How Alcohol and the Nervous System are Connected
The words alcohol and the nervous system can be usually seen in one sentence because it is a known fact that alcohol can have adverse effects on the brain. We know that alcohol can have a significant impact on our bodies and our health. This includes short-term changes that occur when we are impaired, as well as long-term changes that result from long-term, usually heavy, drinking.
In this article, we will look at Alcohol and the Nervous System, the specific impacts that alcohol can have on our nervous system. This information can help us better understand why we experience particular changes when we are drinking.
Alcohol and the Nervous System, can lead to short term changes and long term changes in our bodies. Alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease, meaning that when left untreated, it will continue to worsen.
This includes the severity of the changes it has on our bodies.
At the end of this article, you will find a brief review of alcohol withdrawal and the dangers associated with it. Please know that this condition should not be taken lightly.
Alcohol and the Nervous System
What is the Nervous System?
Before we get into alcohol and the nervous system,and the possible impact that it can have, it is important to have a basic understanding of what the Nervous System includes.
The Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) are the two systems that make up the Nervous System.
The Central Nervous System is made up of our brain and spinal cord. The nervous system sends signals between the brain and the rest of our body, including our internal organs. Examples of these would be our eyes, lungs and nose.
The Peripheral Nervous System includes the nerves that connect the CNS to the rest of the body. These nerves are located throughout our bodies.
Both systems are needed to work together to function properly. Their main purpose is to gather information from the inside of our bodies as well as from the outside environment. This information is then used by the brain to provide an accurate response from the rest of the body.
Let’s look at an example. If a person touches a hot stove on accident, the Central Nervous System will get a message that the hand is in pain. This pain message is then sent to the brain.
The brain will then send a message via the nerves to remove the hand from the stove to prevent further pain and damage.
The brain can be viewed as a control center, however to work properly it needs the other parts to be working correctly.
How Does Alcohol Effect the Nervous System?
When you think about the organs included in the Nervous System, you can see why alcohol can cause issues.
Alcohol will have an impact on our brains rather quickly. The reason for this is because it is a liquid, and can easily go into our bloodstream. With the brain being the control center for the Central Nervous System, the effects of alcohol impair its ability to receive and send information. Alcohol is known to be a suppressant, which can explain the slowed and/or delayed reaction that is often experienced when impaired.
As an example, let’s return to the scenario discussed above regarding the hot stove. If a person was drinking, and impaired, it may take longer for their brain to receive the message that the hand is in pain. It can also take longer for the brain to send the message for the hand to be removed. As a result, this individuals is likely to leave their hand on the stove longer than a person who is sober.
It is important to note that the level of impairment will have a significant impact in the delays experienced. A person who has a higher Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) would likely respond slower than those who have a lower BAC.
There are examples of how this delayed reaction can also reduce a person’s risk for injury.
For example, there has been many examples of individuals who are in motor vehicle accidents when impaired who do not experience the severe body damage that would be expected.
The reasoning behind this is that with your responses being delayed, your body may not have the opportunity to tense up when preparing for a crash. This often results in injuries less severe then what could be expected.
Short term effects on our Nervous System can include;
- poor balance,
- slowed reaction,
- confused easily
- decrease in alertness.
These changes are often more visible to others than the person who is impaired.
Other potential effects alcohol can have is to help individuals feel physically relaxed. Some find that it can help them relax muscles and other parts of their body that carry tension.
Some individuals also experience a decrease in anxiety after having a drink or two. This too can be tied to the suppressant property of alcohol. It is important to note that effects on our nervous system will vary if you are an occasional drinker or a heavy drinker.
Long Term Effects Alcohol Use Can Have on the Nervous System?
Long term, heavy use of alcohol is known to increase the risk for adverse health conditions.
When we think about the Nervous System specifically, many of the long term conditions are connected to the brain. When patients consume alcohol daily, or drink alcohol at a very high level, they could become physically dependent on it. Chronic alcohol use can increase a person’s risk of developing conditions such as dementia, psychosis as well as depression and anxiety.
Heavy alcohol consumption could have extensive effects on the brain, varying from simple memory “slips” to debilitating and permanent conditions that need lifetime supervised care.
Individuals who have a history of depression and anxiety, are at a higher risk of it continuing.
How Does Withdrawal Impact the Nervous System?
Alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition that unfortunately, many are not too familiar with.
When a person is a heavy drinker, their bodies adjust its functioning to accommodate for the presence of alcohol. This is also known as being physically dependent on alcohol. As a result, when you stop drinking all at once (also known as cold turkey), this can cause a shock to our body and put us in danger.
Individuals who have had alcohol withdrawal in the past, are at a higher risk for withdrawal symptoms when detoxing. Those who have had it in the past, often find that future withdrawal experiences worsen in severity.
Alcohol withdrawal can lead:
- Tremors or shakes
- Delirium Tremens, also known as DT’s
- Hallucinations (seeing and/or feeling things that are not real)
Alcohol withdrawal can be simple to diagnosis if the symptoms are present.
Alcohol withdrawal is best done in a medical facility overseen by medical professionals. Some doctors may feel comfortable doing a supervised detox in an outpatient setting. This would be dependent on the symptoms and their severity that the person is experiencing. This often includes daily appointments and frequent check in’s.
As noted above, alcohol withdrawal is a serious medical condition that should not be taken lightly. If you or someone you know wants to stop drinking, consult with a medical professional to ensure that this is done in the safest way possible. This consultation can literally save a life
I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. I have since settled in North Carolina. I have experience working with various stages of addiction, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, trauma, stages of life concerns and relationship concerns.
I tend to use a person-centered approach which simply means that I meet you where you are and work collaboratively to help you identify and work towards accomplishing goals. I will often pull from CBT when appropriate. I do encourage use of mindfulness and meditation and practice these skills in my own life. I believe in treating everyone with respect, sensitivity and compassion.
I recognize that reaching out for help is hard and commend you for taking the first step. We have professionals available who would be happy to help you move closer to reaching your goals related to your drinking concerns. You may reach these professionals by calling 877-322-2694.