I’m sure that many people know firsthand or have witnessed the effects of alcohol consumption.  What a lot of us don’t realize, and often can’t see, is how alcohol can affect the body’s nervous system—temporarily and permanently.

The Nervous System

First, let’s start with some basic knowledge of the nervous system:

  • The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord, which are protected by the skull and the spine.
  • The peripheral nervous system includes the nerves that are networked throughout the body in the neck, arms, buttocks, legs and skeletal muscles.
  • The autonomic nervous system works automatically without conscious effort.  These nerves are what regulate the natural body processes such as blood pressure and the breathing tempo. This part of the nervous system is the forcible contact of the blood vessels, internal organs, pupils, heart, sweat, saliva, and digestive glands.  Nerve damage from alcohol can cause nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and an abnormal intolerance to heat.
  • The motor nerves originate in the spinal column and end at the muscles that they control. Somatic motor nerves control skeletal muscles and movement. Special visceral motor nerves control muscles in the face and neck. General visceral motor nerves control smooth muscles, such as the heart.  Nerve damage from alcohol can cause muscle spasms and cramps, muscle weakness, and a loss of muscle function.
  • The sensory nerves are the little messengers that carry signals from the organs to the spinal cord and brain.  Nerve damage from alcohol can cause numbness, tingling, and pins and needles sensations.

The path of alcohol in the body is essential to understanding its effect on the nervous system as well.  It enters through the mouth and proceeds to the stomach, through which some of it can get into the bloodstream.  Most of the alcohol goes on into the small intestine.  Once the alcohol enters here, it’s capable of entering any part of the nervous system.

Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Not only can alcohol abuse cause serious problems over a period of time in the nervous system, such as memory loss, altered speech, dulled hearing, and impaired vision, but it also impacts brain and liver tissues, destroys brain cells, and depresses the nervous system in general. Many causes of liver cancers are alcohol abuse.

The effects of alcohol on the nervous system are numerous, but the main ones can be divided into three categories: acute intoxication, chronic usage, and withdrawal.

Alcohol also acts as a depressant on the brain and other nerve tissue, which means that it slows down the functioning of nerve cells. Despite this, many people think that alcohol is an anti-depressant because it has a numbing effect on the brain and is used as a “pick-me-up” experience because, initially, when people begin to drink, it causes them to become more animated and less reserved. But the opposite occurs as they continue to drink, and more alcohol enters their brain and nervous system.

The major nervous system is greatly affected by alcohol consumption and has been known to decrease control, both in gross and fine motor movements. Individuals have been known to lean on something while trying to walk, have labored breathing, and their handwriting is completely unintelligible. They also experience changes in their brain, such as increased confusion, inability to process logic, and personality changes. Most intoxicated individuals are either extremely irritable or very maudlin, with many emotional tears.  Seizures are also possible.

Potential long-term consequences of the condition include chronic pain and moderate to severe physical disabilities. Older adults are prone to the natural reduction of postural reflexes and the nerve cell degeneration that occurs with advanced age. Therefore, they may be more at risk for clinical problems associated with neuropathy, such as frequent falls and loss of balance.

In a study including more than two thousand alcohol users who have attempted to stop using it or have reported that they want to stop:

  • 1 in 10 reported nerve damage
  • 1 in 11 reported seizures
  • 1 in 7 reported a weakened immune system

The only way to avoid the negative effects of alcohol on the nervous system is to stay sober.

Do I Have a Drinking Problem?

If you’re concerned about alcohol’s effects on the nervous system – for either yourself or a loved one – it may be time to take the next step and determine if you or your loved one has a problem.

Take one of our free and confidential assessments:

If it’s time to seek help, contact us today to learn about our treatment approach and facilities. We have a long history of providing successful substance abuse treatment at our Palmer Lake, Colorado facilities.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more

Mukherjee, Sukhes. “Alcoholism and its effects on the central nervous system.” Current neurovascular research, 2013. Accessed July 23, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.