Chronic abuse of alcohol leads to the development of a variety of mental and physical problems over time. All the organs within the body can be damaged by overuse of this toxic substance, including the functioning of the brain. Alcohol induced encephalopathy interferes with the individual’s ability to think rationally and retain memories. If left untreated it can lead to permanent brain damage.
Encephalopathy refers to a group of different disorders that cause brain dysfunction. Alcoholics are at risk of developing a particular disorder known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This condition can arise because of other problems such as starvation, but it is most commonly associated with alcoholism. The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:
* A loss of muscle coordination
* Involuntary eye movements or eye paralysis
* Short-term Memory Loss
* Tingling sensations in limbs
* Loss of feeling in hands or feet
* Confabulation. This is where the individual makes up stories to cover their memory loss.
This type of encephalopathy is due to the lifestyle of the chronic alcohol rather than the alcohol itself. In particular it occurs due to poor nutritional habits. The individual will lack sufficent thiamine (Vitamin B1) in their diet. This leads to the development of condition called beriberi where the lack of thiamine causes neuron death.
If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is allowed to progress it leads to a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. What happens is that the individual begins to develop symptoms of a closely related disorder called Korsakoff psychosis. In fact it is usual to consider Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis as different stages in the same disorder. This type of dementia can be highly debilitating and include such symptoms as:
* An inability to create new memories
* Loss of old memories
* False memories
* Coma and death
If Wernicke’s encephalopathy is diagnosed early enough it can be prevented from progressing into more serious dementia. The individual will need to completely give up alcohol, and the thiamine deficiency will need to be rectified. This can involve thiamine injections, or if the condition is not severe oral supplements. So long as the individual remains free of alcohol, and eats a balanced diet, they should not have any further problems.
Unfortunately the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are often missed. This is because confusion, memory loss, and lack of coordination are associated with inebriation. If the individual is always drinking it can be difficult to diagnose this type of encephalopathy. It is only when this person is sober and they continue to exhibit the symptoms that the problem becomes more noticeable. Those individuals who are at most risk of alcoholic dementia will be the homeless. Their symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy will usually go unnoticed in this group of disenfranchised people.
Once the condition has progressed to Korsakoff psychosis it becomes much harder to deal with symptoms. The individual may develop permanent brain damage. They may still benefit from sobriety, but their mental functioning is likely to remain compromised.
Many individuals who develop the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy will be able to live a full life in recovery. The change from addiction to sobriety will require an effort, however. The person will need to develop a whole new way of dealing with life. This should be a way of living which is more satisfying than anything they have experienced before. Those who have abused alcohol to such an extent that they have developed encephalopathy will often need a lot of support to stay free of their addiction – at least in the beginning. This initial help can be found in rehab or from other recovery options. It is also important that chronic alcoholics are medically supervised during alcohol withdrawals if they are at risk of delirium tremens.
Those individuals who stay within the safe drinking limits should never have to worry about alcohol induced encephalopathy. This means that females should limit themselves to 1 drink per day, and men to 2 drinks per day. Those aged under 21 should avoid alcohol, and those over 65 years need to stick to 1 drink per day. A drink here refers to the equivalent of a glass of wine or a standard beer.
Those who do drink heavily may be able to avoid encephalopathy by ensuring that they eat a balanced diet. B1 supplements may also help them avoid encephalopathy. Of course such individuals will still be at risk of all the other problems associated with heavy drinking.
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