Alcohol, in mainstream society, is usually associated with fun social events like parties and holidays. For people who suffer from alcoholism or addiction problems, alcohol is dangerous. The most common fears linked to overconsumption of alcohol are concerns about DUIs, injuries, or diseases like cirrhosis of the liver in long-term drinkers.

These are all valid fears that cause incalculable suffering for alcoholics and their loved ones. Alcoholic wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), is a lesser-known consequence of alcoholism, but the impact it has on sufferers is debilitating and deadly. 

What is Alcoholic Wet Brain?

When a person drinks alcohol excessively, every day over a long period of time, their body chemistry changes in order to cope with and process the alcohol. For example, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver can result from the body’s inability to process large amounts of toxins from alcohol over time.

The brain also has difficulty processing large amounts of alcohol. Alcoholic wet brain is a form of dementia caused by brain damage that can occur in the advanced stages of alcoholism. Over time, this disease develops as the result of a deficiency of the vitamin thiamine.

Glucose, a type of sugar, also increases the likelihood of developing an alcoholic wet brain. Because alcohol is turned into glucose sugar in the body, the risk factors of developing WKS, or wet brain, are increased for long-term alcoholics. 

Although non-alcoholics can develop a thiamine deficiency that causes WKS, it is termed “alcoholic wet brain” because the most common way to develop the illness is through prolonged alcohol use.

Understanding the Importance of Thiamine

People who suffer from addiction to alcohol tend to have poor diets that don’t cater to their nutritional needs, which can result in a lack of thiamine. Additionally, alcohol reduces the body’s ability to absorb thiamine, which can harm the brain’s ability to function normally.

Thiamine, also known as Vitamin B1, is a nutrient that works in many ways to help the body to function properly. This vitamin helps the body to breakdown molecules of sugar and other particles.

There are chemicals in the brain which are known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are responsible for sending messages throughout the brain and body, so they’re extremely important when it comes to bodily function. Thiamine helps to keep these chemicals operating properly.

Since the body doesn’t naturally produce Vitamin B1, people have to eat thiamine-rich foods in order to get this nutrient. Food items that contain Vitamin B1 include:

  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Cereals
  • Asparagus
  • Eggs
  • Potatoes
  • Oranges
  • Kale
  • Cauliflower
  • Some kinds of rice

Consuming these food items can increase thiamine in an individual’s body. But, again, it’s common for those who are dependent on alcohol to have less balanced and nutritional meals as they may spend more time drinking than eating healthy foods. 

Also, excessive alcohol use could cause the body to have trouble processing food items properly. So, even if individuals eat foods that have nutrients in them, it’s possible that their bodies will have a hard time extracting those vitamins and using them correctly. 

Both of these problems can lead to a deficiency of thiamine as well as other important nutrients and vitamins. As a result, people who suffer from alcoholism may begin to experience symptoms of WKS and become very ill. 

Stages and Symptoms of Alcoholic Wet Brain

Alcoholic wet brain happens in two stages. The first is known as Wernicke encephalopathy, and treatment (if done immediately and properly) is still generally effective during this stage of the disease.

Wernicke encephalopathy triggers bleeding in the brain that causes:

  • Twitching
  • Confusion
  • Poor reflexes
  • Uncontrollable and abnormal eye movements
  • Poor muscle coordination or loss of balance
  • Blurred vision or drooping eyelids
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weakness and muscle atrophy
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Problems with mental processing

Fortunately, when an alcoholic wet brain is still in this first stage, it is treatable if addressed immediately with intravenous thiamine. Treatment must occur at this acute stage, and in a hospital to monitor for adverse reactions. If treatment is, in fact, done correctly, Wernicke encephalopathy can be helped and symptoms can be reversed, but the patient must also quit drinking in order for this to last. 

If treatment is not conducted at this stage, or it is and the patient resumes alcoholic drinking, Wernicke encephalopathy can progress to Korsakoff psychosis, a fatal condition. 

Unfortunately, because alcoholics who are actively drinking often don’t seek treatment, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) estimates that 80-90 percent of those with Wernicke encephalopathy do progress to this deadly stage. 

Korsakoff psychosis is characterized by:

  • Memory loss
  • Problems with vision
  • Hallucinations
  • Anger and frustration
  • Symptoms of dementia
  • Poor coordination, difficulty walking, and lack of balance
  • Inability to form new memories or to learn new things
  • Inventing stories or things that didn’t happen in order to cope with memory loss or gaps
  • Confusion, disorientation, and cognitive processing issues
  • Diminished executive function or problem-solving skills
  • Personality changes and inappropriate or uncharacteristic behaviors

Unfortunately, for patients who reach this stage of an alcoholic wet brain, symptoms are irreversible and parts of the brain often begin to die. This phase of the illness is generally fatal.

