinking and memory, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). They also might experience physical symptoms, such as liver damage, numbness in arms and legs, or muscle weakness. 

The most severe form of ARDB, however, is Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome (WKS), which causes more serious problems with memory and thinking, similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. People with this type of ARBD can also struggle with day-to-day tasks due to lack of muscle coordination and balance. Otherwise referred to as “wet brain,” this condition is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the body as a result of long-term heavy drinking. Unless it is treated promptly, the disease will become irreversible. 

How Does Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

So how exactly does alcohol cause brain damage? It all comes down to our central nervous system, which includes our brain, spinal cord, and the network of neurons that carry information to other parts of our body. 

Our central nervous system is incredibly sensitive to the effects of alcohol. It is also responsible for causing the immediate side effects we associate with drinking, such as poor coordination and impaired judgment. But over time, drinking too much alcohol can cause brain cells to die and our brain tissue to shrink. As a result, our brain struggles to initiate different tasks, such as moving our muscles or recalling important information. 

Alcohol can also cause brain damage in more indirect ways. For instance, heavy, long-term consumption of alcohol can damage blood vessels in the brain, leading to high blood pressure and irregular heart beats, both of which are risk factors for stroke. A stroke happens when our brain doesn’t get enough blood, starving our brain cells of the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive. This can cause severe and irreversible brain damage. 

Similarly, alcohol-related damage to other parts of our body can affect our brain over time. For instance, alcohol hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by years of drinking. Because the liver is responsible for filtering toxins, a dysfunctional liver sends “bad” blood to the brain. The result is hepatic encephalopathy, or a buildup of toxins in the brain, which leads to a decline in brain function. 

What Are the Symptoms of ARBD?

The symptoms of ARBD vary and range from mild to severe depending on how badly alcohol has damaged the brain. They typically include problems with cognitive functioning (like thinking and understanding) and memory, alongside physical symptoms. Most people with ARBD will experience some, rather than all of the symptoms listed below. 

Cognitive and memory problems might include things like:
  • Memory loss, or inability to remember information (such as times, dates, appointments, or people they’ve just met)
  • Difficulty with familiar tasks, like how to use a phone
  • Depression, irritability, or apathy
  • Poor judgment and loss of inhibition
  • Problems with language, like forgetting the end of a sentence
  • Erratic behavior, like rapid mood swings or aggression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor choices and decision making capabilities
Physical symptoms might include things like:
  • Damage to the liver, stomach and pancreas, all of which can affect brain function
  • Pins and needles, numbness, or burning sensation in arms and legs
  • Slow, wide, stumbling gait (ataxia), making it difficult to walk and balance
  • Poor temperature control, muscle weakness, and distributed sleep patterns, all of which are caused by shrinkage of the brain and tissue damage
Who Develops Alcohol-Related Brain Damage?

Research suggests that approximately 50 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the U.S. have some form of brain damage or neuropsychological problems. 

Generally, people will develop alcohol-related brain damage after 10 to 20 years of heavy drinking, although some have developed brain damage in less time. Heavy drinking is usually defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men, and 8 drinks or more per week for women. 

People who are diagnosed with ARBD are usually between 45 and 60 years old. While the condition tends to affect men more than women, women may develop alcohol-related brain damage in a shorter time span and at a younger age. This is likely because women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects than men.

Overall, the extent of alcohol’s effect on our brain depends on numerous factors, including the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumed, how long we’ve been drinking, our overall health, gender, and genetics — or if we have a family history of alcohol misuse. 

How Much Alcohol Causes Brain Damage?

So just how much alcohol causes brain damage? Well, it’s tough to say because there’s really no set amount of alcohol that guarantees we’ll develop brain damage. In general, the more alcohol we consume, and the more regularly we consume it, the greater the risk of damaging our brain. 

Also, people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) are likely at a greater risk. This is because heavy drinking over the years can increase our tolerance, which typically leads to higher consumption levels. This is why it’s generally recommended to consume no more than one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men. 

It’s worth noting that even one night of binge drinking can cause brain damage. While it might not cause some conditions, like Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome or a stroke, a single night of heavy drinking can lead to impairment that causes a traumatic brain injury. For instance, since alcohol can cause us to lose balance and coordination — as well as impair our judgment — it puts us at a greater risk of falls and accidents that could lead to physical and cognitive injuries. 

