Long-term alcohol abuse may lead to a host of mental health issues, one of which is a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), also known as wet brain.
Wet brain is a disorder that arises in people who have poor nutrition and a history of heavy drinking. If caught early, symptoms associated with wet brain may be reversed entirely.
What Is Wet Brain?
Up to 80 percent of people with severe alcohol use disorder may have a vitamin B1 deficiency. This vitamin is crucial to the healthy function of cells and the body’s metabolism.
People who develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome will exhibit a range of symptoms including confusion, loss of muscle coordination, vision changes, and more. Advanced stage WKS may lead to permanent and severe brain damage.
The Causes Of Wet Brain
Chronic alcohol abuse often leads to vitamin deficiency and malnutrition. This is due to decreased food ingestion and impaired liver function and may result in lower thiamine levels in the body.
Thiamine is a nutrient that helps build enzymes, process sugars into energy, and creates chemical messengers in the brain. A lack of thiamine will directly inhibit cognition and memory.
This type of brain damage is often referred to as “alcohol-related dementia”, and when symptoms are ignored, the effects may be permanent.
It’s estimated that wet brain afflicts approximately 2 percent of the population.
Symptoms Of Wet Brain
When the liver is overtaxed due to alcohol abuse, it will not work at full capacity, which over time may cause issues related to brain function.
The onset of symptoms of WKS comes in two stages and is similar to that of somebody experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
First Stage Of Wet Brain
The first stage of WKS is a neurological disorder called Wernicke’s encephalopathy (WE). Symptoms of WE include double vision, confusion, and loss of coordination while walking.
Often, the nerves in the eye will become paralyzed and will result in involuntary eye movements (ataxia), and drooping eyelids.
WE is completely reversible when recognized early, but when it’s left untreated it may eventually transition to the second stage of wet brain called Korsakoff psychosis.
Second Stage Of Wet Brain
Korsakoff psychosis is a form of dementia and will cause changes in behavior, amnesia, and other health problems.
Common symptoms of Korsakoff psychosis include:
- memory loss
- lesions on the skin
- inability to form new memories
- abnormal eye movements
- making up stories to fill memory gaps (confabulation)
In addition to the long-term effects, potentially life-threatening issues such as loss of consciousness and coma may result from untreated WKS.
Risk Factors For Developing Wet Brain
The primary risk factor for developing wet brain is prolonged alcohol abuse. When people drink heavily, the liver utilizes amino acids to break down and digest toxins released from the alcohol.
The digestive system will not absorb vitamins and other nutrients efficiently while alcohol circulates throughout the body. Over time, this will lead to malnutrition.
Other factors that contribute to alcohol-related brain damage include:
- eating disorders such as anorexia
- poor diet
- gastric bypass surgery
- gastric or colon cancer
Long-Term Damage Of Wet Brain
When wet brain is treated promptly, much of the damage to the brain may be reversed. When it’s not addressed early, it can develop into Korsakoff’s psychosis and cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
Characteristics of long-term wet brain include amnesia, hallucinations, and behavioral changes. People may have severe difficulty with walking and other motor functions as well.
Treatment For Wet Brain
The primary treatment for wet brain is aggressive thiamine supplementation. This is accomplished through intramuscular vitamin B1 injections or through an intravenous (IV) drip.
Additional vitamins are given as oral supplements, which can reduce confusion, increase coordination, and reduce memory problems in people with WKS disorder.
Healthcare professionals will advise that people with WKS completely abstain from alcohol use so a proper diet can infuse the body with nutrients.
Other Dangers Of Alcohol Misuse
People with excessive drinking habits may experience several long-term health risks in addition to an increased risk of developing WKS.
Health risks and side effects of alcohol abuse include:
- high blood pressure
- erratic heart rate
- heart disease
- alcoholic liver disease
- throat, liver, and colon cancer
- impairment of the immune system
- depression and anxiety
Excessive alcohol consumption may also lead to stillbirth and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) among women who are pregnant.
Treatment Programs For Alcohol Addiction
If you or a loved one have an alcohol use disorder, help is available. Evidence-based treatments will assist you in getting on the path to long-term sobriety.
Addiction treatment options may include:
- medical alcohol detox
- individual, group, and family counseling
- 12-step programs for alcohol use
- dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders
- medication-assisted alcohol treatment (MAT)
It’s important to seek the help of professionals before attempting to quit drinking cold turkey, which may result in potentially fatal alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Find An Addiction Treatment Center For Alcohol Abuse
For more information on alcohol abuse, call Bedrock Recovery Center today. Our inpatient treatment program offers the evidence-based services you need to achieve an alcohol-free life.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Wernicke-Korsakoff-Syndrome-Information-Page