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The Shocking Ways Alcohol Damages & Reshapes Your Brain

Towards the end of my drinking days, I had difficulty thinking clearly.

I could no longer tap into my “zone” and do work. Additionally, I had zero interest in having a remotely complex thought and struggled to function some days on even a basic level.

I forgot things.

I had to write everything down because I couldn’t remember things longer than a few minutes.

We often laugh about moments when we walk into a room and have no idea why we came in there, but that was becoming normal.

What the Experts Say About Alcohol & The Brain

It’s common knowledge (or at least, it should be) that when we’re drinking alcohol, our brains become impaired.

We slur, we slow down, we forget things, we blackout, or we make bad decisions.

For heavy drinkers, though, the lasting impact is more severe. Alcohol can impact our brain’s hard-wiring and produce cognitive problems that may persist even in sobriety.

Heavy drinkers are also at risk of impaired intellectual functioning and diminished brain size.

Let’s do a deep dive into what is actually happening in the brain when you drink heavily for extended periods of time.

Thiamine Deficiency in Heavy Drinkers

A common problem in heavy drinkers is thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is your B1 vitamin and it is an essential nutrient for our body’s tissues, which includes your brain.

The only way to get thiamine is to ingest it via food and supplements. It is naturally occurring in meat, pork, poultry, whole grains, nuts, dried beans, peas, and soybeans.

Many of our food is fortified with thiamine because, well, it’s a really important nutrient. It shouldn’t be a problem, but because of what alcohol does to our judgment and digestive health, it can be a very serious one!

Why are drinkers at risk for thiamine deficiency?

As many as 80% of alcoholics have a thiamine deficiency. It’s largely a result of terrible nutrition, which is also common among heavy drinkers.

Additionally, heavy alcohol consumption causes inflammation in the stomach lining with leads to malabsorption of important nutrients, like thiamine.

Signs of thiamine deficiency include:

If left untreated (meaning you do not improve your diet and get sober), it can lead to a severe condition called Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS).

What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a very serious disease. Actually, it’s more like two diseases in one.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a serious brain injury that results from a lack of thiamine.

The symptoms of Wernicke’s include:

  • double vision
  • a drooping upper eyelid (ptosis)
  • up-and-down or side-to-side eye movements
  • loss of muscle coordination (ataxia)
  • a confused mental state which can lead to combative or violent behavior

It is usually reversible with swift treatment and intervention (including sobriety), but if left untreated, will develop into WKS.

Korsakoff’s Syndrome is characterized by severe short-term memory loss and an impaired ability to learn new information.

Additional symptoms of WKS include:

  • amnesia
  • difficulty understanding the meaning of information
  • difficulty putting words together
  • hallucinations

Treatment for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Diagnosis requires immediate intervention to have a chance at reversing or at least stopping the progression of the disease.

It often requires hospitalization to receive B1 treatments intravenously and requires longterm monitoring and treatment for alcoholism.

Alcohol Changes the Structure of Your Brain

When you drink alcohol, it blocks chemical signals between brain cells, resulting in a state commonly referred to as drunk as f*ck.

It’s why you slur your words, make dumb decisions, and move like a blind zombie.

Drink heavily enough for long enough and the brain begins to adapt to these blocked signals, and not in any kind of healthy way.

what alcohol does to your brain

Neurotransmitters Gone Wild

Neurotransmitters are very important chemical messengers of the brain. They carry, boost, and balance messages between the neurons and cells in our body.

They are the key to everything that makes our bodies work.

So naturally, sustained periods of heavy drinking make them go a bit berserk.

Alcohol inhibits a very important excitatory neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is a real bummer because glutamate does pretty cool stuff like help us learn and remember things.

Then there’s the extremely important inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

Alcohol & GABA

Our brains are in a frenzy of activity. GABA helps calm excitable neurons that would otherwise be firing on all cylinders. This is a fantastic process that long-term drinking screws up.

Alcohol increases GABA and decreases glutamate. It also increases dopamine in our brain’s reward system while at the same, decreasing dopamine receptors.

When this happens, the brain adjusts.

If alcohol is going to artificially increase GABA and dopamine as well as decrease glutamate, your brain effectively says, “Well okay then. I guess I’ll produce less of this stuff.”

It changes its chemistry.

