While it is true that drinking alcohol is fun and enjoyable, it is also true that too much of something can be poisonous. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2015, 86.4% of individuals aged 18 years and above reported drinking alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Further, 70.1% reported drinking in the last one year while an additional 56% reported drinking in the last month.
What is even more worrying is the fact that 26.9% reported engaging in binge drinking in the last month while 7% reported heavy drinking in the last month. Heavy drinking is defined as engaging in binge drinking on 5 or more days in the last month alone. More and more Americans seem to be drinking alcohol.
Alcohol Addiction In The U.S
These statistics are indicative of an underlying problem in the American society; alcohol addiction. Addiction means an individual is bound to something, in this case, alcohol. This means that the person is unable to operate efficiently without alcohol in his body system. Alcohol abuse and dependence is also known as the alcohol use disorder (AUD).
According to the NSDUH, in 2015, there were 15.1 million adults aged 18 and above suffering from AUD. Numbering 9.8 million, men were the most afflicted. But perhaps what is a source of even more concern for many is the fact that the NSDUH report also singled out youths aged between 12 and 16 years as a primary victim of AUD with up to 623,000 adolescents having it in 2015 alone.
(Source: Alila Medical Media)
Effects Of Alcohol Abuse And Dependence
It is a well-known fact that alcohol can help make an individual more confident and more sociable. However, research suggests that the cons of drinking alcohol significantly outweigh the benefits of drinking alcohol.
The most lethal of these disadvantages is alcohol related death. According to an estimate 62,000 men and 26,000 women die from alcohol related causes every year. This makes alcohol one of the leading preventable causes of death in the nation.
Aside from that, alcohol also has some adverse effects on the human brain subsequently leading to effects such as a loss of inhibitions, confusion or abnormal thinking and poor decision making. However, many people are still relatively misinformed about alcohol and its impacts on the brain. It is, therefore, necessary to demystify the topic and create more awareness about how alcohol and the brain interact.
Factors That Determine The Extent To Which Alcohol Will Impair Brain Functioning
Alcohol affects the brain functioning of people differently based on some factors. Top among these is the blood alcohol content (BAC). A decreasing BAC is likely to have sedative effects while an increasing BAC often acts as a stimulant. Other factors that may determine how alcohol impacts the brain include;
- The frequency of drinking
- The volume one drinks
- The age at which the individual started drinking
- Sex, age, and even genetic factors.
- Family history of alcohol abuse
- Fetal exposure to alcohol
- An individual’s general health.
Short Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse
People who are drunk sometimes exhibit certain behaviors all of which are signs that the proper functioning of the brain has changed. Many experts categorize these short term effects into two main groups; intoxication effects and memory impairment effects.
1. Poisoning Effects
These are by far the most common effects. They include individuals having slurred speech, reacting more slowly, having trouble with maintaining balance, making a poor judgment and sometimes engaging in the risky and unpredictable behavior. However, it is important to note that these effects normally fade off after a short time hence the reason they are considered short term.
2. Memory Impairment Effects
To further understand the consequences under this category, it is vital to appreciate the fact that experts recognize three main types of memory. These are sensory memory (only lasts a few minutes), short term memory (lasts a couple of minutes) and the long term memory which affects the minds ability to store memories that can last a lifetime.
The short term effect of alcohol is about the sensory and short term memory impairment. For example, alcohol may reduce an individual’s ability to feel pain. In some cases, this may result in a situation where one gets injured but only knows about it later, when the alcohol has worn out.
On the other hand, when people are excessively drunk, some tend to blackout; this is short term memory impairment. These are situations where individuals are unable to recall events that occurred between certain time periods. Some people may experience fragmentary blackouts while others may experience a bigger loss of time with some even forgetting events of an entire night.
Memory impairments affect decision making in several ways. For example, many people often black-out only to later learn that they engaged in risky and dangerous behavior such as having unprotected sex (often non-consensual), vandalizing and in some cases, even dangerous driving.
Long Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse
Chronic alcohol abuse can also lead to some long term effects. For example, chronic addicts may experience mental health and social issues such as stress, depression, anxiety and even social withdrawal. These are all known to have an impact on the decision-making process of an individual. For example, the anxiety and depression caused may have an effect of increasing suicide tendencies in the affected individuals.
As a matter of fact, research suggests that alcoholic adults are up to 120 times more likely to commit suicide than people who do not drink alcohol.
One of the most dangerous long term effects of regular alcohol abuse is a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). This is a brain disorder that causes long term memory-impairment, and may also affect/impair vision and in some cases, even trigger seizures.
Some other symptoms of WKS may include;
- Impaired coordination of muscles
- Misalignment of the spine
- Inability to concentrate
- Situational awareness
It is worth noting that WKS leads to the loss of previously formed memories and impairs the ability of an individual to create new memories.
