For heavy alcohol drinkers, long-term alcohol use and binge drinking can lead to lasting impairments and effects on brain function related to poor nutrition. People with an alcohol use disorder who engage in binge drinking or drink heavily most or every day of the week may neglect their health and make poor dietary choices such as not eating or eating foods with little nutritional value. In some cases, this could lead to a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, more commonly known as “wet brain.” What is wet brain? It is caused by a vitamin deficiency that can affect vital body systems and memory.
When caught early, wet brain can be treated and the effects could be reversed, but if left untreated, it can lead to lasting impairments or damage to the brain. In this article, we will explain what wet brain is, symptoms to look for, and treatment.
What is What Brain?
Wet brain, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is caused by vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. Thiamine is vital to many biological functions, and most importantly, it helps the body to convert food into energy. A thiamine deficiency can lead to a range of serious health complications if not corrected, as it can damage the thalamus and hypothalamus in the brain.
Thiamine deficiency is more common in those struggling with an alcohol use disorder because of poor nutrition and digestion that prevents the absorption of nutrients from food. Frequent vomiting and decreased appetite or forgetting to eat can also contribute to thiamine deficiency. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 80 percent of alcoholics may have a thiamine deficiency.
Over time, thiamine deficiency can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome or wet brain, which is made up of two different stages of symptoms: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis. Each stage is marked by different physical and psychological manifestations, but all symptoms could easily be mistaken for the effects of alcohol withdrawal or intoxication. This is why it is key to pay close attention to any signs that could indicate a person may be struggling with this serious health condition.
Wet Brain Symptoms
Symptoms of wet brain can be divided by the stages. In the earlier stage, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, there may be symptoms such as:
- Vision issues (involuntary eye movements)
- Low body temperature
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Feeling off balance
- Impaired reflexes
In the next stage of wet brain, called Korsakoff syndrome, memory issues begin to appear as the damage affects the cerebellum and nerve cells with symptoms such as:
- Loss of memory (Amnesia)
- Trouble learning and retaining new information
- Personality changes
Treating Wet Brain
If wet brain is diagnosed and treated early, the damage to the brain can potentially be repaired. However, if it is left untreated, the brain damage could be permanent. Treating acute symptoms of wet brain involves replenishing thiamine in the body, improving nutrition, and proper hydration. This can help reduce or stop the symptoms of wet brain, but if the alcohol abuse continues, the treatment cannot be effective in the long-term.
To truly treat wet brain caused by alcoholism, a person needs treatment for addiction to address the substance use problems and any underlying conditions that may be contributing to the substance abuse. Without treating the alcoholism that may be responsible for the thiamine deficiency and wet brain, the condition could return. Finding an individualized treatment program with clinicians and therapists who can help to uncover the root causes of the addiction is key to treating the substance use and accompanying health complications.
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- Alcohol’s Damaging Effect on the Brain – Alcohol Research & Health, “Alcoholic Brain Damage” (Vol. 27, No. 2, 2003); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, October 2004, Num. 63
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page – The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
- “11 Signs and Symptoms of Thiamine (Vitamin B1) Deficiency” – Berkheiser, Kaitlyn; HealthLine, 18 May, 2018