When people begin using alcohol and other drugs, they are generally thinking about the impact it will have on them in that moment. The distraction, alleviation of pain, or feelings of euphoria are a welcome change from their daily struggles; they aren’t thinking about the long-term impact that prolonged, intense substance use can have on their body–and especially on their brain.
The Problem with Feeling Good
Sometimes, too much of a good thing is not a good thing. According to Psychology Today, addictive behaviors, whether they are rooted in substances, sex, gambling or something else, all have some things in common:
- Addiction hijacks the brain’s reward system, using its pathways and neurotransmitters to create an intense “high.”
- The brain then prioritizes these pathways, sacrificing connections to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps us make smart choices).
- Attention is then targeted to the preferred substance or activity, as the body craves the good feelings it experienced before.
- Other activities that could trigger the release of the brain’s “feel good” chemicals don’t compare to the overstimulation provided by the drugs, so the brain registers them as less pleasurable and, therefore, less important.
The article is also quick to point out, however, that these changes do not have to be permanent. If a person chooses to stop engaging in the addictive behavior, these brain changes can often be reversed.
The Chicken or the Egg
Many people who suffer from addiction also struggle with mental illness. While it has sometimes been questioned if mental illness is an underlying cause of addiction or if addiction triggers mental health issues, both could be true because the areas of the brain that are involved in mental illness are often the same as those involved in addiction.
According to Web MD, if a person waits too long or engages too heavily in substance use, some changes can become permanent. As the brain becomes more used to the addictive substance, it gets less and less of a “high” off of the old dosage, so the person has to increase how much they use just to feel good; thus begins the cycle of addiction. As mentioned above, brain changes are often reversible if substance use is discontinued, but continued use can lead to a host of problems, including:
- Impaired judgment
- Impulsive decision-making
- Memory issues
- Difficulty learning
Alcohol’s Devastating Impact
Some people assume that because alcohol is legal, it is less damaging than other drugs. This is an especially dangerous myth for a person in active addiction to alcohol. Alcohol can cause a number of nutritional deficiencies, which then lead to observable changes to the brain and body. Prolonged, intense alcohol use can be absolutely devastating to the brain, as detailed by WebMD.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (sometimes called “Wet Brain”) is a condition which can be caused by heavy, long-term drinking. The earliest symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome include:
- Balance and movement issues, which could include leg tremors, a slow and unsteady gait, difficulty standing and getting around, and limb weakness
- Confusion and feeling out of it
- Eye problems, including double vision or droopy eyelids
- Drowsiness/lack of energy
- Rapid heart rate
- Low blood pressure when standing up
As the condition progresses, if treatment is not received and changes are not made, the following symptoms may also appear, indicating possible irreversible damage:
- Long-term memory loss
- Making up stories without realizing it to fill in memory gaps
- Difficulty with language
- Difficulty understanding or processing information
Because it is possible to get to a point where the impact from substance abuse cannot be easily repaired, it is important to address addiction as soon as possible rather than waiting to hit rock bottom.
The SMART Recovery Website suggests a number of changes a person can make, in addition to discontinuing substance use, to heal damage addiction may have caused to their brain. These include:
- Relaxation tools
- Therapy, especially mindfulness activities and meditation
- A healthy diet, including lean proteins like fish and turkey, fresh produce, whole grains, nuts and seeds
At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we understand that addiction is not a moral failing but a disease that can be successfully treated by using a number of evidence-based methods and customized treatment plans to meet the unique needs of each guest. Call us today. We are here to help.