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Beyond hangovers: the effects of alcohol on the brain

Beyond hangovers: the effects of alcohol on the brain

Indiscriminate consumption of alcohol can cause serious adverse effects on the central nervous system, impairing the functioning of various brain regions
alcohol effect on brain, hippocampus, pregnancy, FASD
Alcohol can adversely affect brain and spinal functions | Illustration by Varsha Vivek 

Alcohol consumption has been a centuries-old pastime and is well-ingrained into the social fabric of society worldwide. According to the National Institute of Health, USA, 85 per cent of the population 18 years or older consumes alcohol, and a 2019 report says that 25 per cent of people 18 or older admitted to “binge drinking.”

But what if there are hidden costs to drinking alcohol? There might be more than just the bar tab to pay. What many people do not know is that alcohol can have significant effects on the brain and spine.

Beyond the hangover

Alcohol affects the brain regions significantly, in how they process thoughts, emotions, memory and rational thinking. Specifically, regarding the central nervous system, alcohol slows the cerebral cortex function, which can lead to poor judgement.

In addition, alcohol affects the frontal lobes of the brain — which are important for planning and decision-making — causing a person to lose control of emotions or actions. If alcohol damages the hippocampus, a person may find it hard to retain memories. And when alcohol affects the cerebellum, the person can lose coordination.

The thiamine thief

Long-term excessive alcohol intake can affect the absorption and functioning of thiamine or Vitamin B1, an essential micronutrient that helps to convert food to energy. Alcohol increases the risk of thiamine deficiency and poor nutrition, leading to the development of Wernecke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).

WKS is an incurable condition that causes irreversible mental confusion, loss of coordination, and memory problems, similar to dementia. Management of WKS requires supportive care.

Brain atrophy and back pain

Over time, drinking too much alcohol can cause brain cells to die and a person’s brain tissue to shrink, causing cerebral atrophy, also known as alcohol-related brain damage.

An analysis of the brains of chronic alcohol abusers has found a disproportionate loss of cerebral white matter relative to the cerebral cortex suggesting significant neurotoxic effects and axonal degeneration. In other words, chronic alcohol abuse causes the brain cells to deteriorate.

In addition, chronic alcohol overuse can adversely affect the spine in several ways:

  1. It hastens degenerative disc disease due to dehydration.
  2. Various studies have examined that degenerative disc disease can increase back pain.
  3. Alcohol can be toxic to nerve cells and can pose the risk of alcoholic neuropathy via nerve damage and produce a “pins and needles” sensation.
  4. The biochemical cause of alcoholic neuropathy is from several pathways, including thiamine deficiency, oxidative stress leading to free radical damage to nerves, and the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

A host of disorders

Excessive drinking can affect one’s physical and mental health. For example, it can cause liver disease, pancreatitis, cancer of the mouth, liver, oesophagus, and high blood pressure. In addition, it can lead to secondary issues such as unintentional injuries, psychological disorders and addiction.

Read: How alcohol affects heart health
Read: Sober solution to alcoholic hepatitis

Alcohol and the unborn baby

When an unborn baby is exposed to the mother’s excessive consumption of alcohol, its growth can be affected by what is called foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Alcohol exposure can change the physical features of the foetus, cause central nervous system disorders and growth issues. Children exposed to FASD while in the womb can develop problems with eyesight and hearing. They may also develop problems relating to memory, learning and attention.

Some dos and don’ts of healthy drinking

Having spoken of the ill effects of excessive alcohol consumption, here are a few pointers for safe drinking.

  • What is considered a `healthy’ amount of drinking?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for US citizens, moderation is the key in alcohol consumption. The guidelines recommend that male adults of legal drinking age should limit alcohol intake to two drinks or less in a day; and female adults to one drink or less in a day.

  • How important is it to drink water with liquor?

It is essential to drink water before, during, and after consuming alcohol. Physicians recommend a 1:1 ratio of water with every alcoholic drink taken in an 8-ounce (237 ml) glass.

Dr Brian Fiani

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