How Heavy Drinking Affects Your Brain and Your Life (2024)

“Alcohol addiction stunts the spiritual, emotional and mental growth of a person. For the alcoholic, they literally stop wanting to learn or advance themselves on any level other than the one they are already on. This is why many alcoholics are emotionally stunted and are unable to contain their emotions.”

~ Angie Lewis

The quote above pulls no punches when it comes to alcohol consumption: heavy drinking affects your brain and your life in a distinctly detrimental way. Despite research that supports this claim, heavy drinking runs rampant in the United States. Two years ago, more than twenty-five percent of adults said that they had engaged in binge drinking within the past month. Seven percent of adults reported that they had engaged in binge drinking on at least five occasions in the past month. This is a frightening reality, given the host of physical and social issues that excessive drinking can lead to those who engage in it. This issue with alcohol consumption may stem from one thing: a misunderstanding of what constitutes heavy drinking and how alcohol abuse affects your brain and your life for the worse. While moderate alcohol consumption is certainly associated with a variety of health benefits, it is all too easy to turn to more problematic drinking habits. Alcohol is a drug, after all. This is an important topic to address: drinking culture in the United States normalizes heavy drinking when it is actually a problem for a good portion of society. To clarify some of the more important points about alcohol consumption and its effects, this post addresses the following questions:

  • What is considered heavy drinking?
  • What effect does heavy drinking have on your brain?
  • What effect can heavy drinking have on your life?
  • What do alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction look like?
  • How can you overcome the effects of heavy drinking?

What is Considered Heavy Drinking for the Average Person?

Some people may think of excessive drinking as getting drunk multiple times each week. While that kind of behavior definitely fits within the definition of heavy drinking, the actual definition is much more narrow. It is not difficult to define heavy drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking is considered anything over two drinks each day for men or one drink each day for women. This can be expanded to include fourteen drinks each week (for men) and seven drinks each week (for women). Related to heavy drinking is binge drinking, which is defined slightly differently. According to the same organization, binge drinking can be defined as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion. This level of drinking is what usually leads to intoxication. While there is a slight difference between heavy drinking and binge drinking, the main point remains the same: consuming more than a couple of drinks several times each week can easily constitute heavy drinking for the average person. While a glass of wine at the end of a long workday may be harmless, it is when that glass of wine once a week turns into two or three glasses of wine on every workday that excessive alcohol consumption begins to take shape. This progression may be more common than you think, and the effect of problematic drinking habits is to only harm both your brain and your life.

The Effect of Heavy Drinking on Your Brain

One of the key elements of alcohol education is not only to define heavy drinking but also to understand how drinking habits can affect the brain. The initial effects of alcohol on the human brain are relatively well known – it is not for nothing that people continue to get intoxicated with the use of alcohol. While getting tipsy or drunk may appear harmless, sustaining this level of excessive drinking over time can be extremely detrimental to the brain and your entire nervous system.

“Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory: Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain deficits that persist well after he or she achieves sobriety. We do know that heavy drinking may have extensive and far-reaching effects on the brain.”

~ U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

For some heavy drinkers, alcohol consumption can lead to what is called alcohol-induced performance impairment. In simple terms, this means that heavy drinking over time can lead to impaired functioning in the brain, which in turn can affect one’s ability to perform both physical and mental tasks. In this way, heavy drinking can affect some individuals’ fine motor skills. In other cases, excessive drinking habits can lead to blackouts or lapses in memory. Still other heavy drinkers – especially those who have drunk a high level of alcohol for a long period of time – can develop serious brain damage, not to mention liver disease. Alcohol-induced performance impairment does not necessarily occur for all heavy drinkers. How much alcohol affects the brain depends on a variety of factors. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are five primary factors that contribute to this effect:

  • How much (and how often) you drink.
  • How old you were when you first began drinking – how long you have been drinking.
  • Your gender and whether or not you have a family history of alcohol addiction.
  • Whether or not you suffered from prenatal alcohol exposure.
  • Your general health status (that is, how physically healthy you are).

