What Happens to Your Brain During Alcohol Use
01/22/19: Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol is incredibly easy to find in the United States, from convenience stores to restaurants to even “duty-free” stalls at the airport. Due to its legal status for anyone 21 or older, alcohol isn’t often thought of as a drug, which has led to it being the 2nd most abused substance in the US, behind only tobacco. This mentality has helped to hide just how dangerous alcohol use can be – particularly over long periods of time.
As with just about everything else in the world, alcohol consumed in moderation can be perfectly safe short-term when it comes to your brain and body. However, when the drinking becomes chronic your brain, body, and mental health are at risk for short and long-term effects ranging from transient amnesia to liver failure or brain damage.
How Alcohol Affects Your Brain
Many people throughout the world have been some level of drunk in their life, and even more are familiar with how alcohol affects people on the outside. However, the most dangerous part of alcohol is harder to see – it happens in your brain.
When you drink, you’re adding alcohol to your digestive system where it is absorbed through the stomach & small intestine into your bloodstream. Once in your bloodstream, it is processed by your liver at a rate of about 1 ounce per hour (when your liver is fully healthy). If you exceed the amount of alcohol that can be processed at once, it stays in your blood until it can be processed, leading to varying levels of drunkenness depending on your blood alcohol content.
Short Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
As you drink, you begin to loosen up and relax a little bit while the buzz kicks in. A little bit later it starts getting harder to talk or think, and then next thing you know you’re waking up on the couch the next morning. What happened?
Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it slows down your nervous system by limiting the available GABA neurotransmitters that transfer information to and from your brain. This is why as you drink, your speech, coordination, and overall cognitive ability begin to deteriorate. Additionally, drinking causes endorphins to be released into your brain which contributes to a feeling of euphoria & fearlessness, which is why decision making becomes worse as more alcohol is introduced. Finally, getting “blackout” drunk occurs when the alcohol content in your blood inhibits the transfer of short-term to long-term memories in the hippocampus by stopping the production of the electrical impulses that result in memory.
Fortunately, these harmful and dangerous effects on your brain during alcohol use are primarily short-term, meaning that once your body can metabolize the alcohol, you should be just fine (as long as you haven’t given yourself alcohol poisoning). However, too much drinking can lead to long term effects – effects that get progressively worse the longer alcohol is abused.
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Our bodies are incredibly resilient in the short term, being able to safely process excessive levels of intoxication usually within 24 hours. However, there’s a huge difference in a night of binge drinking and years of alcohol abuse. When you don’t give your liver and brain a break from the sedative effects of alcohol, you run the risk of more serious long-term illnesses and damage forming – damage that won’t simply be cured by some ibuprofen & water.
Liver damage is one of these serious developments. When your liver is overworked for long periods of time, scar tissue begins to form to repair the damage it sustains. This scar tissue doesn’t help the liver filter blood, however, which leaves you with less effective liver to process the alcohol. A damaged liver will lead to alcohol staying in your system longer, and with frequent drinking you may be able to maintain a blood alcohol content that is high enough to directly affect your brain’s neural network and structure.
Gray matter in the brain can shrink leading to poor cognitive performance, creativity, and critical thinking. The shrinking of gray matter also causes the neurotransmitter paths to end, leading to potentially permanent brain damage. This damage can affect your mental state, causing confusion, loss of balance, trouble with memory, and other symptoms of being constantly “drunk” without drinking. In addition, alcohol changes your personality, social behavior, and what makes you, you.
Why You Feel the Need to Drink
If you thought alcohol use and abuse only threatened you physically, you’re not alone. Many people who drink feel like they are totally in control of their drinking despite falling prey to alcohols incredibly addictive grasp. They will sometimes only notice a problem once a friend or family member points it out, and even then it’s up to the person drinking to believe them. But why is alcohol so addictive?
Many use alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with mental health issues like anxiety or depression. This is because drinking produces excessive dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, which makes your brain feel happy. This causes it to want more, slowly building an addiction to the feeling it gives and therefore the alcohol that brings it. As time goes on the strength of the addiction grows to where you need it, otherwise you’ll begin to experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, aggression, nausea, seizures, and more. These symptoms can then snowball into greater depression or anxiety, leading to more drinking and an alcohol addiction to develop.
How Alcohol Addiction Treatment Can Help
Once alcohol addiction takes hold, it becomes out of your hands to simply kick the addiction. There are physical and mental factors working against you that make it not only difficult to quit, but potentially dangerous as well due to withdrawal. However, if you’re able to address these factors, you can get clean and take your life back.
If you’re worried about your alcohol use threatening your physical and mental health, there’s no better way to free yourself from the addiction than with alcohol addiction treatment. At Arizona Addiction, we understand that there’s more to alcohol abuse than just putting the bottle down. From detoxification to therapeutic treatment to ongoing recovery once you leave, our alcohol addiction treatment center will help you on the path to sobriety so that you can put a stop to the effects you’ve suffered from and prevent future problems from arising. Call us today to schedule an appointment.
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