The brain does some interesting things during alcohol withdrawal. The brain compensates for the prolonged presence of alcohol by adjusting its internal chemistry to overcome alcohol’s depressant effects. When alcohol is removed from the system after it has become fine-tuned to function in its presence, the brain becomes overstimulated and must adjust back to its normal chemistry. This is what happens to the brain during alcohol withdrawal. This process takes time and produces the uncomfortable symptoms we associate with alcohol withdrawal.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol changes how the brain’s neurotransmitters are managed especially those associated with relaxation, calmness, anxiety, and stress. In small amounts these changes can create a mild depressant effect that eases worries and promotes sedation. When alcohol is consumed in larger quantities, these effects are amplified in ways that result in balance problems, inhibited memory, slurred speech, slowed reflexes, and loss of consciousness.
Alcohol Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction
Over time, an alcohol drinker’s brain will change its neurotransmitters so they work more quickly in an attempt to offset the sluggishness alcohol adds to the system. These faster neurotransmitters only work properly in the presence of alcohol. While sober, they react too quickly and cause many of the symptoms we associate with alcohol withdrawal.
To avoid these symptoms, the brain (during alcohol withdrawal) will signal cravings for alcohol to slow the neurotransmitters back down again. Once these cravings begin to occur, a person becomes dependent upon alcohol to function normally.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Increased heart rate or respiration rate
- Pronounced anxiety
- Uncontrollable shaking
If you or a loved one are experiencing these or other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, treatment options are available.
Medical Treatments for Alcohol Withdrawal
There are many different medications on the market that are designed to ease the symptoms of those struggling with alcohol withdrawal, including:
- Disulfiram— Fights cravings by making the body unable to digest alcohol comfortably.
- Acamprosate— Weakens the pleasant effects of alcohol consumption to make it easier to stop drinking.
- Benzodiazepines— Helps slow down the neurotransmitters in the brain, so it doesn’t signal cravings of alcohol to slow them down instead.
- Naltrexone— Blocks opioid receptors to significantly muffle the brain’s pleasure centers, reducing the desire to drink.
All of these medication-assisted treatment methods should be combined with a support network comprised of family, friends, and others on the road to recovery. Counseling can also help with the development of coping mechanisms for the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Alcohol and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs)
If you or a loved one experienced a TBI, drinking alcohol carries additional risks. Once the brain has been damaged, it can be injured again more easily than before. Since alcohol impairs the brain’s functions in many of the same ways TBIs do, the combined effects on balance, memory, and other functions are amplified.
Other effects of using alcohol or other drugs after a TBI include:
- Fewer benefits from treatment medications
- Increased chance of seizure
- Increased incidence of depression
- Less control over motor skills
- Greater chance of suffering another injury due to imbalance, lack of impulse control, and sluggish reaction times
Studies suggest that the longer a person abstains from alcohol after their TBI, the better their recovery will be.