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The Long-term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

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Alcohol abuse can cause long-lasting changes in the brain, which is part of the reason why most people need help launching their sobriety.


Most of us know what it feels like to drink too much. Maybe you danced on a table. Or fell asleep in a corner. Or woke up the next day with a bad headache.

It’s pretty obvious that alcohol has an immediate effect on the brain. But what are the longer-lasting effects? Is it really something to worry about?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the answer is yes—if you are a heavy drinker. Most people who have been abusing alcohol for an extended period of time will experience what the NIAAA calls “mild to moderate impairment of intellectual functioning as well as diminished brain size.”

The NIAAA goes on to say that the most common brain impairments caused by alcohol are related to visuospatial abilities (things like assembling a piece of furniture based on illustrated instructions) and higher cognitive functioning (such as the ability to organize a plan and change it as needed).

The good news? If alcohol is abstained from, this kind of impairment is reversible over a period of several months to one year.

The NIAAA does warn, however, that a small proportion of the heaviest drinkers may develop irreversible brain-damage syndromes, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a disorder in which one is incapable of remembering new information for more than a few seconds.

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Heavy drinking can have a significant impact on your health—even if you never cross the line into addiction.

Dopamine and the Results of Alcoholism

It’s true that alcohol can take the edge off or boost your mood. That’s because of the rush of dopamine that is produced by a glass of beer, vodka or Chardonnay.

After a certain point, however, your brain adapts to this constant flood of feel-good chemicals by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors in your brain. The result? Your brain’s natural ability to experience pleasure has been compromised. What’s more, you need to drink more and more to achieve the same effects from alcohol.

Once a person stops drinking and gets over the physical effects of withdrawal, they’re still likely to feel less than their best until the brain begins to rebuild.

How long does that take?

There’s a lot of research still being done on this, but experts say it can vary from a few weeks to up to a year, depending on the severity of addiction and other factors.

It would be nice if sobriety were as simple as getting over a week or so of feeling lousy. Unfortunately, recovery is more complex than that. It’s not just physical, mental, emotional or social. Rather, it’s a mix of all of the above.

Recovery does take work. And it can be tempting to simply keep drinking, which will only make things a little bit worse every day.

With the right help, you can stay on track and feel a bit better every day. Before you know it, you’ll be able to enjoy all of the challenges, joys and everyday pleasures of life again.

Hope at The Raleigh House

The Raleigh House is a residential treatment center located in Denver founded on the belief that addiction treatment must address the whole person. Our master’s level trained therapists get to the root cause of addiction and help residents build a strategy for a successful future. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about the alcohol addiction treatment program at The Raleigh House.

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