How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain: 7 Important Stages

How does alcohol affect the brain? It affects the brain in many ways, positive as well as harmful. Almost everyone in today’s generation has a drink in their life, irrespective of their age and gender. These people are upset or demotivated from their lives, so they start drinking to reduce their stress and depression and slowly get addicted to it.

Alcohol not only makes people addicted but also causes many problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome1 and brain damage. It also affects the fetus’s developing brain if its mother drinks during the pregnancy.

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s cell communication pathways and can affect how the brain works and looks (brain shrinkage). Alcohol makes it significantly more challenging for the brain to control balance, speech, memory, and judgment. Therefore results in a higher likelihood of injuries and accidents.

1. Alcohol Effect On A Developing Brain

We all know that alcohol has a terrible and dangerous effect on the brain. Alcohol-related brain damage2 is not curable, and alcohol-related brain damage is also irreversible because alcohol-related brain damage includes damage to neurons.

Neurons are formed in our body only one time, and that too at the time of birth. So, alcohol-related brain damage is irreversible and non-curable.

Alcohol has a very negative impact on it. It is advised that teenagers should not consume alcohol because, in adolescence, the brain is in the developing stage. Alcohol addiction is strictly prohibited for them.

Alcohol has very adverse and non-curable effects on the developing brain. In other words, alcohol causes brain damage.

2. How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain

Ever indulged in a glass of wine now and then? Then you are not at all alone. More than 85% of adults report drinking alcohol at some point in their life. In 2020, alcohol drinking and alcohol consumption in the U.S. spiked, with hefty drinking increasing by 41% among women.

Having a lot of drinking habits is unlikely to cause health problems; heavy drinking can impact the brain cells, and alcohol abuse and alcoholism deficits over time.

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain
By Julia Nastogadka, Unsplash, Copyright July 2017

3. Alcohol Intake

Alcohol intake affects your body quickly. Alcohol is a drink absorbed through the lining of your stomach into your bloodstream, directly increasing the blood alcohol content. Once there, it spreads into tissues through your veins and arteries in your whole body. Alcohol reaches your brain cells, and after that, it starts damaging the brain cells.

After some time, your liver will start to process the consumed alcohol. According to clinical and experimental research, the liver will metabolize around one ounce of alcohol in one hour. After metabolization, the alcohol will remain in urine and hair follicles for an extended period.

Alcohol overdose will cause intoxication. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism for a very long period will cause various disorders and damage brain cells and the liver.

sunset beer toast moment
By Wil Stewart, Unsplash, copyright July 2015

4. Effects of Alcohol On The Brain

Alcohol is one of the very important and most commonly used drugs in the United States, with almost 85% of people reposting that they have drunk alcohol in some part of their lives and over 25% reporting that they have engaged in binge drinking.

Binge drinking means having a blood alcohol content level, also called BAC, of 0.08 g/dl or sometimes higher than this. Most around one-third of the total population meets the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.

Although alcohol is considered socially acceptable to consume in most parts of the world. Heavy alcohol use can deteriorate individual overall physiological and brain health.

Long-term and heavy alcohol drinking can result in learning and memory disorders3, eventually worsening mental health. It affects the brain in two ways, short-term effects and long-term effects.

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain
By Paolo Bendandi, Unsplash, Copyright December 2019

4.1. Short-Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

The most common example of the short-term effect of heavy drinking of alcohol is alcohol intoxication. It directly affects the nervous system and causes brain damage that can vary drastically depending on how often the individual drinks and the amount of alcohol consumed. It also depends on their gender, age, unique body makeup, and weight.

The symptoms of alcohol intoxication4 are physical impairment and mild cognitive. It may become evident after just 2 or 3 drinks, but heavier use can sometimes result in alcohol overdose. Information-processing pathways and organ communication influence the immediate or sudden effects of alcohol on the brain.

Unfortunately, drinking too rapidly and frequently can result in many adverse mental effects such as impaired motor coordination and confusion.

Alcohol poisoning is a dangerous and potentially deadly consequence of heavy drinking. Alcohol poisoning symptoms may include

  • Seizure
  • Confusion
  • Respiratory suppression
  • Vomiting
  • Slowing of heart rate
  • In worst cases, even death

4.2. Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

Individuals who drink more heavily are at much higher risk for adverse alcohol-related complications. Long-term health risk includes chronic problems, cancer, immune system failure, sleep and mood disturbance, cancer, and the development of many diseases controlled by the brain, such as anxiety and depression.

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain
Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash, Copyright June 2019

Individuals who consume alcohol a lot and that too for a very long duration are also susceptible to thiamine disorder, sometimes called wet brain. This condition is persistent with mental confusion and difficulty with coordination and eye movement.