Is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Permanent? 

As for whether brain damage from alcohol use is permanent, it largely depends on the severity and type of damage. For instance, conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be reversed if treated early. Because it is caused by thiamine-1 deficiency from alcohol use, thiamine and vitamin supplements can help improve brain function. 

Strokes, however, are generally permanent, although a degree of recovery can be achieved. Most alcohol-related brain damage requires ongoing therapy and medical treatments to promote even a partial recovery. Unfortunately, when people typically receive diagnosis, much of the damage is already permanent. However, for all forms of alcohol-related brain damage, quitting drinking is the most important step. 

Tips for Protecting Our Brain Health

One of the best things to do for our brain health is to limit our alcohol consumption or eliminate alcohol from our life entirely. Drinking alcohol can not only cause brain damage but lead to numerous physical and mental health issues, ranging from depression to heart disease. 

With that in mind, here are a few more tips for protecting our brain health:

  • Exercise regularly: Studies have shown that people who exercise for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. These benefits result from increased blood flow to our brain. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week (roughly 30 minutes each day). We don’t have to get crazy: even just a brisk walk can be beneficial.
  • Get quality sleep: Sleep is incredibly important for our brain health. Studies suggest that it helps clear abnormal proteins in our brain and consolidates memories, which boosts our overall memory and brain health. Experts recommend getting at least 7-8 consecutive hours of sleep each night. 
  • Eat a brain healthy diet: Our diet also plays a large role in our brain health. Studies have found that following a Mediterranean diet rich in plant-based foods, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats, such as olive oil, can be particularly beneficial for our brain, decreasing our risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Healthy fats help our brain cells function effectively and can increase mental focus. Some examples of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, olive oil, fish, eggs, beans, flaxseed and chia seeds. 
  • Stay mentally active: Our brain is similar to a muscle — we need to use it or we’ll lose it. There are many ways we can “exercise” our brain, such as doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku, reading, playing cards, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We can also keep our brain in shape by learning to do something new, whether it’s a new language, instrument, craft, sport, etc. 

The Bottom Line

Alcohol is a toxic substance. Consuming it excessively over a long period of time can cause significant damage not only to our body but to our brain. Research shows that heavy drinking over the years can permanently damage our nervous system and shrink brain volume, ultimately leading to cognitive and physical decline. Alcohol’s effects on other parts of our body, particularly our liver, can contribute to brain-related damage as well. The best way to protect ourselves from alcohol-related brain damage is to limit our consumption of alcohol or eliminate it from our life entirely. 

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption but don’t know where to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and enhance their physical and cognitive health in the process.

Every night after work, you plop down on the couch and enjoy a glass of wine. You find that it helps you unwind after a busy day. You think you’re doing your brain a favor by giving it a break. But wait: is this actually what’s going on? Or could it be that you’re actually causing it more harm by drinking alcohol? 

In this post, we’ll explore how chronic alcohol use impacts our brain and puts us at risk for developing alcohol-related brain damage. We’ll also share some tips for protecting our brain health. Let’s dive in!

What Is Brain Damage?

Before we look at how alcohol affects our brain health, let’s first get clear on what brain damage is. Brain damage is a broad term used to describe any harm to the brain, whether it's permanent or temporary. For instance, we might suffer a blow to the head that leads to a concussion, as happens with many professional football players. Or brain damage can come in the form of a tumor that results in a neurological illness, such as a stroke. 

These are usually the types of things we think about when we hear “brain damage.” But brain damage can also refer to changes in the way we think or behave resulting from substances we put into our body. These changes are perhaps a bit more subtle and develop over time, but they are no less serious than those caused by a traumatic accident or illness. 

Can Alcohol Cause Brain Damage? 

When it comes to the effect of alcohol on our brain, we typically think about the more immediate effects such as the slower reaction time, slurred speech, coordination problems, and lowered inhibitions. While it’s easy to wave these off as minor, temporary side effects, there’s a lot more going on in our brain than we might realize, especially if we’re drinking heavily over a long period of time. 

