What is Wet Brain Syndrome?
Most people are aware that the body – especially the liver – can have a difficult time processing large amounts of alcohol. However, few realize that the same is true for the brain. Wet brain syndrome is a form of dementia that is caused by prolonged abuse of ETOH (ethyl alcohol/ethanol) or alcoholic behaviors. The official term for this disease is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).
Wet brain is actually a combination of two conditions: Wernicke’s Encephalopathy & Korsakoff’s Psychosis. Wernicke’s Encephalopathy describes damage to the brain, which can often include inflammation & bleeding.
The final encephalopathy stage of WKS is rapid-onset and irreversible unless large doses of thiamine (usually via IV) are administered in a short period.
The Korsakoff’s psychosis stage of WKS is seen as a residual condition that results when brain damage goes untreated. It is possible for non-alcoholics to develop the thiamine deficiency that causes WKS. Long-term alcohol abuse, however, is the most common way this condition begins.
The Importance of Thiamine
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is caused by a lack of thiamine (also known as vitamin B1), which the brain needs to function. Thiamine keeps the “message-senders” of the brain operating properly. The body does not naturally produce thiamine, so humans have to get it through the food they consume.
Thus, WKS is not caused by ethyl alcohol itself. Instead, a thiamine deficiency develops as a byproduct of ETOH abuse.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA) writes that up to 80% of people with severe alcohol use disorder have a thiamine deficiency.
Alcohol abuse contributes to thiamine deficiency in two ways:
- It interferes with B1 absorption, preventing the liver’s capacity to store the vitamin
- It often promotes habits that lead to malnutrition, where someone does not consume enough thiamine-rich foods.
Someone who is over-consuming alcohol but continues to eat solid foods often has a poor diet that does not include other necessary vitamins & minerals that contribute to thiamine absorption. Even while eating thiamine-rich foods (pork, beef, fortified cereals, asparagus, eggs, potatoes, etc.), excessive alcohol can disrupt the body’s ability to process these nutrients.
A thiamine-rich diet should not be considered a “cure” for wet brain unless it is also accompanied if the alcohol abuse is not reduced or completely stopped.
A common byproduct of severe ETOH abuse cases is when people live on a liquid-only diet. This liquid is mostly, if not exclusively alcohol, meaning no thiamine is entering the system at all.
Thiamine Deficiency Side Effects
Chronic alcohol abuse damages the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the region in the brain responsible for coordination & movement.
Consequently, the most common symptoms for Wernicke’s Encephalopathy–the first stage of wet brain–include:
- Poor reflexes
- Uncontrollable and abnormal eye movements
- Poor muscle coordination or loss of balance
- Blurred vision or drooping eyelids
- Increased heart rate
Korsakoff psychosis essentially comprises the long-term effects of alcohol abuse. If Wernicke’s symptoms go unaddressed, this stage of repercussions become increasingly permanent and more deadly over time. Severe cases may even require institutionalization, resulting in damage to quality of life in addition to long-term mental health effects:
- Anger and frustration
- Symptoms of dementia
- Inability to form new memories or to learn new things
- Disorientation, and cognitive processing issues
- Diminished executive function or problem-solving skills
Wet Brain FAQs
How do I know if someone is suffering from wet brain?
WKS can be difficult to detect in oneself due to the fact that there may already be feelings of shame or denial about habitual alcohol consumption. The memory loss that accompanies wet brain also compounds the inability for someone to objectively self-assess.
In order to be diagnosed with WKS, a person must be sober and still demonstrate symptoms. Active intoxication, withdrawal &/or medical complications associated with alcohol use can mimic symptoms of wet brain. Seek professional guidance if a loved one is demonstrating any of the following in the absence of drinking:
- Weakness and muscle atrophy
- Poor coordination, difficulty walking, and lack of balance
- Lowered body temperature
- Problems with mental processing
- Double vision
- Personality changes and inappropriate or uncharacteristic behaviors
What are the final stages of wet brain?
Unfortunately, alcoholics who are actively drinking rarely seek treatment for wet brain. The NIAA estimates that 80-90% of those with Wernicke encephalopathy progress to the Karsakoff stage of wet brain. Left untreated, wet brain can lead to irreversible confusion, loss of muscle coordination, and even personality modification.
The final stages of wet brain closely resemble dementia. People in the Karsakoff stage may exhibit unprovoked frustration, anger, or irritability or put up resistance to mundane tasks. Inventing stories or things that didn’t happen in order to cope with memory loss or gaps is another tell tale sign of advanced wet brain.
I’m feeling defeated by how hard it is to break the habit. What can I do?
It is possible to reverse the symptoms of wet brain when caught early.
You’ve probably heard the axiom, “prevention is better than a cure.” This is especially true in the development of WKS in the brain. The sooner you seek the resources & support found in a comprehensive professional alcohol counseling program, the better. Finding a compassionate recovery program can be the first big step to overcoming substance misuse for good.