When consumed in small or moderate amounts, alcohol can often produce pleasurable short-term effects. It can make you feel happy, relaxed, and outgoing. However, when consumed in high amounts regularly for an extended period, alcohol can start taking a toll on your mental health and make you more susceptible to conditions like depression and anxiety.
Is it possible for your mental health to improve if you stop drinking? Or are the effects of alcohol long-lasting and permanent? Continue reading to learn the answers to these questions and more about the side effects of alcohol on the brain.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Alcohol is a depressant that slows down your central nervous system, just like certain drugs, including benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and some sleep medications. It interacts with certain brain chemicals in ways that make you think and react more slowly than usual.
The short-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Blurred vision
- Cloudy thoughts
- Impaired judgment
- Impulsive behavior
- Loss of inhibitions
- Memory blackouts
- Poor balance and coordination
- Poor memory and concentration
- Slow reaction time
- Slurred speech
Over a long period of heavy drinking, alcohol produces effects on the brain that increase the risk of brain disease and mental illness.
Long-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:
- Brain shrinkage
- Cognitive impairment
- Lack of brain cell growth
- Mental health disorders (such as depression and anxiety)
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS)
WKS is a degenerative brain disorder caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. Thiamine deficiency represents a common nutritional deficiency that affects those with alcohol use disorder or who drink heavy amounts. Alcohol causes inflammation in the stomach lining to prevent the body from absorbing certain nutrients as it should, including thiamine.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), up to 80% of people addicted to alcohol will suffer from thiamine deficiency—some of whom will develop serious brain conditions like WKS. However, getting heavy drinking under control as soon as possible may substantially reduce the risk of developing brain issues like WKS.
What Are Common Mental Health Disorders Among Heavy Drinkers?
Heavy drinking can change both the chemistry and physical structure of the brain to increase the risk of mental health disorders. Many alcohol rehab centers screen patients for mental health disorders at the time of intake due to how common these conditions are among people who drink heavily. The NIH reports that about 50% of people who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.
Mental and behavioral health disorders that are common among those with alcohol use disorder include:
- Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Depression, or major depressive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social phobia
ASPD, also known as sociopathy, is a condition in which a person does not recognize or acknowledge the difference between right and wrong and also disregards or ignores the rights and feelings of others. Symptoms of ASPD include persistent lying, disrespectful behavior, arrogance, and lack of empathy. Alcohol-dependent men remain 4 to 8 times more likely to develop ASPD, whereas alcohol-dependent women stay 12 to 17 times more likely to develop this condition, according to the NIH.
Can Abstaining From Alcohol Lead to Better Mental Health?
Given how alcohol can lead to mental health conditions, including depression, poor memory, and impaired judgment, it makes sense that abstaining from alcohol can help you reverse these problems and achieve better mental health. Though it may take several months or years and lots of therapy for you to achieve better mental health after quitting alcohol, it is possible to do so.
In a 2019 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers examined the effects of alcohol abstinence on mental health in several groups of people, including lifetime abstainers, quitters, persistent heavy drinkers, and persistent former drinkers. They learned that heavy drinkers who decided to quit drinking achieved and experienced highly positive changes in their mental health within four years of quitting.
Other studies have also shown favorable results and improvements in mental health among heavy drinkers who decided to quit drinking. After you stop drinking, your brain tissue will gradually heal and slowly reverse a range of cognitive impairments caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Results from a 2012 study published in the journal Alcohol showed that heavy drinkers who stayed abstinent for one year experienced significant benefits in terms of cognitive function, but that the most extensive brain changes got observed in those who stayed abstinent for extended periods.
What Are Other Physical Benefits Linked to Quitting Alcohol?
Poor mental health isn’t the only health issue dramatically improves when you stop drinking alcohol. Quitting alcohol produces a long list of physical health benefits leading to a longer life and a more fulfilling lifestyle.
Quitting alcohol will strengthen your immune system and make you less vulnerable to illness and disease. Your body will gradually start absorbing vital vitamins and nutrients once again—including thiamine—which will also contribute to more robust immunity.
Quitting drinking will help you lose excess weight, especially since many types of alcohol are high in calories and sugars that pack on pounds. You will benefit from higher-quality sleep and face a reduced risk of heart problems, liver problems, and cancer. In addition, you will have far more energy than you did during periods of heavy drinking, and your skin will start to look more attractive thanks to reduced inflammation and better hydration.
How Can You Fully Enjoy Life Without Alcohol?
Alcohol is easily accessible in the United States and many other countries, making it difficult to resist or altogether avoid alcohol. If you are thinking about quitting drinking, you may feel sad or remorseful about the idea and wonder how it will be possible for you to enjoy life without a drop of alcohol. However, after you stop drinking for a while and learn skills that help you stay sober and view things in a different light, you’ll realize that life can be far more enjoyable without alcohol.
Recovering from alcohol addiction often requires you to make a series of healthy lifestyle changes that eliminate your need for alcohol. For example, if you start exercising regularly, you’ll likely want to avoid alcohol by default because you know it will slow you down, make you feel ill, and prevent you from making positive gains.
Many alcohol rehab centers will teach you how to enjoy life without alcohol and introduce you to new hobbies, activities, and outlets that reduce your desire to drink. For instance, recreational therapies like art therapy and music therapy teach you how to use these art forms to release stress and pent-up negative energy that once made you turn to alcohol.
The behavioral therapies used in alcohol rehab will also teach you how to identify and change harmful behaviors that once caused you to drink. For example, if you drank alcohol to relieve stress, your therapists will teach you healthy and effective ways to reduce stress without alcohol, such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing. You’ll also receive therapies that address the root causes of your heavy drinking. For example, if you started drinking alcohol to avoid bad memories associated with trauma and PTSD, you’ll receive specialized trauma-focused therapy to help you overcome the trauma.
What Treatments Are Available for Alcohol Use Disorder?
Alcohol detox is the first stage of treatment and helps you overcome physical alcohol dependence. The purpose of alcohol detox is to help you safely withdraw from alcohol while facing a reduced risk of complications. Dehydration, seizures, and heart failure are some of the many alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can put you at risk for serious health problems, including death. Alcohol detox allows you to recover from alcohol dependence while being closely monitored by nurses and doctors who can intervene when needed to avoid complications. You’ll receive medications that reduce your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable during withdrawal.
After alcohol detox, which may last for up to 10 days, you can start receiving behavioral therapy that teaches you how to live a healthy lifestyle without alcohol. All rehab programs get customized for each patient based on the unique circumstances behind their addiction. Some patients may receive different therapies than others, especially those with co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or ASPD.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment at Haven Detox in New England
The Haven in New England offers residential treatment programs for those who need help recovering from alcohol addiction. We offer alcohol detox and a wide range of behavioral therapies that can help you achieve improved mental health after a long drinking period. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction and needs help, contact The Haven today at (844) 933-4145 to learn more about our addiction treatment programs and to get started on your path to long-term recovery.