Risks of Untreated Alcoholism: Wet Brain Syndrome

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Risks of Untreated Alcoholism: Wet Brain Syndrome

Untreated, long-term alcoholism can result in a host of negative consequences, from social isolation and unemployment to fatal cirrhosis of the liver. Wet brain syndrome is one of the physical risks of alcoholism that can’t be treated once it has progressed past a certain point. Although many of the physical impacts of drinking too much can be reversed if the individual in question stops drinking and receives treatment, wet brain syndrome is a permanent form of brain damage that results from long-term alcoholism.

What is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome is a form of dementia that primarily affects chronic, long-term alcoholics at the end stages of their disease. The illness is formally known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and it occurs in two separate stages. The first stage is known as Wernicke encephalopathy, in which lesions on the brain cause the following symptoms:

  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Involuntary or abnormal eye movements and twitches
  • Poor reflexes
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty walking or an abnormal gait
  • Confusion and cognitive processing difficulties

At this point, if the disease is recognized and immediately treated (generally with a series of thiamine injections) it is possible for the effects of the disease to be reversed and for the patient to regain normal functioning.

The End Stage of Wet Brain Syndrome

Unfortunately, in the case of alcoholics (the primary demographic this disease affects), Wernicke encephalopathy goes untreated and progresses to the second stage of wet brain syndrome, known as Korsakoff psychosis. Korsakoff psychosis is irreversible and often debilitating. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, eighty to ninety percent of alcoholics diagnosed with Wernicke encephalopathy progress to Korsakoff psychosis, mostly as the result of not seeking treatment during the earliest stages of wet brain syndrome. The symptoms of Korsakoff psychosis include:

  • Memory loss
  • Problems with learning and developing new memories
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired coordination and balance
  • Trouble walking
  • Agitation and anger
  • Confabulation (making up stories to fill blank spots in memory
  • Vision problems
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Personality changes
  • Inability to care for oneself

At this point in wet brain syndrome, treatment can manage symptoms, but brain damage from drinking is severe and permanent. Patients who suffer from Korsakoff psychosis may be unable to care for themselves. Without any treatment, it can be fatal.

How Does Drinking Cause Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome) is caused by nutritional deficiencies most commonly brought on by chronic heavy drinking. In order to properly function, the brain needs a certain amount of the vitamin thiamine. A thiamine deficiency essentially robs the brain of energy, because without thiamine the brain cannot process glucose. When the brain doesn’t get the glucose it needs to run properly as the result of a thiamine deficiency, the individual will begin to develop symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Alcoholism causes thiamine deficiencies over a prolonged period of time because alcohol reduces the body’s ability to absorb thiamine through the gastrointestinal tract. Over time, the body will absorb less thiamine as the result of excessive alcohol consumption. In addition to this biological factor, many alcoholics have lifestyles that can contribute to thiamine deficiency, such as a poor diet lacking in essential nutrients. Unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as irregular eating or eating low-nutrient foods, as in common for people in active alcoholism, can exacerbate the thiamine deficiency caused by consuming too much alcohol.

Preventing Wet Brain Syndrome

Wet brain syndrome is relatively rare in the general population, especially in developed countries such as the United States, where malnutrition is not a chronic or widespread issue. The disease arises mostly in alcoholics who have been drinking excessively for a prolonged period of time. It’s less common that other forms of physical damage from alcohol, but it’s extraordinarily devastating to sufferers. Individuals in the beginning stages of wet brain syndrome require immediate treatment to stop the progression of the disease, and even when they do receive treatment (which is statistically rare), they must abstain from alcohol if they want to prevent the development of Korsakoff psychosis. Unfortunately, this is an unlikely scenario for people who reach this stage of alcoholism. The best way to avoid wet brain syndrome is to prevent it altogether by treating alcoholism before it reaches this point. In order to effectively treat their alcoholism, most individuals need comprehensive and evidence-based care. That’s what we offer at Wellness Retreat Recovery, in order to help our patients prevent the tragic consequences of alcoholism and live their ideal lives. If you need help with a drinking problem, call us today at 888-821-0238.