According to the 2020 NSDUH, over 28 million adults in the United States have alcohol use disorder.
Research shows that almost one-third of the population develops an alcohol use disorder at some point. NIAAA data shows that 85% of adults in the US report drinking alcohol at some stage, with more than 25% reporting past-month binge drinking.
Despite the prevalence and social acceptability of alcohol, heavy and sustained alcohol consumption can trigger a battery of negative outcomes, both physically and psychologically.
The CDC states that the heavy or long-term use of alcohol can lead to the following:
- Memory issues
- Learning difficulties
- Development of mental health conditions
- Inflammation of existing mental health conditions
Among the most damaging long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the brain is the possibility of becoming physiological dependence on alcohol. This is a state associated with cravings and withdrawal symptoms if alcohol intake is moderated or discontinued.
Data from population-based surveys show that you are more than three times as likely to experience a mood disorder if you are dependent on alcohol, and more than twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder as those not alcohol dependents.
Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Use Disorder
If you drink alcohol to the extent that dependence sets in, you’ll be increasing your risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the clinical descriptor for alcoholism, a chronic and relapsing condition characterized by indiscriminate drinking regardless of negative consequences and impaired health.
As a CNS depressant, alcohol can negatively impact mental health in many ways. Alcohol slows the body down at the same time as altering the structure and functioning of the brain. This results in alterations to:
- Energy levels
- Sleeping patterns
By reducing inhibitions and negatively impacting decision-making, you are at heightened risk of making rash decisions you would not make when sober.
Many people experiencing mental health conditions, especially when undiagnosed, self-medicate the symptoms with alcohol. While self-medication can offer some fleeting relief, abusing alcohol will inflame the symptoms of all mental health disorders over time.
When alcohol use disorder and a mental health condition present simultaneously, this is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis.
Alcohol use disorder and mental health disorders are closely linked, but the relationship is not necessarily causal.
Addiction to alcohol is known to worsen the symptoms of mental health disorders. Existing symptoms can be magnified, while new symptoms sometimes arise.
If you are already at risk of a mental health disorder, heavy alcohol consumption can trigger a disorder.
More research is needed to explore more fully the link between alcohol use disorder and severe mental health disorders, but alcohol abuse can certainly be a contributory factor in some mental health conditions.
When it comes to the effects of alcohol on the brain, some of the damage manifests immediately, while another damage unfolds over the long term.
Alcohol and Short-Term Effects on the Brain
The short-term effects of alcohol on the brain come about in the form of intoxication. Alcohol impacts the central nervous system, with symptoms varying depending on many variables, including:
- Bodily weight and makeup
- Amount of alcohol consumed
- Frequency of alcohol consumption
The symptoms of intoxication sometimes become apparent after a drink or two, usually in the form of mild physical and cognitive impairment.
Heavy abuse of alcohol can lead to alcohol overdose, commonly referred to as alcohol poisoning. This occurs when you consume too much alcohol in a single sitting.
As alcohol affects the communication and information-processing neural pathways, drinking heavily causes the following adverse mental side effects:
- Impaired motor coordination
- Reduced decision-making ability
Alcohol poisoning can trigger problems with heart rate and breathing, seizures, and permanent cognitive impairment. Alcohol overdose can even be fatal.
Assuming you sidestep the complications caused by alcohol poisoning, the long-term abuse of alcohol can trigger further adverse consequences for your mental health.
Alcohol and Long-Term Effects on the Brain
If you continue to drink over long periods, particularly if you drink heavily, you will increase your risk of the following:
- Mood disturbances
- Disrupted sleep patterns
You also run an increased risk of developing serious physical conditions from heart and liver problems to compromised immune system functioning and certain forms of cancer, none of which bode well for your mental health.
Beyond this, alcohol abuse can damage the brain, causing shrinkage in the hippocampus region.
Get The Help You Need
Alcohol use disorder and mental health conditions are both treatable with the right combination of medication-assisted treatment, psychotherapy, and counseling.
Don’t suffer in silence and don’t self-medicate your symptoms with alcohol. Instead, get the help you so richly deserve and reclaim a sober life with sound mental health.