Day 10 Alcohol Free: This is Your Brain on Alcohol

So in a lot of the reading I’ve been doing, such as in This Naked Mind & online resources, I’ve read that alcohol has the capability to literally rewire the way your brain works.

Here are a few things I’ve pulled from various websites about the effects of alcohol on the brain:

“After months or years of alcohol abuse, your brain has literally changed its chemical structure to work with a consistent supply of alcohol. This means that the neurotransmitters — which shuffle chemicals throughout the brain — become depleted or just downright out of whack. When you deprive your brain of alcohol, that depletion and dysregulation of neurochemicals manifests as a variety of symptoms including moodiness and cognitive difficulties.

Many people don’t realize that these unfortunate side effects are actually a symptom of your brain healing and re-balancing its natural chemistry, and they allow these negative feelings to drive them back to drinking.”

“If you drink heavily and regularly you’re likely to develop some symptoms of depression. It’s that good old brain chemistry at work again. Regular drinking lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood.”

“Heavy alcohol consumption—even on a single occasion—can throw the delicate balance of neurotransmitters off course… can trigger mood and behavioral changes, including depression, agitation, memory loss, and even seizures.

Long-term, heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in the size of brain cells. As a result of these and other changes, brain mass shrinks and the brain’s inner cavity grows bigger. These changes may affect a wide range of abilities, including motor coordination; temperature regulation; sleep; mood; and various cognitive functions, including learning and memory.

One neurotransmitter particularly susceptible to even small amounts of alcohol is called glutamate. Among other things, glutamate affects memory. Researchers believe that alcohol interferes with glutamate action, and this may be what causes some people to temporarily “black out,” or forget much of what happened during a night of heavy drinking.

Alcohol also causes an increased release of serotonin, another neurotransmitter, which helps regulate emotional expression, and endorphins, which are natural substances that may spark feelings of relaxation and euphoria as intoxication sets in. Researchers now understand that the brain tries to compensate for these disruptions. Neurotransmitters adapt to create balance in the brain despite the presence of alcohol. But making these adaptations can have negative results, including building alcohol tolerance, developing alcohol dependence, and experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.


Not only does alcoholic liver disease affect liver function itself, it also damages the brain. The liver breaks down alcohol—and the toxins it releases. During this process, alcohol’s byproducts damage liver cells. These damaged liver cells no longer function as well as they should and allow too much of these toxic substances, ammonia and manganese in particular, to travel to the brain.These substances proceed to damage brain cells, causing a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy.
Hepatic encephalopathy causes a range of problems, from less severe to fatal.These problems can include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Shortened attention span
  • Coordination problems, including asterixis, which results in hand shaking or flapping
  • Coma
  • Death

So, it’s not surprising to me that my mood has been all over the place lately. Because I’ve been drinking nearly every single day for the past 6 years, at more than the recommended number of units per day (at least 3 times more, on average), my actual brain chemistry is probably very different from what it was when I began drinking regularly at age 21.

I’ve cycled between feeling peaceful and content to being depressed, angry, irritable and numb. I feel bouts of anxiety manifesting physically, without really having any triggering cause. It’s weird because I’ve felt better and more comfortable sitting at home in my bedroom, beneath my covers, than I have since I moved in.

The boy & I have a concert tonight and I just… don’t want to go. I’m sure it will be fine. But I don’t really feel interested in going out so late to see a band I don’t know, even if Jake bought the ticket for me. I’m tired. And that might be caused by my recent nightly habit of going to bed around 12:30 or 1, and waking up extra early, like 6:30 to go to the gym.

This morning I did just that – woke at 6:30, got the the gym by 7:15 – and I just didn’t feel the same level of interest or power in working out. It’s a little concerning because working out has been one of my biggest stress relievers in the past few years. I’m sure it’s just the natural lull, but I can’t help but feel anxious about it.

Anyway, I’m going to meet with a new therapist tomorrow morning, and even though I wrote down what I wanted to talk about with her earlier, I think I have a bit more of a defined idea of what needs my attention:

  • Assessing the roots of my alcohol usage, keeping track of my current journey into sobriety, and learning some coping mechanisms to help with stress, sadness, frustration, etc.
  • Assessing how I operate in relationships & the things I want to change – assertiveness, stating my needs directly and openly, getting more comfortable with physical & emotional intimacy, and resisting the urge to “give up” when I come across a difficulty or frustration
  • Work on my need to create & always meet my own high expectations, re: working a (new) full-time job while going to school full-time, dating & having a full gym routine. Avoiding burnout. Learning how to step back and delegate things to others as necessary.

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