In fact, there’s something called alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), a brain disorder that is caused by regularly drinking too much alcohol over many years. Some people with ARBD experience a decline in their thinking and memory, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). They also might experience physical symptoms, such as liver damage, numbness in arms and legs, or muscle weakness. 

The most severe form of ARDB, however, is Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome (WKS), which causes more serious problems with memory and thinking, similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. People with this type of ARBD can also struggle with day-to-day tasks due to lack of muscle coordination and balance. Otherwise referred to as “wet brain,” this condition is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the body as a result of long-term heavy drinking. Unless it is treated promptly, the disease will become irreversible. 

How Does Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

So how exactly does alcohol cause brain damage? It all comes down to our central nervous system, which includes our brain, spinal cord, and the network of neurons that carry information to other parts of our body. 

Our central nervous system is incredibly sensitive to the effects of alcohol. It is also responsible for causing the immediate side effects we associate with drinking, such as poor coordination and impaired judgment. But over time, drinking too much alcohol can cause brain cells to die and our brain tissue to shrink. As a result, our brain struggles to initiate different tasks, such as moving our muscles or recalling important information. 

Alcohol can also cause brain damage in more indirect ways. For instance, heavy, long-term consumption of alcohol can damage blood vessels in the brain, leading to high blood pressure and irregular heart beats, both of which are risk factors for stroke. A stroke happens when our brain doesn’t get enough blood, starving our brain cells of the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive. This can cause severe and irreversible brain damage. 

Similarly, alcohol-related damage to other parts of our body can affect our brain over time. For instance, alcohol hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by years of drinking. Because the liver is responsible for filtering toxins, a dysfunctional liver sends “bad” blood to the brain. The result is hepatic encephalopathy, or a buildup of toxins in the brain, which leads to a decline in brain function. 

What Are the Symptoms of ARBD?

The symptoms of ARBD vary and range from mild to severe depending on how badly alcohol has damaged the brain. They typically include problems with cognitive functioning (like thinking and understanding) and memory, alongside physical symptoms. Most people with ARBD will experience some, rather than all of the symptoms listed below. 

Cognitive and memory problems might include things like:
  • Memory loss, or inability to remember information (such as times, dates, appointments, or people they’ve just met)
  • Difficulty with familiar tasks, like how to use a phone
  • Depression, irritability, or apathy
  • Poor judgment and loss of inhibition
  • Problems with language, like forgetting the end of a sentence
  • Erratic behavior, like rapid mood swings or aggression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor choices and decision making capabilities
Physical symptoms might include things like:
  • Damage to the liver, stomach and pancreas, all of which can affect brain function
  • Pins and needles, numbness, or burning sensation in arms and legs
  • Slow, wide, stumbling gait (ataxia), making it difficult to walk and balance
  • Poor temperature control, muscle weakness, and distributed sleep patterns, all of which are caused by shrinkage of the brain and tissue damage
Who Develops Alcohol-Related Brain Damage?

Research suggests that approximately 50 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the U.S. have some form of brain damage or neuropsychological problems. 

Generally, people will develop alcohol-related brain damage after 10 to 20 years of heavy drinking, although some have developed brain damage in less time. Heavy drinking is usually defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men, and 8 drinks or more per week for women. 

People who are diagnosed with ARBD are usually between 45 and 60 years old. While the condition tends to affect men more than women, women may develop alcohol-related brain damage in a shorter time span and at a younger age. This is likely because women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects than men.

Overall, the extent of alcohol’s effect on our brain depends on numerous factors, including the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumed, how long we’ve been drinking, our overall health, gender, and genetics — or if we have a family history of alcohol misuse. 

How Much Alcohol Causes Brain Damage?

So just how much alcohol causes brain damage? Well, it’s tough to say because there’s really no set amount of alcohol that guarantees we’ll develop brain damage. In general, the more alcohol we consume, and the more regularly we consume it, the greater the risk of damaging our brain. 

Also, people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) are likely at a greater risk. This is because heavy drinking over the years can increase our tolerance, which typically leads to higher consumption levels. This is why it’s generally recommended to consume no more than one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men. 

It’s worth noting that even one night of binge drinking can cause brain damage. While it might not cause some conditions, like Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome or a stroke, a single night of heavy drinking can lead to impairment that causes a traumatic brain injury. For instance, since alcohol can cause us to lose balance and coordination — as well as impair our judgment — it puts us at a greater risk of falls and accidents that could lead to physical and cognitive injuries. 

