I write a lot of stuff down. In fact, I keep a journal. It’s meant to record my thoughts and feelings on pretty much a daily basis, but I also use it to help me remember things – things I need to do, things that are important, just stuff I really need not forget. I don’t trust my memory anymore. It’s a bit like a lover you suspect of cheating on you. Only, with my memory, it cheats on me all the time.
The journal is an essential piece of the jigsaw that is my ongoing recovery from alcohol addiction. I attend regular counseling sessions, I receive one-to-one therapy, I go to AA meetings religiously (even though I’m not, and never have been, religious in any way), I exercise, I eat healthily, I meditate, and, yes, I write stuff down. If I don’t, I may forget.
I’ve just hit my 5-year birthday of being a sober man, living a sober life. For me, it’s my second life, and I am living it to the fullest, as the first one didn’t pan out so well. Year upon year of continuous and heavy drinking has left me with a number of mental and physical health issues, one of which is a memory as reliable as a broken clock.
I fell in love with drinking because it gave me the oblivion I yearned for, the escape from reality, and it fitted perfectly with my desire to alienate everyone around me. It changed the way I thought about things if thinking was possible. Now, its effect on my cognitive function, my thinking ability, is clear, and a bad memory is just part of it.
This article is about how alcohol affects the brain, from drinking moderately to binge drinking to drinking like the proverbial fish, and I swam in alcohol, believe me. Some of this you may know, but there is stuff here you don’t. It will shock you, I’m sure. Whether it shocks you enough to look at your alcohol consumption and do something about it is your choice. Anybody in recovery will tell you – seeking help comes from within.
Before we start, let’s set the field. Alcohol affects people differently. We are not the same. It’s dependent on a whole host of factors, such as:
- How much and how often
- The age you start
- Number of years of drinking alcohol
- Your age now
- Family history
- General health
- Even your level of education, to name but a few.
Your Memory & Blackouts
Alcohol affects our brains from the very moment it enters our system. A couple of drinks will see an immediate impairment of our memories, and, the more we drink, the greater that impairment.
If you drink without eating and quickly, you greatly increase the possibility of a blackout – a period of time when your memory completely fails you, from forgetting certain details to not being able to remember anything.
Remember your college days? Yes? Good for you. No? I’ll bet it was the drinking. College students are a prime example of the blackout scenario, consuming alcohol quickly and in large quantities (binge drinking, in other words), engaging in dangerous activities like unprotected sex, driving while intoxicated, vandalism, sometimes even worse, and then waking up with absolutely no recollection of the night before.
Personally, I lost great swathes of my first life and rarely did I wake up and remember anything of the night before, sometimes whole days, sometimes even weeks. Dangerous, often criminal, behavior was the norm, as sad as that sounds.
In many research studies, men and women report equal experiences and occasions of blackouts, even though men drink, on average, much, much more. This suggests that women are far more at risk of blackouts, needing less alcohol in their system to become susceptible to one.
Research has also demonstrated that women, after fewer years of heavy drinking compared to men, will develop physical health problems more quickly, such as cirrhosis of the liver, nerve damage, and cardiomyopathy.
When it comes to damage inflicted upon the brain by such heavy drinking, like brain shrinkage (a common indication), memory loss, and learning difficulties, men and women had similar results. However, and alarmingly for women, their brain damage was inflicted in only half the time as their male counterparts.
Brain Damage & Mental Health
Excessive use of alcohol, or abuse, is responsible for significant (and often persistent) changes in the way the brain functions. Such damage can be caused by the direct effect of alcohol or as its indirect effect, emanating from poor health generally or other, more specific, physical issues. As mentioned above, a common indicator of alcohol’s effect is that of brain shrinkage. Sadly, this damage can often be irreversible.
Mental health issues linked directly to alcohol consumption include:
- Sleep Disorders
- Active Aggression
Thiamine Deficiency & Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS)
Alcoholics are generally deficient in thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, a possibly fatal condition. Non-specific symptoms of the deficiency include weight loss, confusion, discomfort, and irritability. However, it can lead to much more severe conditions.
The body needs thiamine; found in foods such as meat, whole grains, cereals, and nuts, its deficiency, caused by lack of nutrition, can result in either Wernicke’s encephalopathy (usually occurring first) or Korsakoff syndrome or a combination of the two. The most common cause of this syndrome is alcoholism.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy (or Wernicke’s disease): This encephalopathy involves bleeding occurring in the thalamus and hypothalamus areas of the brain, responsible for both the nervous system and endocrine systems. The subsequent brain damage will severely impair balance, coordination, and eyesight.
Korsakoff syndrome (or Korsakoff psychosis): If the encephalopathy is treated quickly, the onset of Korsakoff syndrome can be prevented. If not, the syndrome will develop, leading to chronic brain damage in the area of the brain that controls our memories.
Its symptoms include:
- Amnesia, including severe memory loss
- Confabulation (or invented memories)
- Inability to converse
- Lack of perception
How does liver disease affect our brains? Liver dysfunction, such as cirrhosis, can lead to a condition called hepatic encephalopathy. This can then result in:
- Abrupt changes in personality, general mood, and sleep patterns
- Anxiety and depression
- Cognitive impairment
- Coordination problems, such as asterixis (uncontrollable hand movements), and
- Hepatic coma (possibly fatal)
Your liver is unable to process the dangerous by-products our bodies produce, which are then free to travel to the brain and wreak havoc.
We all know to drink when pregnant is seriously frowned upon in today’s society, and there’s a good reason. Alcohol consumption can potentially harm an unborn baby’s physical and mental development in the womb and possibly lead, in the worst-case scenario, to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
Children with FAS will have:
- Distinct facial features
- Limited growth physically
- Possible microencephaly (a smaller brain)
- Possibly fewer brain cells (neurons) or fewer of these cells that are able to function correctly, resulting in behavioral and learning difficulties
For the recovering alcoholic (and take it from one who knows), repairing the brain from the damage inflicted upon it over years and years is a long process, and not always fully successful in its outcome.
Research has identified the growth of new neurons during adulthood, known as neurogenesis. Disruption to this process, caused by alcohol abuse, can affect the development of key areas of the brain, and our ability to self-repair.
We Are Not The Same
We are not the same, as people, as heavy drinkers, or as alcoholics. The effect of high alcohol consumption varies greatly on individuals, from person to person. However, the overall result can be seen from what is written above – it is damaging, it may be irreversible, and it could be fatal.
These 6 important facts about how alcohol really affects your brain – your memory and blackouts, brain damage and mental health, thiamine deficiency, and WKS, liver disease, brain development, and brain repair – are what you need to seriously consider if you are concerned about your consumption.
As someone who constantly has to write stuff down in my journal, and make notes and written reminders to myself (my fridge looks like a “Post-It” advert), the effect of prolonged heavy drinking is something I live with every day, regardless of having not had an alcoholic drink for just over 4 years. Please don’t end up like me. Get the help you need and deserve. Please.
If there is something you would like to comment on, a point you’d like to make, please do so below. It’s all about sharing, in the end. Take care and be good.