Exploring the Symptoms and Dangers of Alcoholism

Before someone develops a wet brain, alcoholism can create a host of tragic mental, physical, and social consequences. Even in patients who don’t reach this stage, chronic alcohol abuse can lead to injury, incarceration, physical ailments like cirrhosis or gastrointestinal problems, loss of employment, the breakdown of the family and social relationships, financial crisis, and death via alcohol poisoning. 

Alcoholism can cause people to suffer from cognitive impairment and a lack of coordination. Some individuals engage in unsafe and risky behaviors, such as driving under the influence of alcohol. 

In many cases, people become isolated because of their struggle with alcoholism. Some individuals distance themselves in shame or fear that their families or friends will judge them. They may become secretive about their alcohol use habits. 

As a result of this isolation, many people who suffer from alcohol abuse develop depression, anxiety, and other disorders and emotional struggles. When a person is suffering from addiction combined with things like depression, it can be even harder for him or her to overcome substance abuse.

Sometimes, the effects of alcohol can worsen the symptoms of depression. Similarly, the symptoms of depression can drive individuals to use alcohol more often in order to cope with the symptoms of depressive disorder. So, it may be very challenging for individuals to find freedom from alcoholism without professional help.

Dual diagnosis programs can help people who are suffering from addiction along with a co-occurring disorder, such as anxiety, stress, or depression. People who are struggling to end substance use and dependence and cope with the symptoms of mental health disorders in their lives can get the help they need through a dual diagnosis program. 

Prevention: Avoiding Wet Brain Symptoms

You may have heard the saying “prevention is better than cure”. When it comes to alcoholic wet brain symptoms, this phrase certainly rings true; it’s better to prevent wet brain syndrome than to attempt to treat it after the symptoms have already developed.

If you are suffering from alcohol abuse, it’s important to take the necessary action in order to prevent wet brain symptoms from developing in your life. As we mentioned earlier, the symptoms of the final stages of wet brain are less likely to be treatable and can even be fatal. So, the best thing you can do is to prevent alcoholism from leading to WKS in your life.

Alcohol dependence is a problem many people face. But, there is hope for those who are struggling with this issue. The truth is that chronic alcohol abuse has tragic consequences for many people even before its end stages. For these individuals, the only way to prevent the tragic consequences of wet brain and other alcohol-related illnesses and injuries is to abstain from drinking and choose a life of sobriety. 

Unfortunately, many people find that they are unable to put down the drink even when they want to, and need help in order to do so. But, if you are dedicated and committed to improving your life through recovery, you can overcome substance misuse for good.

Getting the Help You Need at Discovery Institute

Comprehensive addiction treatment is frequently necessary for alcoholics and chronic alcohol abusers. That’s what we offer to clients at the Discovery Institute for Addictive Disorders in New Jersey. 

People who suffer from alcoholism or addiction to any substance are treated with care, compassion, and effective therapeutic methods at our facility in order to help them create a sober and healthy life. 

We offer a safe detox program that can help you to cleanse your body from harmful chemicals such as alcohol. After you complete the detox process, you can begin treatment, which will help to cleanse you from emotional, mental, and physical dependence on alcohol. 

We offer various therapy approaches, including art therapy, meditation, process group therapy, yoga, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Each of these approaches can help people to develop relapse prevention skills, strengthen self-confidence, and build healthy support systems with others in recovery.

We also provide a dual diagnosis program that can help our clients to deal with addiction and the effects of behavioral or mental health disorders.

It’s not easy to overcome dependency on a substance you’ve been using for a while. But, while it’s true that alcohol dependence doesn’t disappear overnight, know that you can definitely overcome this problem with the right kind of help!

Substance abuse is more than physically harmful; it’s also a danger to your emotional and mental health. So, ending alcohol misuse is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

If you suffer from alcoholism and want to trade in the tragic, painful consequences of drinking for a fulfilling life, let our compassionate team here at Discovery Institute help you. Just call us today at 888-616-7177 to learn how we can help you find freedom from alcohol addiction and begin your journey to a life of health and sobriety!

References:

https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/symptoms-and-signs 

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/219545.php 

https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/134-142.htm 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.

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