Is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Permanent? 

As for whether brain damage from alcohol use is permanent, it largely depends on the severity and type of damage. For instance, conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be reversed if treated early. Because it is caused by thiamine-1 deficiency from alcohol use, thiamine and vitamin supplements can help improve brain function. 

Strokes, however, are generally permanent, although a degree of recovery can be achieved. Most alcohol-related brain damage requires ongoing therapy and medical treatments to promote even a partial recovery. Unfortunately, when people typically receive diagnosis, much of the damage is already permanent. However, for all forms of alcohol-related brain damage, quitting drinking is the most important step. 

Tips for Protecting Our Brain Health

One of the best things to do for our brain health is to limit our alcohol consumption or eliminate alcohol from our life entirely. Drinking alcohol can not only cause brain damage but lead to numerous physical and mental health issues, ranging from depression to heart disease. 

With that in mind, here are a few more tips for protecting our brain health:

  • Exercise regularly: Studies have shown that people who exercise for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. These benefits result from increased blood flow to our brain. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week (roughly 30 minutes each day). We don’t have to get crazy: even just a brisk walk can be beneficial.
  • Get quality sleep: Sleep is incredibly important for our brain health. Studies suggest that it helps clear abnormal proteins in our brain and consolidates memories, which boosts our overall memory and brain health. Experts recommend getting at least 7-8 consecutive hours of sleep each night. 
  • Eat a brain healthy diet: Our diet also plays a large role in our brain health. Studies have found that following a Mediterranean diet rich in plant-based foods, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats, such as olive oil, can be particularly beneficial for our brain, decreasing our risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Healthy fats help our brain cells function effectively and can increase mental focus. Some examples of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, olive oil, fish, eggs, beans, flaxseed and chia seeds. 
  • Stay mentally active: Our brain is similar to a muscle — we need to use it or we’ll lose it. There are many ways we can “exercise” our brain, such as doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku, reading, playing cards, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We can also keep our brain in shape by learning to do something new, whether it’s a new language, instrument, craft, sport, etc. 

The Bottom Line

Alcohol is a toxic substance. Consuming it excessively over a long period of time can cause significant damage not only to our body but to our brain. Research shows that heavy drinking over the years can permanently damage our nervous system and shrink brain volume, ultimately leading to cognitive and physical decline. Alcohol’s effects on other parts of our body, particularly our liver, can contribute to brain-related damage as well. The best way to protect ourselves from alcohol-related brain damage is to limit our consumption of alcohol or eliminate it from our life entirely. 

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption but don’t know where to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and enhance their physical and cognitive health in the process.

Summary FAQs

1. Can alcohol cause brain damage?

Yes. Long-term, heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) – a brain disorder characterized by cognitive and physical decline.

2. How does alcohol cause brain damage?

Over time, drinking heavily can cause brain cells to die and our brain tissue to shrink. This makes it difficult for our brain to complete different tasks, such as moving our muscles or remembering things. Furthermore, alcohol-related damage to other parts of our body can affect our brain over time and lead to cognitive impairment. 

3. What are the symptoms of alcohol-related brain damage? 

Symptoms range in severity depending on how badly alcohol has affected our brain. They typically include things like difficulty thinking, understanding, and remembering, as well as muscle weakness, poor balance, and numbness in hands and feet. 

4. How much alcohol causes brain damage? 

There’s no set amount of alcohol that guarantees we’ll develop brain damage. In general, the more alcohol we consume, and the more regularly we consume it, the greater the risk of damaging our brain. 

5. Who develops alcohol-related brain damage? 

Generally speaking, people will develop alcohol-related brain damage after 10 to 20 years of heavy drinking – defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men, and 8 drinks or more per week for women.

6. Is alcohol-related brain damage permanent?

It depends on the severity and type of damage. Conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be reversed if treated early. But most alcohol-related brain damage requires ongoing therapy and medical treatments to promote even a partial recovery.

7. What are some tips for protecting our brain health?

Apart from limiting our consumption of alcohol, our brain greatly benefits from physical activity, adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and mental stimulation.

Build Healthier Drinking Habits With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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