The consumption of alcohol is widespread in Australia and is regularly incorporated into various social activities. Its legality and ease of access throughout the country, means people often don’t realise they have a problem until it is already out of control. It is much easier to excuse away alcohol use since it is so ingrained in our culture; a wine or two after work, a few beers at a bbq, a couple of vodkas during happy hour. You may not realise what your alcohol consumption is doing to your brain. Yes, we all know it has an effect on the brain as after a few drinks our memory fades and our thinking slows, but what other short and long term effects does it have?
Alcohol blocks communication between brain cells (called neurons) which causes the immediate effects of intoxication such as impulsivity, slurred speech, poor memory and slowed reflexes. If heavy drinking continues over a long period of time, the neurons compensate by overreacting to certain brain chemicals to allow communication. When a heavy drinker stops drinking, the neurons continue to overreact even when not drinking, which causes painful and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are also exacerbated with sudden withdrawal. Through this overreaction, neurons can eventually ‘burn out’ which causes slowing of the reaction time of neurons when sober. As well as neuron damage, brain matter itself can also be damaged. Over time those with alcohol dependence often experience brain shrinkage. This causes problems with verbal fluency and verbal learning, processing speed, working memory, attention, problem solving, spatial processing, and impulsivity. The amount of shrinkage depends on a few factors, but loss of brain matter increases with age and amount of alcohol consumed. Without treatment, these cognitive problems grow worse and can develop into alcohol-related dementia. Malnutrition is also common among those with alcohol dependence and these two factors combined can lead to a permanent cognitive disorder called Wernicke- Korsakoff Syndrome. This causes amnesia and can lead to coma if left untreated.
For most people, the brain can heal. Abstinence can improve a persons cognitive functions and repair a lot of the damage to the brain that was caused by alcohol dependence. In as little as two weeks of abstinence, the grey matter that was lost, starts to regenerate. The brain creates new neural pathways to replace the damaged or ‘burnt out’ ones and cognitive functioning greatly improves. This can take some time and the greatest improvement in cognitive functioning can be seen after 12 months of sobriety. With this in mind, residential rehab programs can be a successful path to getting sober and maintaining long-term sobriety. Detox is the first stage of getting sober and a structured program gives you support to guide you through the withdrawal. Going cold turkey is never recommended due to the severe potential health risks and these programs often include medication to ease withdrawal symptoms, as well as medical and mental health care. In rehab you are provided with around the clock care and help to prepare you for life after rehab. Whilst recovery is multi-faceted, building a strong, sober community is essential. Meeting and building relationships with others going through the same thing as you, can provide you with the support you need once you finish the program. You’re more likely to stick with a program and sobriety, when you have a lot of support along the way.