Have you ever woken up after a night of heavy alcohol use and had trouble remembering the events of the evening? Many people have had this experience at some point in their lives. This is evidence that alcohol use affects a person’s brain. Along with memory function, alcohol use interferes with the parts of the brain that control judgment, speech, and coordination. This can lead to dangerous outcomes if a person uses alcohol excessively. The good news is that even after significant alcohol use, people who quit using alcohol find that their brains do recover!
When a person uses alcohol it causes the brain to release dopamine into the brain’s reward center. Dopamine is released naturally when things make you happy. Hearing a song you love, laughing at a joke, or spending time with people you care about can all release dopamine in the brain. When alcohol does this, it tricks your brain into thinking that you are happy. However, as you drink, alcohol also releases chemicals that increase feelings of depression. Over time, alcohol creates a reducing effect on a person’s dopamine center. This will encourage a person to consume more and more alcohol to feel the same effects that they once felt when drinking. The result is that individuals often increase their drinking in an attempt to feel good, only to contribute more to feeling depressed.
Alcohol use affects many parts of a person’s brain. One area is the cerebral cortex. This part of a person’s brain is responsible for thought processes and consciousness. When alcohol is introduced to the cerebral cortex it lowers a person’s inhibitions, makes it difficult for a person to process information, and limits a person’s ability to perceive the world around them.
The cerebellum is the brain’s center for balance and coordination. Alcohol use inhibits the cerebellum’s ability to do its job, making a person dizzy or uncoordinated. When someone who has had a lot to drink struggles to do a simple task, it is because alcohol has affected the function of the cerebellum.
Automatic brain functions and hormone releases are coordinated by both the hypothalamus and pituitary. One of the effects of alcohol on these parts of the brain is that a person’s sexual performance is inhibited. This is because alcohol depresses the nerve centers in these parts of the brain, preventing them from properly functioning.
The part of the brain that handles breathing, consciousness, and body temperature is called the medulla. When a person uses alcohol, this part of the brain induces sleepiness. Heavy alcohol use can affect this part of the brain, causing a person’s breathing to slow and body temperature to lower. This can be life-threatening in some cases.
If a person drinks heavily over a long period of time, they can expect to experience some negative effects on their cognitive function. Over time alcohol damages the neurotransmitters responsible for memory. This can cause issues with a person’s short-term memory and long-term memory. Alcohol use over the long term can also contribute to:
When a person quits drinking, the first thing they will notice is that they go through a period of withdrawal symptoms. This is because a person’s body and brain are adjusting to the lack of alcohol in a person’s system. Typically withdrawal symptoms last for around a week, peaking in severity between 24 and 48 hours after a person's last drink. Occasionally withdrawal symptoms are life-threatening, but generally, they mimic the symptoms of the flu and are unpleasant, but manageable.
After withdrawal symptoms, a person’s brain starts to heal from the effects of heavy alcohol use. After 6 weeks of no alcohol use, a person displays measurable brain matter regrowth. A person’s frontal cortex also regains the ability to produce new cells, greatly improving memory function. After a few weeks of no drinking, a person’s dopamine transmitters start to function normally, allowing them to experience increased feelings of happiness. Ending alcohol use will give a person’s brain an opportunity to heal, and often a person is able to regain most of their cognitive abilities.
Alcohol does cause damage to a person’s brain, but it does not kill brain cells. Alcohol use can damage the ends of neurons. This makes it difficult for your brain to send signals and function normally. It can also cause a decrease in the overall size of the brain, and increases a person’s risk for a stroke.
When a person’s brain is under the influence of alcohol they can expect many changes to the way that it performs. Often a person has lower inhibitions, making them more likely to do things that they would not normally do. This includes behavior that could be dangerous. Also, a person will have decreased coordination, making performing tasks more difficult. Someone who is under the influence of alcohol might have difficulty with their speech due to the way alcohol affects the parts of the brain that control communication. Finally, if a person consumes a significant amount of alcohol, they are likely to have difficulty recalling events the next day, or even have periods of blackout where they do not know what they did while they were consuming alcohol. Overall, alcohol decreases the function of the brain significantly, leaving a person vulnerable to injury or poor choices.
Over the course of one night of significant alcohol use, a person can expect to experience inhibited decision-making ability, motor function, and speech due to the way that alcohol suppresses neurons in the brain. Also, a person will possibly experience drastic mood swings between euphoria, depression, and an unpredictable number of other feelings. Finally, if enough alcohol is consumed it could affect a person’s memory. You may wake up the next day unaware of things that you did or said, or you could even wake up in a strange place and not remember anything about how you got there.
Over a long period of time, heavy alcohol use can cause changes in the brain’s structure and decrease the functioning of neurotransmitters. This can cause the previously mentioned short-term effects to become long-term conditions, meaning a person will daily struggle with memory, coordination, mental health, and decision making. Alcohol can also cause brain shrinkage. If used while the brain is still developing, such as during childhood or adolescence, alcohol can impair the development of the brain.
Alcohol use disorder is treatable, and the effects of alcohol use on a person’s brain are reversible! If you or someone you love are in need of rehabilitation and detox for alcoholism, give Sun Behavioral Health a call at 302-205-0309. Our staff is ready to walk alongside you in your path to recovery! We are here to help and are passionate about helping people reclaim their lives and recover from the effects of alcohol use disorder.
Does alcohol destroy your brain?
It is a common myth that alcohol kills a person’s brain cells, but this is not true. However, alcohol does cause damage to many parts of the brain. Heavy alcohol use can affect brain functioning in a number of ways because of these effects. The good news is if a person stops their alcohol use the brain will start to heal and cognitive function will improve.
How does alcohol affect your mental health?
Sometimes in the short term alcohol makes a person feel better if they are sad or dealing with a difficult issue. However, over time alcohol use contributes to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. A better solution is to talk to a doctor or mental health provider about mental health issues instead of attempting to dull the pain with alcohol.
What happens when you drink alcohol every day?
In moderation, alcohol can have a few health benefits, but daily use of alcohol negatively impacts the brain, a person’s organs, their mental well-being, and can have social consequences.