Everyone who watched TV in the 80s remembers the iconic “your brain on drugs” commercial. A stern and fatherly man cracks an egg onto a frying pan and says the signature phrase “This is your brain on drugs,” as the viscous raw egg sizzles.
It’s a simple and memorable message.
However, the ad’s strength is also its weakness. What does the sizzling actually mean? Which drug is the frying pan? Can my metaphorical egg ever go back in the shell after it’s been in the frying pan?
The human brain is an incredibly complicated part of your body and there are a variety of drugs with different effects on your brain and body. One substance that was often left out of anti-drug PSAs was alcohol. To borrow the analogy, what happens to my egg when it’s introduced to an alcohol marinade? Alcohol is a serious psychoactive substance and it’s incredibly prevalent in the United States. It’s increasingly common among younger people, with 2.7 percent of adolescents between 12 and 17 meeting the qualifications for an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Teens face more challenges with alcohol when they reach college-age. People in their late teens and early 20s experience cultural and peer pressure to binge drink whether they go to college or not. The largest demographic of binge drinkers (consuming four to five drinks in two hours) is between the ages of 18 and 34.
With binge drinking and alcoholism so prevalent in the U.S., the question begs to be answered. What happens to your brain on alcohol and can alcohol’s effects be reversed?
Is Alcohol a Drug?
Alcohol is legal for recreational use, so it must be safer than other psychoactive substances, right? Actually, alcohol is a drug with similar effects to other CNS depressants that are prescribed and regulated. Prescription drugs like benzodiazepines and barbiturates have similar side effects and addiction potential as alcohol. Like other drugs, alcohol has psychoactive effects that interfere with the natural communication process in the brain.
Messages in the brain are passed via neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that bind to specific receptors on the nerve cells in your brain and body. These chemicals can agonize (excite) or antagonize (block or inhibit) its respective receptor. Drugs mimic natural neurotransmitters or alter them to produce both desired and adverse effects. Alcohol interferes with this process for immediate and profound effects when you drink enough. Even though it’s legal, constantly advertised, and consumed in vast quantities all over the country, it’s still a recreational psychoactive drug.
Alcohol Brain Chemistry
Your body can handle a certain amount of alcohol before it has any effects at all. It’s your liver’s job to filter toxins out of your blood before they can start affecting the rest of your body. If you have one drink in two hours (a drink is 12 fl oz of beer, 5 fl oz of wine, and 1.5 fl oz of liquor), your liver can process the alcohol content out of your blood and you won’t feel any intoxicating effects. When you drink more than that, your liver can’t keep up and your blood alcohol content (BAC) rises, allowing the substance to reach your brain and start having an effect.
Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means its effect causes your nervous system to slow down. Once alcohol reaches the brain, it binds to gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors and alters the efficiency of the GABA neurotransmitter. GABA and its respective receptor are responsible for excitability and inhibitory effects in the nervous system. GABA serves to calm you down, cause sedation, and ease anxiety. CNS depressants like alcohol bind to GABA receptors and increase the efficiency of the chemical, which results in intoxicating calming effects.
Cognitive Effects of Alcohol
As alcohol starts to disrupt your brain’s neurochemical communications, you will begin to notice the immediate effects. Because alcohol depresses nervous system activity, it can affect several parts of the brain. Here’s how alcohol, in different areas of the brain, causes different effects:
- Cerebral cortex – This is the part of the brain that controls thought processing and consciousness. This is also the part of the brain that controls inhibitions. Should you jump from the barstool to the coffee table? “No,” says your cerebral cortex. “You’ll hurt yourself.” Alcohol suppresses these inhibitions to make risky behaviors seem like better ideas. It also causes this part of your brain to process information from your senses more slowly, decreasing your reaction time and making it harder to think through new information.
- Cerebellum – The cerebellum controls movement and balance. When it’s affected by alcohol, it causes staggering and the feeling that you’re off-balance. At lower blood-alcohol content levels, it causes you to feel dizzy when you turn your head.
- Hypothalamus and pituitary – These control some functions of your autonomic nervous system like the release of hormones. When you’re drunk, it can cause sexual dysfunction, even if alcohol causes increased arousal.
- Medulla – This controls more of the unconscious functions of your body like your body temperature, breathing, heart rate, and more. At lower BACs, intoxication can cause drowsiness. At higher levels during overdose or alcohol poisoning, depressing this system causes slowed and irregular breathing and hypothermia.
Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism
Alcohol doesn’t just affect you until it’s processed out of your system. Long-term abuse of alcohol, because of frequent binging or alcoholism, can lead to lifelong medical and cognitive problems. Studies show alcohol can lead to disease all over the body including multiple types of cancer. However, it can also lead to long-term brain damage and mental impairments under certain circumstances.
The euphoric effects of alcohol can make an impact on the limbic system (reward center) of the brain. This can trick the brain into treating drinking alcohol like a positive rewarding activity like eating and sleeping. When an alcohol use disorder reaches the limbic system it can lead to chronic alcohol addiction.
The brain is complicated and we are far from knowing everything there is to know about it but it is fairly resilient in a variety of circumstances. However, the brain is particularly vulnerable while it’s still developing. The brain develops until around the age of 25 and there is an increased period of development called myelination during your teens and early 20s. Myelination is the rapid growth of myelin, which coats the axons of nerve cells. Myelin helps to speed up mental processing and improves cognition.
Frequent binge drinking has shown to slow down this period of myelination and can lead to reduced myelin overall. This can cause problems with mental processing, reaction time, and cognition.
Seeking Help For Alcoholism
If you or a loved one is struggling with an AUD like frequent binging, alcohol dependence, or addiction, there is help available for treatment. Alcoholism is dangerous and withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. If you want to escape the oppression of alcohol addiction, the safest way is to go through medical detox. To learn more, call the addiction specialists at Drug Treatment Center Finder at (888) 263-0631 at any time. Get the help you need to address the chronic but treatable disease of alcoholism.