Many people know that alcohol, when overused, can create serious side effects for the user as well as those close to them—and sometimes even those who don’t know the user at all. We all know about alcohol poisoning, alcoholism, and the problems that can result from drunk driving and other behaviors commonly associated with being under the influence.
But have you ever heard about the serious health problems alcohol abuse can cause for your body and your brain? Did you know there are psychological syndromes associated with alcohol abuse that can be irreversible and even life-threatening? Wet brain is one of these.
What Is Wet Brain?
Wet brain is a layman’s term for a brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it is also sometimes called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome, as it is technically two separate issues that usually occur together. Some scientists also believe, however, that it is two parts of the same condition with Wernicke’s encephalopathy being the acute phase and Korsakoff’s syndrome being the chronic stage.
Other names for the condition—or parts of it—include:
- Alcohol dementia
- Korsakoff’s psychosis
- Alcoholic encephalopathy
- Wernicke’s dementia
- Wernicke’s disease
The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually occur first, causing brain damage to the hypothalamus and thalamus. Afterward, the symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome will begin to occur, which are what cause the permanent brain damage in the afflicted individual, affecting the nerve and supporting cells in the brain.
Wet brain is caused by a lack of vitamin B1, or thiamine, being routed to the brain, which can lead to serious side effects. You may not be getting enough thiamine in your diet, which can lead to wet brain, or you may be participating in activities that cause you to not absorb vitamin B1 properly. But more on that later.
Signs and Symptoms of Wet Brain
As Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually occurs first, you will likely notice these symptoms first as well. As stated by the National Library of Medicine, they include
- Muscle coordination problems
- Leg tremors
- Vision problems
- Low blood pressure
- Nystagmus, or the rapid back-and-forth movement of the eyes
- Double vision
- Drooping of the eyelid
Normal mental activity can become harder and harder for the individual to maintain as Wernicke’s progresses. It can potentially become so severe, in fact, that it progresses into coma-like states and even death. This is one reason why the early signs of this disorder should not be ignored.
Korsakoff’s syndrome, which usually begins to appear after the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are well established, include
- Confabulation or fabricating stories that didn’t happen
- Hallucinations (usually auditory or visual)
- Memory loss (mild to severe)
- Amnesia and problems forming new memories
- Vision problems
Like with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Korsakoff’s syndrome can eventually lead to coma and death. As a joint problem, both the syndromes that make up wet brain are extremely severe and should be dealt with as soon as possible in order for the individual to be able to avoid further, serious effects.
Who Can Get Wet Brain?
Wet brain is the direct result of a lack of thiamine in the body, which makes it hard for the brain to process sugar into the energy it requires to function properly (Very Well Health). People can get wet brain for a number of reasons, either because they are suffering from cancer, a chronic infection or infections, or AIDS. People who don’t eat enough, are on extreme and dangerous diets, and/or who have eating disorders like anorexia can also become thiamine deficient and develop wet brain.
However, the most common reason this issue develops is as a result of alcohol abuse. This is why the disorder is sometimes called alcoholic encephalopathy or alcoholic dementia.
Wet Brain in Alcoholics
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the liver requires the use of so many nutrients to process the alcohol regular drinkers consume that, eventually, it starts to call on the nutrients meant for other areas of the body to get what it needs. This is what leads to a vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency that causes this brain disorder in most people who have it.
Unfortunately, around 80 or 90 percent of the alcoholics who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy develop Korsakoff’s syndrome afterward, leading to serious memory loss, social withdrawal, confusion, moodiness, and potentially even outbursts of aggression and anger. As such, it is important to be able to cope with strange behaviors your loved one may now exhibit as a result of the disorder.
Better Health Channel recommends these strategies for dealing with someone who is suffering from wet brain or any kind of alcohol-related brain impairment syndrome:
- Speaking in soothing tones
- Setting and repeating boundaries or rules to the individual when necessary
- Reassuring the individual that you support them and care about them
- Listening to the individual, as they will want to feel heard and understood
- Avoiding arguing or provoking the individual when they forget something
- Trying not to take their behavior or lack of memory personally
Wet brain can be extremely difficult to deal with as a family member or loved one of the afflicted individuals, but it is even worse if the problem is affecting you. It can be scary and frustrating, so try to have as much patience with your loved one as you can.
Treating Wet Brain
Treatment is mostly focused on controlling symptoms that already exist and preventing them from worsening over time. Unfortunately, it is not likely that symptoms that have already begun to form could be reversed. Some individuals need to stay in a hospital where they can receive vitamin B1 injections. This will often help them become less delirious and confused, as well as minimize vision problems and muscle coordination problems, but it will not reverse the issue of memory loss.
One of the most dangerous complications associated with this disorder, however, is alcohol withdrawal. When the individual stops drinking, they will be likely to go through withdrawal symptoms and will need professional treatment. A detox program like ours may be the best option for someone going through this.