Last but not least, long-term alcohol use can also lead to the development of alcohol-related disorders5, sometimes referred to as alcohol addiction or alcoholism. The problematic pattern of alcohol use is that, despite harmful consequences to the individual’s health and brain.

The person diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) must meet at least two of the below criteria within 12 months.

  • Spending much of their time trying to obtain alcohol.
  • Cravings for alcohol.
  • Drinking in every situation irrespective of whether it is dangerous to do so, such as driving.
  • Continued to drink despite relationship and familial issues caused by the use of alcohol.
  • Being unable to fulfil the work needs.
  • Using frequent and higher amounts of alcohol than initially intended.
  • Being unable to cut the amount of drinking.
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

5. Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain Function

Chronic alcohol consumption will cause damage to the central nervous system (which consists of the brain and spinal cord). Sometimes moderate alcohol consumption or only a few drinks are acceptable, but too much alcohol consumption will cause cognitive impairment.

Excessive drinking will increase the risk of various brain-related diseases, ultimately leading to brain cell death. Alcohol will interfere with the brain’s communication pathway by interfering with the work of neurons; thus, the correct information is not passed to the target organ.

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain
By Natasha Connell, Unsplash, Copyright August 2019

An individual may experience an improved general feeling or improved social interaction of well-being with moderate alcohol use. However, it is important to note and understand that alcohol can risk someone’s mental and physical health and overall mood.

Alcohol, especially excessive use, can exacerbate comorbid psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Alcohol also has a significant impact on brain volume.

6. Stages Of Alcohol Intoxication

Chronic alcohol use will lead to alcohol intoxication, and several stages of alcohol intoxication are described below

6.1. Subliminal Intoxication

It is the first stage of alcohol intoxication6. It will not show a drastic change in your health and behaviour, but it is slightly changed. In this stage, the blood alcohol content (BAC) is shallow, between 0.01 and 0.05.

6.2. Euphoria

It is the second stage of alcohol intoxication. In this stage, the brain will release dopamine, and the person will feel confident and relaxed due to the release of this chemical. But, it will damage your memory and reasoning capabilities. In this stage, the BAC is 0.06-0.12.

6.3. Excitement

In this stage, the person will feel changes in their body and bodily functions. In this stage, alcohol kills brain cells and damages the brain’s frontal, temporal and occipital lobes. Along with it, the other side effects of alcohol abuse are lack of control of the body, slurred speech, hearing impairment, and blurred vision.

Alcohol affects the parietal lobe, which is necessary for the sensory information in the body. The BAC at this stage is 0.12-0.25. The motor skills are lost, and the reaction time for any situation slows down. After some time, the person will feel nausea, vomiting, impaired judgment, and mood swings.

6.4. Confusion

At this stage, the effects of alcohol abuse are increased. It will start to affect the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum. The cerebellum is responsible for maintaining the coordination of the body. As the cerebellum is concerned, the coordination of the body is imbalanced, so the person cannot walk or stand properly.

Short-term memory loss, blackouts, and loss of consciousness are widespread in this stage. It will also affect the brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for making and remembering new memories.

6.5. Stupor

At this stage, the person will show signs of alcohol poisoning. It will happen when the BAC level reaches more than 0.3. If the person drinks alcohol continuously at this stage, it will cause mental health problems.

Binge-drinking alcohol causes physical, mental, and sensory impairment in the body, and various organs are affected a lot, so their functioning is reduced or completely stopped.

6.6. Coma

At this stage, the BAC level is around 0.35. In this stage, the person will feel suffocation and have respiratory problems. The circulatory system and reflex actions will also not function adequately, so the person will go into a coma.

6.7. Death

Binge alcohol drinking will take you near to death. If the BAC level reaches around 0.45, it will cause death due to the failure of various body organs. The central nervous system, liver, respiratory system, and circulatory system will stop functioning, and the person will die.

7. Drinking And Driving

Alcohol consumed person is not in their senses. The impaired judgment you have when drinking alcohol may sometimes cause you to think that you can still drive. Drives with a BAC of 0.08 or even more than 11 times are more likely to be killed in a single-vehicle crash than non-drinking drivers.

Alcohol also affects the brain development of the people who consume it in very high amounts. An alcohol addict person drinks alcohol at a much higher concentration than an average person. This type of person, when drinking and driving, at that time, loses their balance from their body. An alcoholic person has no balance in their body.

Some states have very high penalties for driving with high BAC due to the high risk of fatal accidents.

