Moderate Drinking Damages the Brain

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Moderate Drinking Damages the Brain

 

Laurence T. Gayao, MD

 

The use of alcoholic beverages is an integral part of the American social scene. Advertisers gives the impression that no social activity is complete without it. Recent studies however has shown that even moderate drinking damages the brain

alcohol Moderate Drinking Damages the Brain
Different forms of alcohol beverages

 

Alcoholics Shrunken Brains Impaired function

I have observed among alcoholics their CAT scans or MRI of their brains showed less tissue mass compared patients of the same age who were non-drinkers. A study just released showed that even moderate drinking showed associated changes in the brain structure and associated deteriorating brain function. This study was published in the June, 2017 issue of the British Medical Journal.

 

Everybody knows that heavy drinking damages the brain, we know this without doing a CAT or MRI scan of the brain. We may have alcoholic relatives (jolly old fellow uncle or cousin) or acquaintances that even in their sober state behaves in a goofy manner, with some degree of subtle mental dysfunction. I know of fellows in the family who succumbed to early dementia who abused alcohol.

 

Associated Changes in the Brain with Moderate Drinking

The study compared teetotalers, moderate drinkers in a total of 550 subjects who were middle-age. It was found that the more alcohol consumed the greater risk of shrinkage brain hippocampus. Damage to this structure is associated with memory dysfunction.

 

While working as an emergency room physician, through the years I have observed various levels intoxication. The funny thing we observed was in spite of how intoxicated these people were, they usually would admit to drinking only two beers.  How do we quantify moderate and heavy drinking? In the US the recommended guideline suggests that 24.5 units per week is safe for men and half of that amount for women. “A unit is defined as 10 ml (2 teaspoons} of pure alcohol. There are roughly two in a large beer, nine in a bottle of wine and one in a 25 ml (5 teaspoons) spirit shot.”

 

The study showed that those who drunk more than 30 units a week were prone to greater hippocampal injury, but even those who took only 14-24 units per week showed some significant damage. The study showed that the more one drinks resulted in a greater deterioration in memory function.

What is the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse? (CDC)

There two classes of alcohol disorders or alcoholism, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency.

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one’s health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work. Manifestations of alcohol abuse include the following:

  • Failure to fulfill major responsibilities at work, school, or home.
  • Drinking in dangerous situations, such as drinking while driving or operating machinery.
  • Legal problems related to alcohol, such as being arrested for drinking while driving or for physically hurting someone while drunk.
  • Continued drinking despite on going relationship problems that are caused or worsened by drinking.
  • Long-term alcohol abuse can turn into alcohol dependence.

Dependency on alcohol, also known as alcohol addiction and alcoholism, is a chronic disease. The signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence include—

  • A strong craving for alcohol.
  • Continued use despite repeated physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems.
  • The inability to limit drinking.
Long Term and Short term side effects.

There are short-term and long-term side effects of alcohol intake. We know that immediate effect of too much intake of alcohol results acute mental and physical dysfunction proportionate to alcohol intake (commonly called Intoxication), which gets better as soon as the blood alcohol level goes down. Depending of blood alcohol level (mg/dl) symptoms could vary. This scale would apply to a typical social drinker: 

  • 50 mg/dL: Loss of emotional restraint, vivaciousness, feeling of warmth, flushing of skin, mild impairment of judgment
  • 100 mg/dL: Slight slurring of speech, loss of control of fine motor movements (such as writing), confusion when faced with tasks requiring thinking, emotionally unstable, inappropriate laughter
  • 200 mg/dL: Very slurred speech, staggering gait, double vision, lethargic but able to be aroused by voice, difficulty sitting upright in a chair, memory loss
  • 300 mg/dL: Stuporous, able to be aroused only briefly by strong physical stimulus (such as a face slap or deep pinch), deep snoring
  • 400 mg/dL: Comatose, not able to be aroused, incontinent(wets self), low blood pressure, irregular breathing
  • 500 mg/dL: Death possible, either from cessation of breathing, excessively low blood pressure, or vomit entering the lungs without the presence of the protective reflex to coughit out

The long-term effects of repeated consumption is associated with permanent damage to certain brain cells resulting in deterioration of function. There are numerous brain disorders associated with chronic alcohol abuse. For example, research shows that up to 80 percent of chronic alcohol users have a thiamine deficiency, and some in this group will progress to a serious brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). Symptoms of WKS include confusion, paralysis of eye nerves, impaired muscle coordination, and persistent problems with memory and learning ability.

 

Most Abused Drug

Alcohol though legal, is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Over 50% of individuals 12 years and older in the US are alcohol users. “Approximately 8.7 million Americans under the legal drinking age (12-20 years of age) are current alcohol users. This statistic includes 5.4 million binge drinkers and 1.4 million heavy drinkers.” In this age group the highest cause of deaths are accidents and suicides which maybe both related to alcohol abuse. It is a well-accepted fact that alcohol abuse can exacerbate an underlying mental problem.

Video: Alcohol and Your Brain, Produced by: Australian Lions Drug Awareness Foundation


The effects of alcohol on someone who has just barely learned how to drive and on an emotionally disturbed teenager who has hot developed enough coping skills could lead to devastating consequences. This explains why motor vehicular accidents and suicides are the highest cause of deaths in this age group.

The developing brain of a fetus during pregnancy could be retarded or damaged by the mothers’ abuse of alcohol during that period, most especially in the first three months of pregnancy. In fact there are facial features and characteristics resulting from such toxic exposure that has been called fetal alcohol syndrome Disorder (FASD).

Fetalalcohol Moderate Drinking Damages the Brain
Facial feature of fetal alcohol syndrome. Image: Alcohol Self-Help News

A person with an FASD might have:

  • Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)
  • Small head size
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty with attention
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty in school (especially with math)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones

“The brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body. It controls and coordinates actions and reactions, allows us to think and feel, and enables us to have memories and feelings – all the things that make us human.” So, whatever we eat drinking or do we need to make sure that this three-pound organ, protected by the skull is not harmed in any way. Remember the saying, “The mind is a terrible to waste.”

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