The Effect of Heavy Drinking on Your Life

The detrimental effects of binge drinking or excessive drinking habits are not limited to the brain. Problematic alcohol consumption can also lead to damage in your social life – including both your workplace and your relationships with loved ones. Millions of Americans currently suffer from alcohol addiction or dependence, and anyone struggling with alcoholism can tell you that it contributes to a wide range of social issues. Some of the most common effects of heavy drinking on everyday life include:

  • Strained relationships with partners or loved ones
  • Long-term damage to relationships with children
  • The development of emotional or psychological problems
  • A decrease in performance at work or in school
  • An inability to meet your responsibilities at home
  • Introducing mistrust or guilt into family life
  • The inability to maintain healthy relationships
  • Financial and employment problems as alcohol dependence take over
  • The inability to participate in social gatherings without the aid of alcohol

This description of heavy drinking side effects is not meant to be discouraging. Instead, it is meant to be a wakeup call for those currently engaging in alcohol abuse. The social effects of alcoholism can be reversed with time, professional help and a commitment to change.

Alcohol Abuse and Heavy Drinking Side Effects

Besides having a detrimental effect on your brain and your life, excessive drinking can often turn into alcohol abuse and addiction. From a professional standpoint, both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are considered part of the same diagnosis: an alcohol use disorder. An alcohol use disorder diagnosis can be mild, moderate or severe depending on how many symptoms are witnessed. In simple terms, heavy drinking turns into alcoholism when someone’s drinking habits cause harm or distress in their life. This includes psychological, social and psychological detrimental effects. The definition of heavy drinking is already clear – so what is the definition of alcohol addiction? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides a specific set of questions that can help individuals identify whether or not they are suffering from alcohol use disorder. Answering yes to two or more of these questions is an indication that alcoholism – or alcohol use disorder – may be present in an individual’s life. These are the questions to ask yourself or your loved ones – whether or not any of the following has occurred in the past year:

  • Have you had days where you drank more (or longer) than you originally intended to?
  • Have you wanted to stop drinking (or at least cut down) and been unable to?
  • Have you spent a lot of time drinking, or being sick from the aftereffects?
  • Have you experienced a craving for alcohol (a strong need to drink)?
  • Has your drinking habits interfered with your responsibilities at home or at work?
  • Have you continued to drink even though it caused issues with friends or family?
  • Have you stopped participating in activities that used to be important to you in order to drink?
  • Have you engaged in riskier behaviors while drinking or after drinking?
  • Have you continued your drinking habits even after realizing it makes you anxious, depressed, or lead to other health problems?
  • Have you built up a tolerance to alcohol (needing to drink more than before to reach the same effect)?
  • Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms after going too long without an alcoholic drink?

Some of the withdrawal symptoms mentioned above include anxiety, depression, sleep problems, nausea, and sweating. This is one of the primary signs that heavy drinking has turned into alcohol dependence. Thankfully, finding that you meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder means that you can take the next steps to overcome this substance addiction.

Overcoming the Effects of Heavy Drinking on Your Brain and Your Life

The key insight from this post on excessive drinking should be this: you should reach out for help if you find yourself engaging in heavy drinking. While excessive drinking is not always a sign of alcoholism, it can easily lead to addiction and dependence if the problematic drinking habits go unchecked. There is no question about it: heavy drinking and binge drinking is often the first step on a progression toward alcoholism and dependence. The effect of this diagnosis on your brain and your life can only be detrimental. Given the effects of alcohol abuse discussed here, there is a clear danger associated with excessive drinking. If you find that you consistently drink heavily or binge drink, you should reconsider your drinking habits, and consider a private alcoholic rehab for treatment as an option. Cutting back on your alcohol consumption or cutting it out completely could save your life. It will, at the very least, save you a great deal of hardship. If you still have questions about how heavy drinking affects both your brain and your life, do not hesitate to contact us or leave a comment below.

Sources:

CNN. (2016, March). Are You a Heavy Drinker? You’d Be Surprised. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/26/health/heavy-drinking-definition/ National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017, February). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017, February). Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2016). Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2016). Beyond Hangovers: Understanding Alcohol’s Impact on Your Health. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking Ty Brumback. (2017, June). Alcohol-induced Performance Impairment. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00213-017-4577-x

How Heavy Drinking Affects Your Brain and Your Life (2024)

FAQs

How does heavy drinking affect the brain? ›

Alcohol makes it harder for the brain areas controlling balance, memory, speech, and judgment to do their jobs, resulting in a higher likelihood of injuries and other negative outcomes. Long-term heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in their size.

