Brain Recovery and Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol use disorder is a condition that’s considered a brain disorder. Changes in the brain from drinking alcohol have lasting effects that can lead to mild, moderate, and severe cases of AUD.
We’ve uncovered what happens to your brain as you recover from alcohol abuse, and the timeline, so you’ll know exactly what to expect.
Getting help for your alcohol addiction is vital. As you’ll learn, drinking excessive alcohol can lead to short-term and long-term damage to the brain. In addition, because of how alcohol affects the brain, it can be hard to stop drinking and remain sober throughout your life. We offer a range of treatment programs, so search for a treatment center near you
Alcohol Recovery Timeline
There’s never a better time to stop drinking than now. While it’s possible to reverse the damage and regenerate brain function, some areas of the brain could sustain permanent damage due to excessive drinking. In any case, you can expect to see signs of recovery in as little as a couple of weeks. However, making a full recovery can take many months to years.
1. Within the First Two Weeks
During the first two weeks after refraining from drinking, you may experience deficits in your ability to think. Your brain and body are trying to adjust, which can also lead to depression and anxiety.
This is the stage where many people relapse, so it’s common for treatment programs to involve 30-day stays in a facility.
2. After Two Months
The first few months involve going through alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can make this a point of highest risk of relapsing. You may become confused, distracted, and irritable. Eventually, these symptoms will start to disappear so that you’re more clear-headed and calm.
3. After About Five Years
It could take anywhere from a couple of months to several years before you see cognitive improvements following abstinence. During this time, you may still have issues with abstract reasoning, short-term memory, and visual-spatial ability while other functions return to normal.
4. After Seven Years and More
On average, it could take you as much as seven years or more to fully recover from alcohol. At this point, your body should be back to normal functioning, even though some areas may have sustained irreversible damage.
Keep in mind alcoholism is a life-long struggle. It’s important to get treatment for AUD whenever you or a loved one are having a difficult time avoiding alcohol.
Alcohol Affects Different Parts of Your Brain
When most people consider the effects of alcohol, they typically think about alcoholics who experience damage to their liver or are always in court after being charged with a DUI (driving under the influence). The fact that alcohol damages the brain is not common knowledge, but it’s something it’s important to realize.
Drinking excessive alcohol regularly can affect the components of the brain. Depending on the part affected, you’ll experience various physical and mental health issues.
- Cerebral Cortex – The cerebral cortex (“grey matter”) is part of the brain responsible for the highest level of mental abilities, including motor, sensory, and association. Alcohol can affect how you perceive things and the way information reaches your brain. When drinking, you’ll experience a loss of judgment, and your inhibitions will be lower.
- Frontal Lobe – The frontal lobe is the largest portion of the brain and one of four parts of the cerebral cortex. This part helps you with planning, decision-making, and maintaining self-control. Drinking keeps the brain from functioning properly and can lead to permanent damage in this area.
- Hippocampus – This part is often described as the “flash drive” of the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. When you drink too much, you may have a “blackout,” where you can’t remember what happened. With long-term drinking, you could cause permanent damage to this area of the brain as well.
- Cerebellum – The cerebellum is important for thinking and moving. When you drink too much alcohol, this is the part of the brain that’s affected and causes you to stumble around because you’ve lost your ability to maintain coordination and balance.
- Hypothalamus – This area of the brain regulates the endocrine system (controls the hormones), the autonomic nervous system (controls major organs and glands), body temperature, and appetite. That’s why drinking alcohol can decrease your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, lower your temperature, and make you more hungry and thirsty.
- Medulla Oblongata – The medulla is the part that controls the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. When drinking alcohol, damage to this area leads to slow breathing, decreased heart rate, and the inability to maintain a normal body temperature. If excessive drinking causes the medulla to shut down, you could go into a coma.
A scholarly review in the National Library of Medicine uncovered evidence that when you chronically drink, it can change areas of the nervous system that control emotions, decision-making, and physical responses. These changes can be a factor in developing alcoholism and even predict relapse.
When a person tries to stop drinking, the nervous system is so sensitive to stress that alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings for alcohol increase. This is a major reason why recovering from alcohol addiction is a long process with a high relapse rate.
Related reading: Understanding the Connections Between Mental Health Conditions and Substance Use Disorders
How Each Stage of Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Brain
There are three stages your brain goes through as you drink. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the brain can be altered as a result of excessive drinking. However, the brain’s characteristics can help it, which is vital to recovering from AUD.
While it’s not clear how the brain can aid in a return to long-term sobriety, research indicates that the negative effects of the brain can be reversed when you stop drinking.
People go through the following different stages of drinking that can affect the brain:
1. Binge/Intoxication Stage
This binge and intoxication stage is associated with brain circuits in the basal ganglia. At this stage, neurotransmitters include dopamine, GABA, glutamate, and opioid peptides.
When you drink alcoholic beverages, the brain’s reward circuit is activated. This causes your brain makes a link between different aspects of drinking (e.g., people, places, and events involved when drinking) and pleasure.
