How alcohol affects the nervous system

The nervous system is the structure that receives all kinds of sensations and executes the functioning of limbs and various body parts. This becomes possible through the extensive network of nerves with one another and the brain, a wide precise circuit that makes us aware of the various sensations and enables the functioning of limbs and equilibrium of the body. 

Alcohol is one of the substances that directly affects the nervous system. As soon as alcohol enters the body, it is absorbed in the blood stream and passes on to the brain. Initially, thinking and intellect are numbed. Later on,   it can produce a depressant effect on brain cells. In contrast, it can also produce an effect on the brain cells. These different types of effects are manifested in the behaviour of an individual after drinking.

Under the influence of alcohol, an individual can be seen crying incessantly for no reason on one hand, while on the other, he may be laughing and joking.  At times, behaviour may be a combination of excitement and depression. People remain oblivious to everything around them. They have no memory afterwards of what they did in the intoxicated state.

Chronic alcoholics suffer from multiple nutritional deficiencies because of various factors.  Deficiency of vitamin B complex, in particular, of Thiamine (Vitamin B1)   leads to abnormalities of the gait and limb movements, eye movements, and memory loss. These symptoms also occur due to damage to part of the brain by alcohol. Deficiency of vitamin B12 causes hazards to peripheral nerves and spinal cord.

Alcohol has a direct toxic effect on the optic nerve (nerve responsible for vision) causing sudden blindness.   This happens more with methyl alcohol which is present in some spirits. Part of the brain responsible for the balance of the body (cerebellum) is also damaged by alcohol. This manifests in the inability of an individual to walk, sit or stand straight. Small chores like dressing or undressing become difficult because of tremors and lack of coordination in hand muscles.

Muscles of shoulders and hips are affected by chronic use of alcohol. The person experiences pain in small movements like combing or climbing stairs.

The peripheral nerves, which bring sensations from outside to spinal cord and brain, are also affected by alcohol.  This causes tingling, numbness and other abnormal sensations in the affected limbs.  Alcohol can damage the spinal cord directly, leading to paralysis of the limbs in various degrees in the person. 

Sexual impotence is yet another unpleasant consequence of alcoholism which cannot be reversed.

Over time, brain cells become habituated to alcohol. This physical dependence creates a state where the individual cannot live without alcohol. Even if he spends 24 hours without alcohol, he develops tremors in the hands, restlessness, and body pain and memory loss. In severe cases, the affected person becomes disoriented.  Some of these symptoms reverse after taking alcohol. Thus, a vicious cycle is perpetuated. A person becomes sick without alcohol and when he takes it, damage to the nervous system is aggravated.

Many of these problems cannot be reversed by treatment. But stopping alcohol can certainly prevent further damage.

Prevention is said to be better than cure and stands very true for alcoholism. If a person started drinking recently, they should stop before it is too late. 

Good nutrition is of prime importance in helping an alcoholic with nervous system damage.  Whole grains, cereals, fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and eggs are useful to improve the nutritional status.  In addition, nutritional supplements like multivitamin and or thiamine tablets are also useful.

A person hopelessly addicted to alcohol needs to be counselled and enrolled in some addiction programme before they are crippled by permanent neurological abnormalities.  “Alcoholics Anonymous” (AA) provides an opportunity for alcohol addicts to come together, discuss their problems and try to give up alcohol.

Dr Rachna Pande,                                                     
Specialist, internal medicine