Alcohol and the Brain

August 27, 2020

Wine, beer, champagne, liquor – all of these have been powerfully branded for several decades. Each targeting an emotional, even subconscious association with the drink that starts even before the glass touches your lips. Kenya is popularly referred to as a “drinking nation.” According to WHO, alcohol has become the beverage of choice among Kenyans over the last 10 years. Further, in 2016, the average daily intake in grams of pure alcohol was 30.4 grams. This is only a few grams shy of the global average daily consumption which was 33 grams of pure alcohol a day. The current COVID pandemic resulted in the closure of bars has resulted in a surge in the purchase of alcohol for home use.

Whether the drink consumed is legalized or illegal, the detrimental effects are felt across board. There is a reduction in productivity as a result of absenteeism from work. Also, the diversion of resources to purchase alcohol (NACADA, 2012) has negatively affected development. Moreover, approximately 13% of alcohol drinkers have developed dependency (NACADA, 2012) and cannot function without alcohol. Beyond “tipsy” behavior of skewed walking, blurred vision, slurred speech alcohol significantly affects the brain. These include:

Alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks and, as the amount of alcohol increases, so does the degree of impairment. Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout, or an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events, or even entire events.

Alcohol also causes brain shrinkage as a result of dependence. Moderate drinking is also associated with brain shrinkage (British study) unlike the usual belief that its effects were minimal. Though subtle differences are occurring in men and women, loss of brain matter increases with age and alcohol amounts consumed. Cognitive impairment occurs as a result of heavy drinking or Vitamin B1 deficiency. Without proper treatment, the impairment gets worse and results in alcohol-related dementia.

Despite the drinking age in Kenya being set at 18 years, the majority of alcoholics started using alcohol between the ages of 11 and 17 years (Mahugu M., 2016). This group may be at high risk of permanent damage and underperformance as their brains are still developing. Alcohol for pregnant women, is strongly discouraged as physical, learning and behavioral aspects of the fetal brain are affected. In extreme cases, can lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) that is associated with a smaller than average fetus, fewer brain cells, and microencephaly.

The good news is that most alcoholics with cognitive impairment show at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning within a year of abstinence, though some people take much longer (Bates 2002). Clinicians must consider a variety of treatment methods to help people stop drinking and to recover from alcohol–related brain impairments, and tailor these treatments to the individual patient.