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How Does Alcohol Affect the Nervous System?

how does alcohol affect the nervous system

Are you interested in learning how chronic alcohol abuse can contribute to nerve damage (neuropathy) and other serious medical conditions? Here you can read about the long-term effects of neuropathy as well as the current methods of treatment. To fully understand how alcohol negatively impacts the nervous system, it helps to have a basic understanding of the system’s function.

What Makes Up the Nervous System?

Nerves play a key role in virtually all daily functions. Each portion of the nervous system has a specific function and specific organs it controls and affects. These portions include:

Central nervous system (CNS): The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord.

  • Brain: The brain controls most bodily functions, such as awareness, movements, sensations, thoughts, speech and memory.
  • Spinal cord: The spinal cord is connected to the brainstem and carries messages back and forth between the brain and the peripheral nerves.

Peripheral nervous system: This network of motor and sensory nerves connects the CNS to the entire body, controlling functions of sensation, movement and motor coordination.

Autonomic nervous system: Consisting of the sympathetic and parasympathetic division, these nerves regulate body processes such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing. This system works automatically without conscious effort. This part of the nervous system impacts:

  • Blood vessels
  • Stomach
  • Intestine
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Bladder
  • Genitals
  • Lungs
  • Pupils
  • Heart
  • Sweat
  • Salivary and digestive glands.

Motor nerves: Motor nerves originate in the spinal column and end at the muscles that they control. The three types of motor nerve bundles include:

  • Somatic motor nerves – controlling skeletal muscles and movement.
  • Special visceral motor nerves – controlling muscles in the face and neck.
  • General visceral motor nerves – controlling smooth muscles that lack voluntary control, such as the heart.

Sensory nerves: These nerves carry signals from organs back to the brain after responding to stimuli, including touch, taste or smell. The cells that make up these nerves are commonly known as sensory neurons.

How Alcoholism Affects the Brain and Body

Excessive alcohol consumption can negatively impact a person’s entire body, including their liver, heart, immune system and nervous system. A couple of facts about the effects of excessive alcohol use include:

  • Up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis and of these, 55 percent already have cirrhosis.
  • Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, an increased risk of diabetes, stroke, fetal alcohol syndrome, cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death.
  • Chronic drinkers are at greater risk of diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis due to a compromised immune system.
  • Excessive drinking can also increase the risk of oral, esophageal, throat, liver and breast cancer, among other conditions. The effects of alcohol on the nervous system are not as well publicized as the above conditions.

Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism

What is Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Individuals with neuropathy have some degraded function within their nerve cells (neurons). Neurons provide sensations throughout the body and control voluntary and involuntary processes. The malfunction of nerve cells present with neuropathy can make everyday tasks challenging as neurons may not be sending the accurate messages throughout the body.

Alcohol can damage nerve function and alter the nutrient levels to the brain. Heavy alcohol intake for extended periods of time can lead to serious nerve damage, known as alcoholic neuropathy. Alcoholic neuropathy is a common result of heavy alcohol consumption, though it is difficult to recognize.

Alcoholic neuropathy is a potentially incapacitating side-effect of long-term excessive alcohol consumption. The majority of people diagnosed with this condition are between the ages of 40 and 60. Alcoholic neuropathy is characterized by pain and abnormal sensations, primarily in the lower extremities, that are typically treatment-resistant.

What Causes Alcoholic Neuropathy?

Although the exact cause of alcoholic neuropathy is unknown, clinical research studies have estimated that 25 percent to 66 percent of diagnosed alcoholics experience this type of nerve damage.

Experts believe that there are factors that may increase the risk of developing this condition. They include:

  • Malnutrition
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Direct toxicity of alcohol
  • Family history of alcoholism

However, the exact role that these factors play in the development of alcoholic neuropathy is unknown.

The Role of Thiamine

Thiamine is an essential metabolic vitamin that is important to the health of the peripheral nervous system.

Thiamine deficiency is closely related to chronic alcoholism and can induce neuropathy in alcoholics. Ethanol, found in alcoholic beverages, diminishes thiamine absorption in the intestine, reduces stored thiamine and impairs the metabolic process of thiamine inside the body. This may explain why thiamine deficiency is commonly found in people who abuse alcohol.

Alcoholic Neuropathy Symptoms

Symptoms of alcoholic neuropathy typically develop slowly, extending over several months. There have been some cases of rapid onset.

Symptoms include:

  • Sensory, motor, autonomic and gait function abnormalities
  • Painful sensations, with or without burning
  • Other abnormal nerve functioning affecting the upper and/or lower extremities (arms, legs, hands or feet)

The following symptoms are related to the impacted nerves of the individual with alcoholic neuropathy:

Motor nerve damage:

  • Muscle spasms or cramps
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of muscle functioning
  • Movement disorders

Sensory nerve damage:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Pins and needles sensations

Autonomic nerve damage:

  • Lack of urinary control
  • Incomplete bladder emptying
  • Impotence in men
  • Abnormal intolerance to heat
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea or vomiting

Treatment and Long-Term Prognosis

The nerve damage caused by alcoholic neuropathy is permanent in most cases. The goal of treatment is to stop further damage to the peripheral nerves. This can be achieved through:

  • Alcohol abstinence
  • Nutritionally balanced diet
  • Supplementation of all B vitamins
  • Rehabilitation

 

gabapentin pill bottle

What Medications are Used to Treat Neuropathy?

Painful and abnormal sensations associated with neuropathy are often treated with:

  • Gabapentin: Frequently used to prevent and control seizures or relieve nerve pain following shingles
  • Amitriptyline: A tricyclic antidepressant typically used to treat or improve mood disorders and feelings of well-being, relieve anxiety and tension, help improve sleep and increase energy level
  • Over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin or acetaminophen

While these medications may ease the pain associated with alcoholic neuropathy, they do not address the basic pathways inherent to this disorder.

Studies have also analyzed several other vitamins in treating non-alcohol-related neuropathy. These vitamins include:

  • Alpha-lipoic acid
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine
  • Vitamin E
  • Myo-inositol
  • Topical capsaicin cream.

Additionally, tricyclic antidepressants affect pain transmission and have been shown to relieve various conditions of neuropathic pain in clinical trials and may have potential for treating alcoholic neuropathy.

Long-Term Effects of Neuropathy

Potential long-term consequences of alcohol neuropathy include chronic pain and moderate to severe physical disabilities. Older adults are prone to the natural reduction of reflexes and the nerve cell degeneration that occurs with age. Therefore, they may be more at risk for problems associated with neuropathy, such as frequent falls or loss of balance.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use that is affecting your life, Promises Treatment Center can help. Our highly experienced staff of medical and behavioral health professionals is ready to help you get your life back on track and repair your physical, mental and emotional health. We’re here for you, and we want to help. Call us today at 888-738-9035  for a free, confidential consultation.

It won’t get better on its own. Get help.

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Posted on January 4, 2018 and modified on April 14, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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