These things can motivate you to the point that drinking becomes more of a habit and impulse.
2. Withdrawal/Negative Affect Stage
The withdrawn and negative affect state is associated with circuits in the extended amygdala. This stage involves the increase of neurotransmitters such as corticotropin-releasing factor, dynorphin, norepinephrine, hypocretin, and vasopressin.
When you stop drinking, the reward circuit decreases, but the stress circuits are activated. This causes emotional states that might include anxiety and irritability. In turn, drinking alcohol can provide temporary relief.
3. Preoccupation and Anticipation Stage
The preoccupation/anticipation stage is associated with circuits in the prefrontal cortex. Neurotransmitters increased at this stage include glutamate and ghrelin.
When you have an alcohol addiction at this stage, you may experience impairments in functions that usually keep you from making impulsive and compulsive decisions. Instead, you’ll have strong urges to drink.
This is enhanced by the presence of stress, negative emotions, and stage-one reward cues.
The Most Harmful Effects of Drinking Alcohol
A drink or two, here and there, on rare occasions, may be fine, but it’s important to understand the dangers of excessive drinking. The latest CDC report on alcohol-attributed deaths showed that more than 140,000 people died from alcohol in the U.S. between 2015 and 2019 — their lives were shortened by an average of 26 years.
In addition to death, the report also provided statistics on the numerous harmful effects of alcohol. These include the following most common chronic and acute conditions from drinking too much alcohol:
1. Chronic Effects of Alcohol
- Cancer (breast, colorectal, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, stomach, prostate)
- Heart disease (atrial fibrillation, hypertension, cardiomyopathy)
- Liver disease (cirrhosis)
- Stroke (hemorrhagic, ischemic)
2. Acute Effects of Alcohol
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Poisoning (alcohol and non-alcohol)
- Fall injuries
- Fire injuries
In addition to these health risks, alcohol can lead to risky sexual behavior (e.g., unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners), learning and memory problems (dementia, poor performance at school), mental health issues (depression, anxiety), and social problems (at work or home).
Many of these problems are due to the way alcohol affects the brain.
National Recovery Month Celebrates the Difficult Road to Recovery
Recovering from addiction, including alcoholism, is something that millions of people face around the country.
In response to troubling figures like these, the White House issued a Proclamation on National Recovery Month in 2022 to “recommit to helping prevent substance use disorder, supporting those who are still struggling, and providing people in recovery with the resources they need to live full and healthy lives.”
National Recovery Month was started in 1989 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency.
Recognized every September, this national celebration was designed to “promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the nation’s strong and proud recovery community, and the dedication of service providers and communities who make recovery in all its forms possible.”
Overcoming alcohol addiction is a long, difficult process. It’s hard to stop drinking on your own, but there are many programs available.
Related reading: Over 1 million Americans are Seeking Treatment for Substance Use Disorder—here’s How It Breaks Down by State
Zinnia Healing supports the recovery of those struggling with alcohol use disorder. We understand that excessive drinking can lead to alcohol dependence, which puts added stress on the brain and body. When you’re trying to reduce your drinking or stop altogether, we can help. Simply decide you’re ready to jump on the road to recovery and contact us to get started.
Are You At Risk of Alcohol Abuse?
Based on the results of SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 40 million Americans (about the population of the entire state of California) reported having a SUD in 2020, including 28 million with alcohol use disorder (AUD).
While an occasional drink at dinner or during social outings may not be harmful, even binge drinking can put you at risk of becoming dependent on alcohol.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), binge drinking is most common and costly when it comes to excessive drinking.
To be defined as a binge drinker, all it takes is for you to occasionally drink five or more alcoholic beverages if you’re a man or four or more drinks if you’re a woman.
However, regular and long-time drinks are often diagnosed with alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is more commonly called alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, alcohol dependence, and alcoholism.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), AUD is defined as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”
While developing AUD depends on how much you drink and how often, several other factors can increase your risk: early age drinking, genetics, family history of alcoholism, history of childhood trauma, and mental illness.
Here are several risk factors that have been found to increase the chance of a person developing AUD.
- Early-age drinking (before age 15)
- Genetics (heredity accounts for 60%)
- Family history of alcoholism (e.g., parents who drink)
- Mental health conditions (e.g., depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
- History of trauma
Ultimately, your risk of developing alcohol dependence also depends on how much alcohol you drink, how often you drink, and how quickly you drink. Alcohol misuse includes binge drinkers and heavy drinkers.
Related reading: How Alcohol-related Deaths Have Changed in Every State Over the Past Two Decades
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse
The type of treatment you receive for alcohol use disorder depends on a number of factors. Most people think about community 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or month-long stays in a rehab center.
There are many different treatment programs available, which are customized for the individual seeking help.
Alcohol-specific treatment programs address both physical discomforts and uncontrollable cravings. You may only need talk therapy, which a licensed therapist can conduct.