How Alcohol Affects Different Parts Of The Brain
When one drinks alcohol, several areas of the brain are affected;
1. Frontal Lobes
This is part of the brain is located in the cerebral cortex and is responsible for facilitating thinking, decision making, and planning. Some experts have even suggested that frontal loves are the emotional control center of the body as well as a major determinant of personality. Specialized functions include;
- Motor function
- Problem solving
- Impulse control
- Sexual behavior
Some studies have posited that consumption of alcohol may damage the frontal lobes leading to frontal lobe dysfunction. Symptoms of dysfunction often involve changes in the social behavior of individuals (including aggression), a difficulty in taking in and interpreting feedback from one’s surroundings, risk taking and even a disregard for rules and regulations. Individuals with a damaged frontal lobe may also exhibit abnormal sexual behavior and in some cases, a general lack of sexual interest.
It is also worth noting that alcohol abuse among adolescents may have significant adverse effects on the development of their brains. Indeed, studies suggest that teens who engage in heavy drinking may have smaller frontal lobes than non-alcoholics of their age.
2. Central Nervous System
There is a consensus that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. The central nervous system (CNS) comprises of the brain, the spinal cord, and the optic nerves. It serves functions such as controlling thought processes, registering sensations on the body and even guiding one’s movement.
When alcohol damages the CNS, it depresses the excitatory neurotransmitters leading to issues such as;
- Slower reaction times
- Mood swings
- Lowered inhibitions
- Memory impairment issues
On the other hand, alcohol consumption increases inhibitory neurotransmitters which have the result of sedating and calming the brain. Ultimately, individuals may display symptoms such as sleepiness, slurred speech, loss of coordination and body balance and even a depression of senses.
Studies also indicate that chronic abuse of alcohol may result in even worse outcomes; some of them permanent. However, for moderate drinkers, these symptoms may disappear gradually as the alcohol level in the body system falls.
Types Of Neurotransmitters And How They Relate With Alcohol
Studies have established that alcohol consummation may alter the levels of neurotransmitters in the body hence affecting brain chemistry and functioning.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for carrying messages to and from the brain. They include;
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. Further, dopamine helps individuals to engage in actions that spur them towards those rewards.
Consumption of alcohol subsequently leads to increased production of dopamine in the body. The brain perceives alcohol as a rewarding substance hence contributing the formation of addiction. Chronic consumers of alcohol may develop an over-dependency on the alcohol for pleasure while others may experience issues such as aggression, depression and muscle spasms among others.
This is an excitatory neurotransmitter responsible for increasing brain activity and energy levels. On the contrary, however, the consumption of alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate in the body. This leads to a slowdown in the functioning of the brain.
Known in full as gamma-amino-butyric acid, this is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a role in influencing behavior, cognition and even an individual’s response to stress. Since they are inhibitory, GABA neurotransmitters serve to reduce excitability in a person’s brain. However, consumption of alcohol may increase GABA levels in the body subsequently resulting in sedation for the affected individual.
These are the “feel good” chemicals in the brain, and when people consume alcohol, the production of these chemicals increases. At first, the production of endorphins may cause addiction. However, as time goes by, long term chronic use of alcohol and the high endorphin levels may trigger issues such as depression, infertility, and even extreme fatigue.
3. Alcohol and Hippocampus
This part of the brain is relatively small and is located in the medial temporal lobe. It is also a critical part of the limbic system which is in charge of regulating emotions. The hippocampus serves a highly specialized function of storing long term memories. It is of paramount importance to note that the hippocampus does not involve procedural memories (like remembering how to talk or walk). The hippocampus is also responsible for learning.
A body of research suggests that heavy and chronic consumption of alcohol may result in a reduction of the total volume of the hippocampus. Indeed, damage to the hippocampus is responsible for memory blackouts among alcoholics.
The importance of the hippocampus in learning makes it a crucial part of adolescent brains. It is, therefore, worrying when adolescents, whose brains are still developing, engage in heavy alcohol abuse.
In fact, some studies have asserted that alcohol abuse among teens is due to a reduction in the hippocampus. This may make it hard for affected individuals to learn and retain knowledge. Some studies have suggested that even moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to adverse brain outcomes particularly due to a damaged or impaired hippocampus.
4. Hypothalamus and Pituitary
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain responsible for maintaining internal balance. The hypothalamus also controls the activities of the pituitary and performs specialized functions such as controlling the temperature of the body, triggering hunger, thirst and also influencing emotional activity.
Alcohol has the effect of depressing the nerve centers within the hypothalamus. These nerves also control sexual arousal and performance. Alcoholics may get sexual urges but may not perform well sexually. Alcohol consumption may also result in adverse effects on an individual’s ability to excrete urine.
5. Alcohol and the Medulla Oblongata
Often lauded as the most important part of the human brain, the medulla is responsible for critical functions such as breathing, swallowing, regulating blood pressure and even one’s heart rate. All these features are involuntary and are therefore considered life sustaining functions. Alcoholics who have a damaged medulla may report feeling sleepy, and experience slowed breathing and even a slowed heartbeat.
6. Alcohol and Cerebellum
In vertebrates, the cerebellum is at the back of the skull. It serves specialized functions such as the coordination and regulation of the muscular activity of the body. Further, alcohol has the effect of impairing coordinated movement and balance. The best example of how alcohol affects the cerebellum is the fact that it causes imbalance and in some cases, even staggering.