How does drinking alcohol affect your life? ›

Long-Term Health Risks. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including: High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems. Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.

How does alcoholism affect the brain and your mental health? ›

The chemical changes in your brain can soon lead to more negative feelings, such as anger, depression or anxiety, regardless of your mood. Alcohol also slows down how your brain processes information, making it harder to work out what you're really feeling and the possible consequences of your actions.

Does any amount of alcohol affect the brain? ›

While having a drink from time to time is unlikely to cause health problems, moderate or heavy drinking can impact the brain. And, alcohol abuse can cause deficits over time. Intoxication occurs when alcohol intake exceeds your body's ability to metabolize alcohol.

Can excessive drinking cause mental problems? ›

Alcohol abuse can cause signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and antisocial behavior, both during intoxication and during withdrawal. At times, these symptoms and signs cluster, last for weeks, and mimic frank psychiatric disorders (i.e., are alcohol–induced syndromes).

Can your brain recover from heavy alcohol use? ›

Recovery of brain function is certainly possible after abstinence, and will naturally occur in some domains, but complete recovery may be harder in other areas.

What are the 4 types of drinker? ›

Generally, people drink to either increase positive emotions or decrease negative ones. This results in all drinking motives falling into one of four categories: enhancement (because it's exciting), coping (to forget about my worries), social (to celebrate), and conformity (to fit in).

What organ does alcohol affect the most? ›

Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including: Steatosis, or fatty liver. Alcoholic hepatitis.

What are 3 social effects of alcohol? ›

Other social consequences of drinking too much can include:
  • financial problems due to excessive spending on alcohol.
  • limited career opportunities due to a conviction for an alcohol-related offence.
  • impacts on work performance.
  • losing friends because of the way you act when you're drunk.

What mental disorders do alcoholics have? ›

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), three mental disorders most commonly comorbid with alcoholism are major depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. Less frequently co-diagnosed with alcoholism is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dependent personality disorder and conduct disorder.

Does alcoholism rewire your brain? ›

A new study has found that alcohol addiction and abstinence both may lead to a restructuring of the brain or cause changes in its functioning.

Can you reverse brain damage from alcohol? ›

Once brain cells die, the effect of the brain damage is permanent. Thankfully, some of the changes in the alcoholic brain are due to cells simply changing size in the brain. Once an alcoholic has stopped drinking, these cells return to their normal volume, showing that some alcohol-related brain damage is reversible.

What are six effects of alcohol on the brain? ›

Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory: Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops.

How many drinks a day is considered an alcoholic? ›

Alcoholics generally drink excessively, often much more than four drinks per day and in a manner they can't control. Excessive drinking is a serious health problem for millions of people in the United States. Alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is one facet of problem drinking.

What is considered heavy drinking? ›

What do you mean by heavy drinking? For men, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week. For women, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming 8 drinks or more per week.

Can alcohol brain damage reversed? ›

Once brain cells die, the effect of the brain damage is permanent. Thankfully, some of the changes in the alcoholic brain are due to cells simply changing size in the brain. Once an alcoholic has stopped drinking, these cells return to their normal volume, showing that some alcohol-related brain damage is reversible.

What neurological disorders are caused by alcohol? ›

There are a number of neurologic diseases associated with alcohol consumption, including: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, alcoholic neuropathy, alcohol withdrawal syndrome, alcoholic cerebellar degeneration, alcoholic myopathy and fetal alcohol syndrome.

How long does it take for your brain to recover from alcohol? ›

Alcohol-induced brain shrinkage can begin to reverse within two weeks after abusers become abstinent. Some of the change in brain size is due to brain cells changing size. Once drinking stops, the cells return to their normal volume over the following weeks.

What is alcohol induced dementia? ›

Alcohol-related 'dementia' is a type of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). If a person has alcohol-related 'dementia' they will struggle with day-to-day tasks. This is because of the damage to their brain, caused by regularly drinking too much alcohol over many years.

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