8. Body Response To Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism

The effects of alcohol are different for different people. Everyone’s body reacts to alcohol differently. Alcohol adversely affects brain function. It also affects brain structure, causes thiamine deficiency and substance abuse, and dramatically alters brain health.

Everyone’s body reacts differently toward alcohol, and these effects depend on gender, age, and overall individual health. Also, it depends on how long you have been drinking and how often you used to drink.

8.1. Those Who Drink Occasionally

These types of people do not have an alcohol addiction. They drink occasionally. However, while their judgment is impaired, they may make bad or poor decisions with lasting effects, such as driving under the influence.

8.2.  Those Who Drink Moderately

This means a person who drinks one or two daily drinks can have a high risk for breast cancer, other mental health, and substance abuse. They may also be prone to increased accidents and violence.

8.3. Heavy Drinking 

These types of people are alcohol dependent, and alcohol withdrawal makes these types of people aggressive and violent. These people have alcohol use disorder; for alcohol use disorder, these people have to be given proper addiction medicine daily.

Their addiction treatment includes medicines with proper workouts and meditation. This treatment improves brain function and mental health.

9. Alcohol Misuse And Its Lasting Effects On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism

Excessive alcohol abuse can increase the risk of some cancers and brain damage. Alcohol-related brain damage can lead to mental disorders and health problems like anxiety and depression. Alcohol also leads to Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome, which is marked by amnesia and eye issues.

WKS is a brain-related disorder caused by thiamine deficiency or, in many cases, lack of vitamin B-1. Taking a certain amount of vitamins and magnesium, along with not at all drinking alcohol, may improve your symptoms.

Alcohol can harm the individual body in many ways. After one year of stopping drinking, most cognitive functioning or damage can be reversed or improved.

10. History Of Neurobiological Studies In Alcohol Research

Alcohol research done by the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse in the early 1970s showed that alcohol also impacts neurobiological. Moreover, most techniques critical to modern neuroscience were not available in 1970.

Behavioral genetics and other electrophysiological recordings from different slices of brain tissues and cells were in their infancy, (patch-clamp recording, gene expression, and recombinant inbred mice) that are mainly used today did not exist.

hal gatewood OgvqXGL7XO4 unsplash 1 1
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash, Copyright October 2017

11. Alcohol’s Actions On Neurotransmitters

Alcohol also has an action on synaptic transmission. Essentially this was unknown in the year 1970 and has now also been slowly established during the past few decades. One of the initial studies showed that ethanol inhibited the release of various signaling molecules such as acetylcholine from the cortex.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse is trying to find out more about it and also how to overcome this problem as we all know that people who are addicted to alcohol have to be put on addiction treatment to improve brain function and their mental health and to stop further complications such as cognitive function and all.

These medicines reduce their alcohol dependence. But with these medications, various other treatments are also developed by scientists who can even help control the urge to alcohol.

12. Conclusion

So, how does alcohol affect the brain? We hope now you have a rough idea, of what can alcohol do to your brain.

Excessive alcohol use causes many brain disorders and also causes many mental disorders. Along with this, it also changes the sleep patterns of the individual who is using it. Apart from all these, consumption of alcohol also leads to new adult brain cell damage, new brain cells in infants, memory problems, brain shrinkage, fetal alcohol syndrome, and disturbances in brain chemicals.

Excessive alcohol use causes thiamine deficiency, problems in the cerebral cortex, alcohol-related dementia, and mental confusion. It kills brain cells and leads to permanent brain damage. Alcohol damage is irreversible damage caused by excessive drinking of alcohol in the neurons.

Neurons are the type of cells, but the noteworthy fact about neurons is that they only formed once in the whole life of the individual., and that too at the time of fetus development. 

  1. May, Philip A., and J. Phillip Gossage. “Estimating the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome: A summary.” Alcohol research & health 25.3 (2001): 159. ↩︎
  2. Zahr, Natalie M., Kimberley L. Kaufman, and Clive G. Harper. “Clinical and pathological features of alcohol-related brain damage.” Nature Reviews Neurology 7.5 (2011): 284-294. ↩︎
  3. Mayes, Andrew R. “Learning and memory disorders and their assessment.” Neuropsychologia 24.1 (1986): 25-39. ↩︎
  4. Vonghia, Luisa, et al. “Acute alcohol intoxication.” European journal of internal medicine 19.8 (2008): 561-567. ↩︎
  5. Schuckit, Marc A., et al. “The time course of development of alcohol-related problems in men and women.” Journal of studies on alcohol 56.2 (1995): 218-225. ↩︎
  6. Pautassi, Ricardo M., et al. “Early responsiveness to stimuli paired with different stages within the state of alcohol intoxication.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 26.5 (2002): 644-654. ↩︎

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