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How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain And Central Nervous System?

What is the relationship between alcohol and the brain? How does alcohol impact your overall health? Find out here.

Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview

Alcohol acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, slowing and inhibiting brain activity. This occurs due to the reduction of neurons in the brain to transmit electrical impulses.

Alcohol also has a structural impact on the brain and can change the brain with progressive intake. This structural effect is most substantial in children and teenagers and can seriously hamper proper functional and structural development in areas of the brain concerned with speech, balance, memory, and judgment.1 

alcohol and the brain
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Scope of Alcohol Misuse

Statistics from the World Health Organization reveal that 3 million deaths occur every year as a result of harmful use of alcohol. This level of mortality is equivalent to about 5.3% of all deaths each year, with a higher incidence in individuals aged 20-39 years. While alcohol affects many organs, the liver and the brain are the most significantly affected.2 

Alcohol and the Brain: The Impact of Alcohol on Your Health

Alcohol use can cause acute and chronic health damage. One major organ that alcohol affects is the liver. The liver is responsible for the clearance of alcohol from the body. Progressive alcohol use leads to conditions such as alcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and liver failure.
Alcohol use also progressively lowers immune system function while increasing the possibility of developing several forms of cancer. Other health conditions caused by alcohol use include:
  • Digestive disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Learning and memory decline
  • Brain damage conditions

Alcohol and the Brain: Can it Cause Brain Damage?

Heavy alcohol consumption correlates with brain damage. Alcoholic brains are usually atrophied, with loss of neurons and white matter in the cerebral cortex.

A University of Pennsylvania analysis has shown that the relationship between alcohol and the brain is tremendously harmful. Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was associated with reductions in overall brain volume, and the severity worsens as alcohol intake increases.3 

In vitro and in vivo studies done on animal models and human volunteers have shown that alcohol interferes with neural pathways in the brain and affects the brain’s functionality.

Impact of Alcohol on the Brain's Functioning

Alcohol interferes with various brain functions, including speech, balance, memory, and proper judgment. Research on alcohol and brain damage carried out on chronic alcoholics shows varying degrees of impairment. This change is clearly seen when studying the brain of an alcoholic and the brain of a non-drinker.

Alcohol affects various parts of the brain that control emotions, intelligence, movement, reasoning, balance, and memory. Alcohol may lead to severe intoxication in the regions which control respiration, causing respiratory depression. Based on the brain of an alcoholic and the brain of a nondrinker, the parts of the brain affected by alcohol include the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, hypothalamus, medulla oblongata, and hippocampus.

Alcohol in Your Body

After drinking, absorption and metabolism follow. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver to create acetaldehyde, which is converted to carbon dioxide and water under the aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH).4 It takes the human body about an hour to effectively metabolize a standard drink of alcohol.

How Much is Too Much?

Knowing where the healthy alcohol intake limit lies depends on factors such as sex, age, and underlying medical conditions. Women, in general, require less alcohol to reach intoxication when compared to men. Children and teenagers below the age of 21 should avoid all alcohol use due to the effects of severe drinking on the brain during developmental stages.
People with underlying medical conditions should ideally avoid alcohol intake as it can worsen chronic disease prognosis and interact with medications. For example, individuals with hypertension, heart disease, liver conditions, and diabetes should avoid alcohol use.
There are varying levels of alcohol use, these include:

Those Who Drink Occasionally

Social or casual drinkers rarely drink except in social gatherings where alcohol use is encouraged. Casual drinking is perfectly fine as long as binge drinking is avoided.

Those Who Drink Moderately

Mild to moderate drinking has been defined by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control as a maximum of 1 drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. The CDC also recommends that individuals below the age of 21 and pregnant women should not take any form of alcohol.

Heavy or Chronic Drinking

Heavy or chronic drinking is when harmful effects of alcohol use are observed. The CDC has several classifications for excessive alcohol intake, including:5 

Binge Drinking

For women, binge drinking is 4 or more drinks consumed in 2-3 hours. While, for men, ingestion of 5 or more drinks in 2-3 hours classifies as binge drinking.

Heavy Drinking

For women, heavy drinking is classified as 8 drinks or more per week. For men, 15 drinks or more a week is the heavy drinking limit.
Statistics on alcohol and brain damage from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control show that more than 90% of excessive drinkers are binge drinkers, and about 1 in 6 more than 38 million U.S. adults binge drink.
Binge drinking and heavy drinking significantly increase the risk of long-term health conditions. However, binge drinking even once can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.

