If you've ever had alcohol to drink, you've definitely noticed some of the affects that it has on you, even after only one or two drinks. You may have difficulty walking and slower reaction times, blurred vision and slurred speech. Your body may even feel tingling sensations. Usually, these impairments are temporary, and you can notice them fading soon after you stop drinking. But have you ever thought about why alcohol affects your body the way it does, and how drinking long term can have a serious impact on your brain and body?
Alcohol and the Brain
There are many different factors that influence how alcohol affects your brain, and to what extent your brain is affected both short term and long term. These include:
The amount of percent alcohol by volume in the drink you're having. We all know shots of alcohol are going to hit us harder than beer.
The volume of alcohol the person consumes and the period of time they consume it in (or whether or not it's on an empty stomach). Taking five shots of liquor in five minutes is going to affect you significantly more than five shots over the course of five hours.
Believe it or not, your gender, age, overall health condition, and genetic factors all play a part in how alcohol affects your body.
Whether or not you were exposed to alcohol as a fetus, the age at which you began drinking, and whether your family has a history of alcoholism all play roles in how alcohol affects your brain.
Whether or not you have any other inhibitors in your system, such as marijuana or cocaine.
So How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Alcohol directly affects neurotransmitters, which control behavior and thought. It is both a depressant and a stimulant. Alcohol depresses your movements, speech, and thoughts. The effects are directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed. However, like many drugs, alcohol also stimulates the release of dopamine in your body, which tricks your body into feeling pleasure and can in turn make you associate drinking alcohol with feeling great. The tricky part here, is that the more you drink alcohol to get that feeling, the less dopamine your body releases. Over time, you end up being mentally hooked, forever in search of that pleasurable feeling you think that alcohol gives you. This is where addictions take hold.
Types of Drinkers
There are generally considered to be three levels of drinkers: Occasional or social drinkers, moderate drinkers, and heavy or chronic drinkers (can lead to alcoholism).
Occasional drinkers are those who might have a drink or two every so often, usually when out with friends or for a special occasion. Because their body doesn't encounter alcohol very often, they can feel the impairing effects after just a few drinks. This can be problematic when an occasional drinker consumes a high volume of alcohol, and it can result in memory impairments or blackouts. However, occasional drinkers usually recover from these blackouts with no lasting mental problems.
A moderate drinker is considered to be someone who consumes one to two drinks per day. You may have heard that a glass of red wine a day can help prevent coronary artery disease. While studies show this to be true, this is probably not a good enough reason to have a drink every day since there are also many other precautions you can make in your diet that can be preventative for heart issues.
Heavy drinkers are those who consume a large amount of alcohol on a regular basis. This much alcohol over an extended period of time can be detrimental to normal brain functioning and can even cause diseases or permanent brain damage. Most people know to associate heavy drinking with liver problems, but what a lot of people are not aware of is that chronic drinking leads directly to brain damage and diminished brain size. Heavy drinking can also cause thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B12, which is essential to the functioning of all tissue in the body), liver damage (the liver is responsible for breaking alcohol down into harmless byproducts, and it can get overworked), or hepatic encephalopathy (which can cause changes in personality, anxiety, depression, sleep disruption, shortened attention span, etc.).
Approximately 2 million people every year in the United States will seek help for alcoholism, many going to an alcohol rehab or an alcohol treatment center. While there are many permanent detriments to heavy drinking, you also greatly reduce these risks when you stop drinking. After the body goes through withdrawals and is detoxed of the alcohol (which can take anywhere from four to seven days), stem cells in your body can begin making new cells.