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Alcohol and Health

Can Alcohol Poisoning Lead to Brain Damage?

Published:
June 22, 2023
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8 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.
June 22, 2023
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8 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.
June 22, 2023
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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.
June 22, 2023
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8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 22, 2023
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8 min read

Nobody heads out to a birthday celebration, happy hour, or bar hopping with friends expecting that the night might end at the ER. But sometimes, we get carried away, unaware of the dangerous path we may be taking — the path leading to alcohol poisoning and, potentially, brain damage. 

Alcohol Science

Let’s start from the beginning — how does alcohol affect the brain? Alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, slows down brain function and alters its structure. Prolonged heavy drinking can lead to brain shrinkage, specifically impacting regions associated with cognition and learning, and impairing neurogenesis

Moreover, alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit signals within the brain and throughout the body. This disruption can lead to changes in mood, behavior, and bodily functions. So what does alcohol do to your brain? Let’s find out!

A Medical Emergency

How does alcohol poisoning fit into all this? Consuming alcohol faster than our liver can process it overloads our system, causing a rapid increase in our blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A BAC that’s too high can lead to alcohol poisoning.

BAC levels higher than 0.3% can potentially be life-threatening, causing breathing difficulties and seizures. The effects of alcohol on the brain during binge drinking can be fatal. Although you might not be thinking about brain damage from alcohol when you sit down at the bar, things can take a dark turn if you aren’t careful. 

During an episode of alcohol poisoning, the high level of alcohol depresses the nervous system so much that it can't perform its regular functions, such as controlling heart rate and breathing. This acute stress can trigger inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain — the sudden spike can impair the brain's ability to function properly, leading to unconsciousness, respiratory failure, and even death.

For this reason, alcohol poisoning is not a mere hangover — it's a medical emergency! In the most severe cases, it can result in alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), characterized by cognitive deficits, impaired executive function, and difficulty with balance.

The Long Term

If detected early, ARBD can be partially reversed with abstinence or a significant reduction in alcohol intake. Our brains are incredibly resilient: research has shown that after a period of abstinence, some damage can be reversed, and cognitive function can improve.  

However, persistent episodes of alcohol poisoning can potentially cause brain damage to be permanent, eventually leading to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a severe form of ARBD.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome comprises two separate conditions: Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis. Wernicke's encephalopathy is a short-term but severe condition caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) commonly seen in heavy drinkers. It is characterized by mental confusion, oculomotor disturbances (problems with eye movements), and difficulty with muscle coordination. If left untreated, this condition can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death.

If not treated immediately, it can lead to Korsakoff's psychosis, a long-term condition marked by learning and memory problems. While people with this condition may be able to recall events from long ago, they often struggle with new information or recent memories. They might also experience hallucinations or make up events to fill in memory gaps, a phenomenon known as confabulation.

Unfortunately, there's no specific cure for WKS. However, thiamine can be administered to prevent further deterioration of the brain, and in some cases, it may reverse some of the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy and brain damage from alcohol.

Back in Charge

Let's be clear: not every person who enjoys an occasional drink is destined for brain damage. It's all about understanding our limits and forming habits that ensure we drink responsibly. Here are five ways to do just that:

  • Setting a limit. Decide ahead of time how many drinks you’ll have. For instance, you might say, "At this party, we'll only have two beers." This simple planning can help us stay within safe drinking limits.
  • Opting for lower-alcohol drinks. Some beverages, like certain beers or wines, have lower alcohol content than others. Choosing these reduces the amount of alcohol we consume per drink.
  • Sipping, not gulping. Taking our time to enjoy each drink gives our bodies more time to metabolize the alcohol, reducing the risk of overconsumption.
  • Eating beforehand. Consuming alcohol on a full stomach can slow down its absorption, giving our bodies more time to process it. So, maybe grab that slice of pizza before reaching for the wine.
  • Spacing out our drinks. Giving ourselves breaks between each drink can help keep our BAC down. We could use these breaks to hydrate with some water or to chat with friends.

We live in a world where alcohol is often at the heart of social events. We don’t want to miss out on the fun of socializing and spending time with people we love … but we need to look after our health and to make sure we're not veering into dangerous territory. Does alcohol cause brain damage? Yes, but with the right decisions, we can stay safe. No alcohol poisoning or potential brain damage for us! Armed with knowledge, and by practicing responsible drinking habits, we can be part of the fun while socializing safely. 

Nobody heads out to a birthday celebration, happy hour, or bar hopping with friends expecting that the night might end at the ER. But sometimes, we get carried away, unaware of the dangerous path we may be taking — the path leading to alcohol poisoning and, potentially, brain damage. 

