One of the biggest consequences of excessive drinking is damage to the brain. Research shows that extensive alcohol abuse leads to cognitive impairment and changes in the brain. Abstaining does help the brain stop further damage. However, it was always believed that the damage from alcohol abuse was irreversible.
A study from the US found that people with alcohol use disorder showed structural improvement in the brain just eight months after abstaining from alcohol. This shows that sustained sobriety can help the brain regain its health.
How does alcohol affect the brain?
When you rely on alcohol, it activates the brain’s reward system and numbs the part of the brain where stress, anxiety, and emotional pain occur. Due to this function, alcohol can be highly addictive. The more alcohol you take, the more you have increased activation of the brain stem and reduced reward, therefore making you consume more to try and achieve the prior reward systems.
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Withdrawal from alcohol consumption also leads to depressive states and the recurrence of feelings that were being suppressed. As a result, you want to consume more alcohol. Research shows that alcohol addiction comes in three stages:
- Binge drinking and intoxication
- Anticipation for the next drink
The brain then changes to accommodate the addiction. Consequently, treating addiction and reducing consumption can help the brain restore itself. This can be affected by the severity of the addiction, genetics, neuron action, and molecular reaction to alcohol. When alcohol use disorder develops, brain changes make it difficult to stop without intervention.
Alcohol helps reduce unpleasant emotional states. This is why people under great stress feel better during drinking. When consumption is briefly stopped, a negative emotional state known as hyperkatifeia develops. This is when the brain reaches a hypersensitive condition with symptoms including dysphoria, malaise, irritability, poor sleep, and pain.
In the brain, the basal ganglia activate when you achieve alcohol intoxication. This is the same place that is activated when you take opioids. After, the booze causes the release of dopamine. This makes you associate alcohol with good feelings. When your brain makes the connection between intoxication and reward, it catalyses addiction.
As these patterns repeat, a habit is formed. Drinking becomes a habit response aided by changes in brain circuitry. In addition, the brain reduces activity in the amygdala. This is what facilitates the flight or fight response. When stressed, the neurons interacting with the amygdala release stress-related neurotransmitters such as corticotropin which influence other stress responses. This is mediated by the brain stem and hypothalamus.
Increased alcohol use disorder leads to high intoxication tolerance which causes you to consume more. When you stop drinking, your body has severe withdrawal symptoms that encourage you to keep drinking. This disrupts executive function, impulse control, decision-making, and emotional regulation. When you have severe alcohol use disorder, abstinence can make it difficult to compensate for the executive dysfunction resulting from overconsumption. Alcohol also leads to the shrinking of brain matter.
How does abstinence repair the brain?
The brain starts repairing itself from as few as two weeks of abstinence. As abstinence continues, the brain rebuilds all parts that were eroded by the consumption of alcohol. The brain regrows the brain matter that eroded. This doesn’t make a difference for moderate drinkers, however. Abstinence made a difference for people who are consuming about 13 drinks a day for a long time.
When you drink a moderate amount, such as a few beers over the weekend or a glass of wine, there isn’t as much structural brain damage. However, if you drink too much, have diabetes, do no exercise, have a poor diet, no sleep, and cigarette smoke contribute to more brain damage. Effective treatment for short and long-term brain restoration requires additional lifestyle changes, not just abstinence.
Quitting booze for people who have cognitive decline from excessive drinking also improves memory, motor skills, verbal IQ, and fluency. The brain also increases the volumes of brain regions which affect drug cravings and decision-making. The study, however, didn’t find any evidence that abstinence can restore improvements in multitasking, impulse control, attention retention, emotional face recognition, and planning. When in recovery, you may still face problems with these functions.
If you have had a long history of alcohol detoxification, you may experience less brain recovery. Abstinence is most effective if you’ve had less than two detoxifications. Ensuring consistent recovery is the most important thing for your long-term health.
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