Overconsumption of alcohol is among the leading activities that can be harmful to one’s health. This isn’t referring to crippling headaches or bouts of nausea after a night of staunch drinking, either. While these one-off instances can be hazardous, especially over prolonged periods of time, experts contend that the true dangers inherent to alcohol consumption are due to binge drinking in excess. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 25.8% of people ages 18 and older reported that they engaged in binge drinking over the past month. And in Colorado, where we’re located, had an 18.1% prevalence of binge drinking among adults in 2015, according to the CDC.
For one, there are endless potential disasters attributed to poor decision-making while inebriated. Take driving under the influence as a prime example. If this were not enough, any number of ailments can be the results of alcohol overuse, dependence, and substance disorders. These detriments include life-threatening outcomes as well, including heart disease, alcohol poisoning, stroke, liver disorders, and even cancer.
There is another condition that can arise from long-term alcohol usage or alcohol use disorder: Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). While few can pronounce its name, the syndrome impacts millions of individuals across the United States and the world as a whole. This malady is classified by physicians as a form of brain damage found almost exclusively in those suffering from alcoholism. The Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can occur in those who do not consume alcohol, though it is much less common.
WKS goes by another, more readily used moniker: wet brain. Despite what the name may imply, the brain is not actually immersed in alcohol. However, the ramifications of developing this disease can absolutely leave those affected and their loved ones feeling submerged.
Though this is not the medically accepted terminology, the name wet brain does create a sort of visceral image reminiscent of the late 1980s “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign. Developing the syndrome requires a level of constant drinking that can only truly come from rampant alcohol use. The terms “sopping” or “drenched” are not used, and perhaps intentionally so. The system is neither; it is in a state of constant wetness or, the opposite, never being dry.
Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are two different conditions that often occur together as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. They’re caused by a lack of vitamin B1, which is a common occurrence in those with an alcohol use disorder. Wet brain is a degenerative brain disorder with cognitive and physiological effects that advance at a rapid pace until the damage becomes permanent.
Wernicke encephalopathy is the first of these conditions. During Wernicke encephalopathy, a patient’s brain will bleed, and they will exhibit confusion, erratic eye twitching, and uncontrollable muscle movements, among other symptoms. Because it is considered the acute stage of WKS, these symptoms can usually be controlled if caught early enough.
The irreversible harm comes when Wernicke’s encephalopathy progresses into Korsakoff psychosis. Upward of 80–90 percent of people make this disastrous transition. This is mostly because Wernicke encephalopathy is simply too difficult to diagnose — no thanks to its aforementioned symptoms being mistaken for mere intoxication. Once someone enters Korsakoff psychosis, the chronic phase of the condition, there is a high likelihood of perpetual brain damage and death. People who find themselves at this stage have trouble remembering, complications with coordination, hallucinations, and more.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by deficient amounts of vitamin thiamine (B1) in the central nervous system. Alcohol is the culprit.
Thiamine does not occur in the human body, thus, everyone must acquire it through our diets. If one’s diet is less than optimal — as is often the case for those who use alcohol frequently — a thiamine deficiency may result. Additionally, alcohol molecules themselves inhibit the body’s mechanisms of thiamine absorption. After enough time, insufficient thiamine totals will begin to hurt the brain. The Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the unintended consequence.
Wet brain is undoubtedly a serious condition. It is also one that Coloradans, in particular, should be concerned about. The state of Colorado has one of the highest death rates attributed to alcohol across the United States, and around 18 percent of the population engages in heavy drinking. This accounts for approximately 1 in 5 Colorado residents. All in all, it stands as a stark reminder that the habits leading to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome are close to home.
Each of the two syndromes comprising WKS has telltale symptoms.
Again, it is easy to see why physicians may incorrectly take such symptoms for drunkenness. Only 10 percent of patients display the top three symptoms, too.
As unfortunate as it may sound, there is no coming back from Korsakoff syndrome, at least in the ways that count the most. Memories of experiences, relationships, and faces can be utterly destroyed — not to mention the chance to make new ones. This is the most a person diagnosed with this stage can hope for. The alternative is death.
Those who do not seek treatment have a drastically lowered life expectancy, and will likely succumb to this debilitating disorder. Nevertheless, there is hope for those who receive help in a timely fashion, especially in the onset of the Wernicke encephalopathy phase. WKS can be successfully managed with drastic lifestyle changes including detoxification, taking daily thiamine supplements, and beginning a nutritious dietary regimen. The path forward will not be easy for those who are at this trying crossroads, but meaningful recovery is possible.
If you or a loved one is drinking heavily over long periods, your risk of developing WKS is higher than normal. WKS is preventable, and the best way to prevent it is to stop drinking alcohol.
If you need help drinking less or quitting entirely, contact us today. We have a proven track record of caring, successful treatment at our Palmer Lake, Colorado facilities as well as across a network of facilities across the United States.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.