How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol has a powerful physical effect on the body. It alters more than just mood, though—alcohol abuse is capable of physically changing how the brain functions. If exposed to alcohol repeatedly, the brain will rewire itself, altering how it produces and utilizes the chemicals responsible for feelings such as pleasure or reward. As a first step to recovery, it is crucial to understand what is happening in the brain when alcohol is introduced to the body and why overcoming alcoholism can be so challenging.

Alcohol and Brain Chemistry

When a person consumes alcohol regularly, it affects the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemical messengers transmit signals through the body that control behavior, emotion and thought processes. Some parts of the brain that are affected include:

Excitatory Neurotransmitters: These neurotransmitters regulate activity and energy levels. Upon consumption of alcohol, they immediately slow down the connections in the brain—shortening response times, creating cognition issues and slurring speech.

Cerebellum: The cerebellum is the center of movement and balance in the body. Alcohol triggers it to malfunction, causing people to stagger, walk off-balance and even fall down.
Medulla: The medulla controls bodily functions such as body temperature, breathing and consciousness. Alcohol can slow down the medulla’s functions and cause a person to feel sleepy and lethargic.

Dopamine Levels: Dopamine is the “feel good” hormone that rewards pleasurable activities. Because alcohol releases more dopamine, the brain believes that it is being rewarded when alcohol is present. After a while, though, a person will be unable to experience happiness without the help of alcohol—sending them into a deep depression.

Effects of Alcohol Dependency

So there are changes in the brain, but how do they affect a person as a whole? The list of effects of dependency is staggering. Symptoms can come in waves across various periods of time, but here are a few effects to watch out for:

Short-Term: Short-term memory lapses, known as blackouts, as well as problems with balance, speech, cognition and reaction time.

Medium-Term: Decreased effects of dopamine, causing your brain to lose the ability to feel happy without alcohol and causing you to fall into depression.

Long-Term: Permanent brain damage—physical shrinking of the brain, deficiencies in the fibers that carry information between brain cells and a permanent altering of the brain’s chemistry. This can lead to more severe mental illnesses, such as dementia.

The longer the brain is exposed to alcohol, the more intense these symptoms will be and the harder it will be to overcome the dependency. Once the brain is permanently damaged, some of the cognitive problems associated with alcohol exposure may not be reversible.

No One is In This Alone

Millions of people across the country struggle with alcoholism every day, but there is hope in the darkness. There are highly qualified treatment centers that specialize in helping people overcome addiction. It is important to find a facility and a program that matches individual needs and is capable of providing the personalized treatment necessary.

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