Alcohol Science

Let’s start from the beginning — how does alcohol affect the brain? Alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, slows down brain function and alters its structure. Prolonged heavy drinking can lead to brain shrinkage, specifically impacting regions associated with cognition and learning, and impairing neurogenesis

Moreover, alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit signals within the brain and throughout the body. This disruption can lead to changes in mood, behavior, and bodily functions. So what does alcohol do to your brain? Let’s find out!

A Medical Emergency

How does alcohol poisoning fit into all this? Consuming alcohol faster than our liver can process it overloads our system, causing a rapid increase in our blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A BAC that’s too high can lead to alcohol poisoning.

BAC levels higher than 0.3% can potentially be life-threatening, causing breathing difficulties and seizures. The effects of alcohol on the brain during binge drinking can be fatal. Although you might not be thinking about brain damage from alcohol when you sit down at the bar, things can take a dark turn if you aren’t careful. 

During an episode of alcohol poisoning, the high level of alcohol depresses the nervous system so much that it can't perform its regular functions, such as controlling heart rate and breathing. This acute stress can trigger inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain — the sudden spike can impair the brain's ability to function properly, leading to unconsciousness, respiratory failure, and even death.

For this reason, alcohol poisoning is not a mere hangover — it's a medical emergency! In the most severe cases, it can result in alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), characterized by cognitive deficits, impaired executive function, and difficulty with balance.

The Long Term

If detected early, ARBD can be partially reversed with abstinence or a significant reduction in alcohol intake. Our brains are incredibly resilient: research has shown that after a period of abstinence, some damage can be reversed, and cognitive function can improve.  

However, persistent episodes of alcohol poisoning can potentially cause brain damage to be permanent, eventually leading to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a severe form of ARBD.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome comprises two separate conditions: Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis. Wernicke's encephalopathy is a short-term but severe condition caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) commonly seen in heavy drinkers. It is characterized by mental confusion, oculomotor disturbances (problems with eye movements), and difficulty with muscle coordination. If left untreated, this condition can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death.

If not treated immediately, it can lead to Korsakoff's psychosis, a long-term condition marked by learning and memory problems. While people with this condition may be able to recall events from long ago, they often struggle with new information or recent memories. They might also experience hallucinations or make up events to fill in memory gaps, a phenomenon known as confabulation.

Unfortunately, there's no specific cure for WKS. However, thiamine can be administered to prevent further deterioration of the brain, and in some cases, it may reverse some of the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy and brain damage from alcohol.

Back in Charge

Let's be clear: not every person who enjoys an occasional drink is destined for brain damage. It's all about understanding our limits and forming habits that ensure we drink responsibly. Here are five ways to do just that:

  • Setting a limit. Decide ahead of time how many drinks you’ll have. For instance, you might say, "At this party, we'll only have two beers." This simple planning can help us stay within safe drinking limits.
  • Opting for lower-alcohol drinks. Some beverages, like certain beers or wines, have lower alcohol content than others. Choosing these reduces the amount of alcohol we consume per drink.
  • Sipping, not gulping. Taking our time to enjoy each drink gives our bodies more time to metabolize the alcohol, reducing the risk of overconsumption.
  • Eating beforehand. Consuming alcohol on a full stomach can slow down its absorption, giving our bodies more time to process it. So, maybe grab that slice of pizza before reaching for the wine.
  • Spacing out our drinks. Giving ourselves breaks between each drink can help keep our BAC down. We could use these breaks to hydrate with some water or to chat with friends.

We live in a world where alcohol is often at the heart of social events. We don’t want to miss out on the fun of socializing and spending time with people we love … but we need to look after our health and to make sure we're not veering into dangerous territory. Does alcohol cause brain damage? Yes, but with the right decisions, we can stay safe. No alcohol poisoning or potential brain damage for us! Armed with knowledge, and by practicing responsible drinking habits, we can be part of the fun while socializing safely. 

Ready To Give Your Brain a Break?

The Reframe app is here for you! We've already helped hundreds of thousands of people just like you examine their drinking habits and develop healthier routines. We would love to do the same for you!

Everyone has a different story, and our goal is to help you understand how your relationship with alcohol has affected your life. Once you join our vibrant community, you'll receive daily Readings to help you deal with all kinds of stressors. You’ll also have 24/7 access to our Forum chat. We're an eclectic, lively bunch from all corners of the globe, all tackling similar questions and challenges. 

Best of all, you can try the Reframe app for a full 7 days, completely free! There's absolutely no risk and so much potential benefit! Think about finally getting back the mental clarity, energy, and happiness you deserve. We're here to help, cheering you on to live your best life. See you soon in the app!

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