Several Stages of Alcohol Intoxication

There are seven stages of alcohol intoxication; these will be detailed below.6 

Stage 1: Sobriety, or Subclinical Intoxication

Individuals at this stage have little or no symptoms and don’t appear intoxicated. Subclinical intoxication is characterized by blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.01-0.05. The symptoms are usually impaired judgment and a slow reaction time.

Stage 2: Euphoria

BAC levels are between 0.03 and 0.12 BAC. Individuals in this stage have an increased feeling of confidence, talk more, and feel euphoric.

Stage 3: Excitement

BAC is between 0.09 and 0.25. Individuals in this stage experience varying levels of emotional instability, a decline in judgment, and a significantly reduced reaction time. Speech may be slurred.

Stage 4: Confusion

BAC levels are between 0.18 and 0.30. The brain begins experiencing emotional disorientation, and coordination is significantly impaired. Individuals in this stage may not be able to stand without support and are usually very dizzy.

Stage 5: Stupor

This stage is characterized by a BAC of 0.25 to 0.40. These individuals are significantly intoxicated and at an increased risk of overdose or death from alcohol poisoning.

Stage 6: Coma

BAC is between 0.35 and 0.45. There is significant depression in the brain’s higher control centers, such as those for respiration, cardiac activity, motor responses, and reflexes. Individuals at this stage are at a significantly increased risk of death.

Stage 7: Death

BAC levels are 0.45 and above. Vital organs cannot maintain function, leading to organ failure and death, usually from respiratory failure.

The Serious Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

The effects of alcohol on the brain vary and can be either short-term or long-term. These effects will be discussed further below.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Short-term effects occur within minutes to hours following ingestion of alcohol. Depending on the amount ingested and the individual’s body physiology, alcohol’s short-term effects include subliminal intoxication, euphoria, excitement, and confusion.7 

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol’s long-term effects are multi-systemic and majorly affect the brain and the liver. Affected brain functions include reasoning, memory, intelligence, balance, and emotions. The significant pathology of the liver ensuing because of chronic alcohol intake is called alcoholic fatty liver disease, which progresses to form liver cirrhosis and then chronic liver failure.

Alcohol’s Core Effects

The impact on the liver is due to the burden of alcohol use on hepatocytes. The liver is the primary organ responsible for alcohol clearance. Excessive intake may lead to hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, or liver failure.
Alcohol’s effects on the brain are due to its ability to pass freely between the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB is a protective layer that prevents the direct entry of chemicals from the body to the brain. Therefore, any substance that passes through the BBB easily would have enhanced effects on the brain.
This explains the quick, strong, and lasting action of alcohol on the brain. It’s necessary to consider this when figuring out how to recover from alcohol’s effects on the brain. Researchers haven’t found a strong link between alcoholism’s effect on brain tissue and tumors.8 

What is the Timeline for Brain Recovery from Alcohol Addiction?

After detoxification and treatment, it takes the brain time to adjust to sobriety. Studies show that use of alcohol and brain damage are quite common, with alcoholic brains showing varying degrees of structural damage and neuronal reduction. There are generally observed signs and symptoms that may occur during different periods of sobriety.

Two Weeks

Certain levels of brain matter and cerebrospinal fluid reduction start to return to normal after 14 days of no alcohol effects on brain function. This stage is marked by intense cravings and has the highest relapse rate.

Two Months

Most symptoms of mental fog and short-term memory inhibitions seen in alcoholic brains may disappear after two months of recovery. Reduced cravings and withdrawal signs mark this stage.

Five Years

At this stage of alcoholic and brain interactions, primary cognitive function is said to have returned during sobriety of 2 months to 5 years. Still, varying levels of mental flexibility and abstract nonverbal reasoning may take time to redevelop.

Seven Years and Beyond

Total recovery is said to have occurred after more than 7 years of alcohol sobriety. Although, certain permanent damages such as visual and spatial impairments are still felt.
alcohol and the brain

How Can I Stop Drinking?

Alcohol use, addiction, and withdrawal can be dangerous if left untreated. The sooner you quit drinking, the better the chances of making a full recovery.
If you’re looking to quit drinking, the best way to do this is with the support of friends, family, and treatment professionals. While alcohol addiction can be challenging to treat, at Ripple Ranch Recovery, we have well-trained, board-certified professionals who understand the relationship between the brain and alcohol.

We ensure that our patients receive personalized care to ensure physical and mental health while preventing relapse.

Contact Ripple Ranch for treatment for Alcohol Addiction

At Ripple Ranch, we work to help reverse the effects of drinking and clinical alcoholism on the brain. Our professionals are expertly trained on how to guide you through the process of combating alcohol addiction.

For more information on how to successfully overcome alcoholism and its effects on the brain, please contact us at Ripple Ranch Recovery today. We’re here to help you heal.