The brain is one of the most complex organs in your body, so the effect alcohol has on it is equally complex. Alcohol interacts with your brain in a variety of ways, including slowing your mental and physical responses and reducing your ability to think straight. If consumed in excess, alcohol can have seriously detrimental consequences on your health, particularly the brain. If you or someone you love is suffering with an alcohol problem, speak to a professional who can better assess the situation and make the appropriate treatment recommendations. 

Short-Term Effects

In layman’s terms, alcohol blocks signals between brain cells and affects a large portion of the brain. When a person drinks, depending on how much they drink and how quickly, they usually experience the common symptoms of intoxication. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed reflexes 
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Loss of coordination, difficulty walking, standing up
  • Loss of memory 
  • Blurred vision 

These short-term symptoms generally pass once you sober up again, but long-term heavy drinking can bring about more serious changes in your brain. 

Heavy Drinking and Binge Drinking

If your drinking persists into heavy drinking or binge drinking the brain will adapt and will eventually become dependent on alcohol to function. You may experience brain deficits that can persist well after you achieve sobriety. When alcohol leaves the system after continued drinking, the brain will work particularly hard to cope without the alcohol, which can often lead to painful and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can damage brain cells. 

Heavy drinking may have extensive and far–reaching effects on the brain, ranging from simple “slips” in memory to permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care. Binge drinking increases brain damage due to the common cycle of excessive drinking followed by sudden withdrawal. 

Damage to the Brain from Alcohol

Damage to the brain caused by alcohol can take several forms. The first is neurotoxicity, which is defined as damage to the brain and nervous system that has been caused by substances like alcohol. In our brains we have things called neurons which make up pathways between different parts of the brain. 

Over exposure to alcohol can cause these neurons to eventually burn out. When this process begins, it can cause noticeable changes in a person’s behaviour. In addition to the pathway damage, brain matter itself can also become severely damaged due to heavy drinking. People who suffer from alcohol dependence often experience what’s called brain shrinkage. This is when the volume of cell bodies and cell pathways in the brain begin shrinking over time. This loss of brain matter, regardless of gender, typically increases with age and with the amount of alcohol consumed. 

Alcohol and Mental Health

Drinking heavily, and regularly can disrupt the chemicals in our brains that are vital for maintaining good mental health. While it’s not uncommon for people to feel relaxed after they’ve had a drink it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety in the long-term, which makes stress harder to deal with.

Someone with anxiety might have a drink to help them feel calm and at ease, however, this feeling is always short-lived. These feelings of calm and relaxation are actually due to the chemical changes taking place in the brain, as a result of alcohol consumption. Any pleasant effects wear off pretty quickly, so using alcohol as a way to cope with anxiety could eventually lead to physical dependence. 

Drinking heavily is also linked to symptoms of depression, although in many cases it can be difficult to identify cause and effect. This means it’s not always obvious whether drinking alcohol caused a person to experience symptoms of depression or if they were using alcohol as a way of coping with depression. What is clear, is that alcohol can negatively impact the nerve-chemical systems within our bodies responsible for regulating our mood.

What Are the Observable Effects of Brain Damage?

Due to the fact that alcohol affects such a large part of our brain, the observable effects can vary. Cognitive functioning is likely to decrease including: problems with verbal fluency, verbal learning, processing speed, working memory, attention span, problem solving, spatial awareness and processing, and impulsivity. These are all commonly observed effects related to brain damage from alcohol use. Different parts of the brain are more susceptible to damage than other parts, for example parts related to memory and higher functioning such as problem solving and impulse control are likely to be worse.

Who is Most at Risk?

Adolescents are by far the most at risk. Our brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25 which makes for a dangerous mix when adolescents begin experimenting with alcohol too young. This age group is especially at risk for long-term or permanent damage and performance deficits from alcohol use and abuse, given their brain is still in the developmental stage. If gone untreated, cognitive impairment will worsen and the potentiality for developing irreversible conditions is high. 

What Influences the Effects?

A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain. These factors include: 

  • The amount a person drinks 
  • How often a person drinks  
  • At what age a person began drinking
  • How long a person has been drinking
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Genetics 
  • Family history of alcoholism
  • General wellbeing and health

Prevention

It is best to follow guidelines of how to drink responsibly in order to minimise any risk of brain damage due to drinking alcohol. The symptoms of brain damage due to alcohol can be incredibly subtle. It is best to seek medical advice if you are concerned about yours or your loved one’s drinking habits. The earlier the intervention, the greater the possibility of prevention of any potential brain damage due to alcohol. 

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at CATCH Recovery

Alcohol addiction treatment is available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Your decision will ultimately be based upon your individual needs and circumstances. While residential rehab is considered to be the most effective form of treatment for alcohol addiction, clinics like CATCH Recovery offer exceptional outpatient addiction treatment. 

Effective treatment for any addiction consists of a medical detox where necessary. Alcohol withdrawal can be extremely agonising, so a medically supervised detox is always recommended where substances like alcohol are concerned. Detox should then be followed by an intensive course of therapy. 

While detox is an important part of overcoming physical dependency, treating the psychological aspects of addiction will provide you with the tools you need to maintain long-term sobriety. Psychological dependence is the term used to describe the emotional and mental components of substance use disorder. This is usually characterised by strong cravings for a particular substance or behaviour and the inability to function without it. 

CATCH Recovery uses evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), grief and trauma therapy, one-to-one counselling sessions, group therapy and online therapy. We also teach relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation which can help with managing stressful situations, in addition to withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia. 

Whether it’s residential rehab or intensive outpatient therapy, finishing a programme can also feel daunting. You may feel overwhelmed without the structure and safety you’ve become accustomed to. With this in mind, we have created an exceptional aftercare programme designed to prevent relapse and help you deal with the stressors of everyday life. 

Finding Alcohol Addiction Treatment in London

If you’re concerned about your drinking, or you believe someone you love may be abusing alcohol, get in touch with CATCH Recovery to find out which treatments are available to you. 

Our South West London clinic offers an addiction assessment, inpatient and outpatient therapy options and a bespoke aftercare service once you complete treatment. 

If you’re struggling but don’t live in the South of England, you may find our Telehealth services more ideal. Telehealth allows our clients to receive help and support for alcohol or drug addiction remotely on platforms such as Zoom, Skype or Teams. 

Alternatively, we also provide referrals to rehabs in other areas in the UK and Ireland as well as clinics in Sweden and The Netherlands.