Not Your Traditional Depressant: Neurological Effects of Alcohol

Heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine are where our minds commonly go when we hear the term, “drug.” However, alcohol accounts for 1 in 10 deaths of...

When we think of ‘addiction’ our minds often go to illicit substances. Heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine are where our minds commonly go when we hear the term, “drug.” However, alcohol accounts for 1 in 10 deaths of working age americans, shortening the life-span in excessive drinkers by an average of 29 years (Highlights of The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health: At-a-Glance, n.d.; CDC, 20201). Both the neurobiological effects of alcohol as well as the physiological effects are responsible for the deadly nature of excessive alcohol use.

In the short-term, alcohol works by enhancing the effects of several inhibitory signaling pathways in the central nervous system. This indiscriminate inhibition alters the way your frontal lobe (which is thought to be in-charge of higher level thinking and cognition) as well as your limbic system (which regulates emotion) function (Oscar-Berman & Marinković, 2007). Additionally, this sedation inhibits the neurological mechanisms our brain uses for learning and memory (Oscar-Berman et al., 1997).

In the long-term, the neurological damage done by excessive alcohol use can be devastating. The chronic, excessive use of alcohol keeps your nervous system constitutively depressed. Over time your brain acclimates to this baseline level of inhibition, by upregulating the excitatory signals it would naturally be producing. This causes some severe issues if the alcohol use is suddenly discontinued. Upon removal of the depressant effects of the alcohol, the overexcitation will cause high levels of anxiety, severe seizures, and delirium tremens (a condition involving extensive delirium, psychosis, and cardiovascular collapse) due to withdrawal effects (Rahman & Paul, 2020; Christoffersen, 2007; Oscar-Berman & Marinković, 2007).

The purpose of this article is not to scare you, but rather, to educate you on the negative effects of excessive alcohol use. Like all things, alcohol is fine as long as it is used responsibly. Moderation is key. We also want to let those who struggle with alcoholism know that they are not alone in their struggle and that there are several powerful ways to combat addiction (link to next article on AA)!

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