When medications are necessary, a board-certified addiction doctor will be involved.
As outlined in the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator, there are four basic levels of care:
- Outpatient Care – regular office visits
- Intensive Outpatient or Partial Hospitalization Care – coordinated complex care
- Residential Care – 24-hour low or high-intensity programs
- Intensive Inpatient Care – 24-hour medically-directed care
Related reading: Substance Use Levels of Care
Depending on the level of care you require, you may be enrolled in one or more of the following types of alcohol abuse treatment programs:
1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Many people benefit from psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps you understand how your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together, many of which can influence excessive drinking. You’ll learn about your triggers and ways to cope with them by:
- Identifying and challenging negative thoughts
- Changing how you react to certain events
- Learning how to control your impulses
- Practicing exercises to help you relax
2. Family Therapy
One of the most significant aspects of alcohol recovery is the support you have from those you spend the most time with, including loved ones. Family therapy involves the following four parts:
- Family Engagement – helps loved ones understand rather than exhibit shame
- Relational Reframing – emphasizes the importance of focusing on relationships rather than the causes of addiction
- Family Behavior Change – encourages family members to learn better ways to communicate
- Family Restructuring – shifts toxic, destructive family dynamics into those that are more conducive to recovery
3. Medication-Assisted Treatments (MAT)
Medical-assisted treatments are programs that make use of various types of drugs. Researchers reported excellent success rates for MAT. More than 90% of patients remain sober after two years. The following medications are commonly prescribed for AUD:
- Naltrexone – reduces excessive drinking
- Acamprosate(also called Campral) – helps eliminate drinking
- Disulfiram – causes unpleasant symptoms to curb drinking
4. Holistic and Wellness-Focused Therapy
Holistic approaches to therapy are other ways to help you recover from alcohol addiction. These vary widely but offer something for everyone because many can be tied to a person’s particular interest.
- Yoga Therapy, Meditation, and Other Exercises – This type of therapy offers plenty of options and is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety and boost your mood while recovering.
- Exercise – Exercise is a proven stress reliever and mood booster. What’s more, exercise can help shed the extra weight that recovery can sometimes bring.
- Nature Therapy – Spending time outdoors helps people become more grounded in the earth, which can leave you with a feeling of connection rather than isolation. Nature therapy can be done as a group, involving animals, gardening, and conservation.
- Music Therapy – Nobody can deny that music has healing power, whether creating, singing, playing, listening, moving to, or discussing music.
Related reading: 10 Most Common Barriers to Seeking Treatment for Substance Use Disorder
The 5 Steps of the Alcohol Dependency Treatment Process
When you seek treatment for your alcohol dependence, you’ll go through a multi-step and seemingly complex process. The treatment process may vary depending on your needs and where you seek treatment.
Many people with alcohol addiction have underlying conditions that have led them to drink. Therefore, everything must be uncovered during the process, including depression, anxiety, and trauma.
The treatment process includes the following steps from alcohol dependency to recovery:
An intervention is simply a conversation that takes place to help a person recognize the harmful effects of drinking alcohol. A professional can help guide this conversation and provide valuable resources.
The first step to recovery is to be admitted into a treatment program. This frequently includes making that initial call, completing paperwork, working out insurance or other payment options, and arriving at the treatment facility.
This step is one of the most difficult yet important steps to take when overcoming alcohol addiction. Detox helps you deal with alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings so that you’re more comfortable as you recover.
Rehab is the part of therapy in which you work towards developing skills to maintain your sobriety. This includes inpatient treatment or outpatient treatment based on your unique needs. In addition, you may be given the option to participate in group therapy, experiential therapy, and behavioral therapy.
Recovery doesn’t end when you get out of rehab — it’s a lifelong journey. Alcohol cravings may continue to tug at you even while you’re sober. Your treatment process includes support every step of the way, from daily reminders to follow-ups, to help you maintain sobriety.
According to the NIAAA, research has shown that after a year of treatment, one-third of people with AUD experience no more symptoms. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to treatment programs for substance abuse disorders.
What works for one person may not be suitable for you, so people take different recovery routes. It’s essential to work closely with a therapist or counselor to find the approach that will be most effective for your recovery.
Seek Treatment for Alcohol Abuse
It’s crucial to get treated for alcohol use disorder anytime you suspect you or a loved one is drinking too much. Frequent, excessive, and long-term use of alcohol has a wide range of physical and mental effects.
Some of these are a result of changes in your brain, which can increase alcohol withdrawal symptoms and cravings, making it all the more difficult to stop drinking.
As easy as it is for someone to say, “just stop drinking,” the alcohol-affected brain actually has a mind of its own. That’s why it’s essential to get help with your alcohol addiction through rehab programs such as those we offer, and seek support from alcohol hotlines. Help is just a phone call away — we’re available 24/7 — so don’t hesitate to reach out to us at (855) 430-9439.