When you experience severe withdrawal symptoms, it’s your brain’s way of trying to restore the chemical balance once again. Essentially, your brain chemistry no longer functions properly without alcohol.

infographic explaining the damage of alcohol on brain
infographic: Impact of Alcohol on Brain

How Alcohol Damages Neural Circuits

Alcohol damages and shrinks the circuits our brain relies on to communicate with itself. The primary areas affected are the cerebellum and frontal lobe.

The frontal lobe is the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, inhibition, judgment, and problem-solving. The cerebellum regulates motor function and coordinates things like balance, posture, speech, and other voluntary muscle activity.

(You can see where alcohol might be problematic here.)

It also does quite a number on our brain’s reward system. Prolonged alcohol abuse changes the chemical structure of the brain in such a way that we become compulsive in our desire to drink.

Alcohol and Brain Shrinkage

Alcohol shrinks your brain. Long-term heavy drinking shrinks the gray and white matter in our brain.

The connections that form gray and white matter in the brain are responsible for important things like learning new information, impulse control, and self-regulation.

They are

The more you drink, the more you damage these critically important areas of the brain.

How Shakespearean that alcohol damages the very parts of the brain that we need to use in order to control and quit drinking.

What Happens To Your Brain in Early Sobriety

Here’s a little peek into my own experience.

The first couple of months of sobriety were peppered with emotional ups and downs.

I had peak energy days and total, depressive crashes.

To be perfectly honest, I was not stable. With the additional hormones and pregnancy complications wreaking havoc on my body, it was no wonder.

This is normal.

what healing your brain from alcohol abuse feels like

The brain is scrambling to adjust to this new, alcohol-free environment it had come to rely on. Your brain’s reward system is taking a major hit.

When you first quit drinking, you may experience a state called anhedonia which is a pretty way of saying you feel like life will never be pleasurable or happy again.

It is still hard for me to know what was anxiety and what was hormonal. I felt like my body was trying (and failing) to reboot.

Some days I felt good, but many days I did not.

I wasn’t drinking, but I was so wrecked from all the changes in my internal world that I often came home and retreated to my couch and would remain there until I went to sleep.

In my lower moments, I began to wonder if this was it.

I’d eliminated the hangovers, but was this exhausted, unmotivated woman crashed out on the couch my new, real self?

I was depressed all over again. This was my anhedonia and I was afraid it would last forever. 

Other common complaints are brain fog, irritability, insomnia, and increased anxiety.

And then slowly, things got better.

How the Brain Starts to Recover From Years of Alcohol Abuse

Within fourteen days, the brain starts to repair itself and retain some of the volume lost from drinking.

That’s good news!

Research has also found that new, healthier neural connections can be made in recovery thus improving cognitive function.

After the first week of sobriety, the cell growth in the hippocampus increases two-fold. Between the first week and first month, increases in gray brain matter and white brain matter start to appear.

If you want to expedite the process, you can use the following lifestyle changes to help rebuild neural connections and restore the gray and white matter to your brain:

Don’t be afraid to get help!

The brain can repair itself. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like, but the light is at the end of this blurry, foggy tunnel.

If you feel overwhelmed, talking to a therapist or counselor can help.

As always, feel free to reach out to the Soberish community on Facebook if you need additional support. We are here for you!

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

  • Answer a few questions.
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  • Schedule your sessions.

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  1. I see this blog post is fairly old, in digital nanosecond half lives, so I suspect it will float out into the ether, and maybe that’s for the best. After drinking since I was 13, I’ve just quit on March 13-not even 3 months. The days go fast and the minutes go slow sometimes. I realize that pretty much every part of myself is somehow stunted or skewed by turning to alcohol for nearly 37 years. Every phase of my development since adolescence I’ve had my good friend, my best friend, by my side: the friend that determined who I dated, who I hung out with, what was important in my life, how I would deal with stress, or heartbreak, what would make me happy, or feel safe, or alive. I did expect to feel “better quicker”. I’m surprised how moments smack me in the face with this intense feeling like I will never feel that feeling that made me happy-like drinking on a good night could feel. But I know I can’t keep feeling the way my bad nights with alcohol left me. If I could drink one… anything I would, but there will be the time when I can’t or don’t and I just don’t want to keep doing that life anymore.

