How alcohol abuse affects your brain


Alcohol abuse can cause many adverse effects to your brain and body. Here’s what you need to know about the damaging effects of alcohol abuse.

What can alcohol abuse do to the brain?

Alcohol is an irritant to all body tissue, from where it comes in to where it goes out. Alcohol does kill brain cells. Some of those cells can be regenerated over time. In the meantime, the existing nerve cells branch out to compensate for the lost functions. This damage may be permanent. Moreover, after a certain age, the connections between neurons begin to prune back. In a brain damaged by alcohol, we may see early-onset dementia.

Age makes a difference. The brain is developing until about age 26. This is especially true between the ages of 13 and 26, when there’s explosive growth in the prefrontal cortex. People that start drinking heavily at this time are more prone to cognitive problems like impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, anxiety and depression.

How harmful is binge drinking?

Binge drinking is defined by The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking to a blood alcohol level to .08% or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks or women consume four or more drinks in about two hours.

The immediate consequences of binge drinking include:

  • Upset stomach and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Rapid/irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure
  • Distorted vision and hearing
  • Decreased perception and coordination
  • Blackouts (memory lapses)
  • Decreased sexual performance
  • Dehydration
  • Dangerous interaction with some prescribed and over-the-counter medications
  • Fatal alcohol poisoning

Behavioral consequences include:

  • Accidents due to problems with balance and slowed reaction times
  • Social consequences related to impaired judgment
  • Damaged relationships
  • Imprudent sexual encounters
  • Assault
  • Law enforcement involvement


What are the long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the brain?

There are numerous long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the brain. These include a decrease in motor skills, both short-term and long-term memory loss, anxiety, depression, irritability and insomnia.

What are long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the rest of the body?

Alcohol abuse also affects the rest of the body. Alcohol abuse can lead to heart damage like stroke, arrhythmia and high blood pressure. It can also cause inflammation of the panaceas and liver, including fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis. Abuse of alcohol can cause cancer. In 2009, 3.5 % of all cancer deaths in the United States were alcohol related. It’s now more important than ever to have a healthy immune system, and alcohol abuse can suppress the immune system.

Is there any way to reverse the effects?

Many of the effects of heavy alcohol use are reversible, or can at least be significantly improved. The first step is to stop drinking. While many binge alcohol users aren’t alcoholics, they need to stop doing the thing that’s causing the damage. Professionals such as internists, neurologists, addiction specialists, dietitians, psychiatrists, cardiologists, physical therapists and others can all help the recovery process.

It’s important to know the human body can handle moderate levels of alcohol without any problems. We see the problems arise with heavy use. According to the US Dietary Guidelines, people should limit drinking to one serving of alcohol per day for women and up to two servings per day for men.

Brad Lander is a clinical psychologist and addiction medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

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