  2. Pls, be cautious using words. Alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells. It destroy dendrites.
    “Research has also found that many of those brain cells you’ve been killing off can be reborn. A word of caution – not all of the damaged neural connections can be restored, but you can still make significant improvements.”
    Of course not, new are created.
    I’m in my early 30’s don’t drink for a few years now. As a person from a medical background, I’m really interested in the brain under alcohol influence. First of all, like one famous scientist said. Around 80% of scientific studies are false, either by flawed methodology or money issues. The main problem with alcohol-related brain damage recovery boils down to estimating what comes first. Is some brain deficit cause people prone to develop AUD? is trauma a major cause of brain damage? We don’t see consistency in alcoholics(why some develop greater deficits drinking less?). Secondly, we don’t map people in the recovery phase… What do they do? Maybe they switch to another habit which causes their cognitive function to decorate or prevent recovery of them (let’s say consuming too much sugar). Fascinating topic but didn’t discover in a fraction

    1. All really fascinating and valid points! Your point is noted about the distinction between cells and dendrites. Thanks for pointing this out and for your thoughts!

  3. Thanks for writing this. I’m 28 days free from alcohol and I really connected to this. I think I’m going through adhendonia currently. I’m currently in a state of ‘meh’ and I often find myself on my phone or watching tv with little motivation. But I’m glad I stumbled on this article. It gives me hope. Thank you again for sharing this.

    1. Keep up the good work! I’ve been sober for over 9 months and I can’t believe how much better my life has gotten! My brain works so well now and I don’t even care if people are drinking around me! It’s soooo nice to wake up and not feel like poo! The beginning is the hardest, of course, so keep up the good work and you’ll get back to your wonderful self soon enough! Proud of you!!

  4. Love all your articles! I am two months sober. Your articles are such a great support! Thank you 😊

  5. I have been reading so much about giving up drinking but your writing is the first one I can relate to. I am nearly 50 and wondering if hormones make me feeldepressed so I drink or I drink and then I’m depressed. I am off sick from work on Only day 2 of sober, I am not physically addicted but I know for my mental health I need to stop. sorry for waffling!

    1. Hi Louise! THANK YOU for your message. I’ve read a few articles that discuss the impact of alcohol on women in menopause so you definitely could be on to something. Congrats on starting and making it to Day 2. It seems cliche but taking it one day at a time is really the best thing. If you want extra support and encouragement, we’ve got a great group on FB. Feel free to send a request and join us. 🙂 (It’s a private group so nothing there is public)

  6. What do you do when even after a whole month of not drinking, you still have no interest in doing things and zone out with the TV, or social media, or sometimes just sitting and staring at nothing?

    1. Hey Heather! It’s normal to feel the way you’re feeling, even after a month. That being said, these could also be signs of depression. If you have access, book an appointment with a therapist to see if you can get some support. It will get better!

  7. Yes, I can totally relate (apart from the pregnancy bit). I love how much our time, focus and space for possibilities opens up once we stop drinking all the time. I’m really starting to realise that the drinking life is a life half-lived but nobody could have told the drinking me, I had to find it out through experience. I’m happy for you that you’re finding great things in sobriety. I revert to feeling about 5 years old when I have to barf so, eek, I hope the morning sickness clears up asap. Take care, be well 🙂

  8. That is beautiful!
    Maybe baby is telling you something, too!
    It took me longer than you in terms of getting more headspace, but at least I’m getting more of it now!

  9. It’s like some literature I know says: we get to handle situations that used to baffles us. It happens slowly, over time. We gradually find space in the mind to think, contemplate. We heal, over time.

    I think the hard part is the immediate needs we feel. It happens to me all time. My brain can convince me that some short term solution will cure me. It’s usually not the right move to be thinking in terms of instant gratification. That’s not the right head space for me to be in.

  10. Eight ish months sober and I am feeling the exact same way, minus the pregnant part, lol… I just watched my seventeen year fly the coop only months ago :/ so at the other end of the journey so to speak, but yeah, I have so much more space in my head dying to learn new things. I often find myself, if only for seconds, wishing I had been sober for the last thirty years so I could relive them, sober! but I can’t so onward and upward from here, I’m still 47 years young, it’s definitely a winding road, here’s to our new found sobriety, still enjoy reading your blog so much and look forward to it every day, hope you continue to feel better and better physically now that you’re into your second trimester….

    1. Thank you so much! I love your perspective of being 47 years young. I catch myself feeling like I’ve lost critical years every now and again, which isn’t a useful feeling. Trying to be more positive about what is possible now and let go of what didn’t happen.