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What does drinking do to the nervous system?

Written by Brandon Okey. Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy.

Alcohol is toxic to your brain and nerves. Even short-term alcohol abuse can damage neural communication, cognition, and motor control, while chronic drinking often irreversibly destroys your neurons.

We’ll show you the scientific evidence for alcohol being something you may want to steer clear of.

Table of Contents

If you’d like to break free from booze, contact Ardu Recovery Center and we’ll help you get through those first crucial steps of recovery. Every beginning is hard. Seek help before alcohol completely ruins your health.

This is a place to truly reset your life onto the right path. I learned such great healthy habits to live by. The staff are AMAZING so caring and friendly. I consider everyone I met at Ardu family. I truly hope the person looking for an amazing place to begin their new journey starts here.

Ashlee Partridge


What does the nervous system do?

The nervous system is your body’s command center. It’s made up of a complex interconnecting web of specialized tissues, microscopic cells, and chemical messengers that work together to receive input, analyze information, make decisions, and then activate responses. This intricate network coordinates the transmission of lightning-fast electrical signals from the brain and spinal cord to muscles and glands all over the body with unbelievable precision—everything from digestion and respiration to complex cognitions and movements.

Take a look at only some of the responsibilities your nervous system has:

  • Allows us to feel sensations.
  • Enables movement.
  • Controls reflexes and quick actions.
  • Regulates involuntary bodily functions.
  • Supports cognition and information processing.
  • Manages emotions.
  • Manages pain response.
  • Facilitates communication.
  • Influences behavior.
  • Monitors the internal environment.
  • Controls wake-sleep cycles.

Your nervous system has two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Let’s take a peek at each.

The central nervous system

The central nervous system (CNS) acts as the control center of your entire nervous system. It receives sensory input from the body and external environment, analyzes and integrates this information, determines appropriate responses, and then sends output signals to initiate bodily actions.

The CNS consists of two main components: the brain and the spinal cord.

  • The brain is made up of billions of interconnected neurons. It interprets sensory input, initiates movement, forms thoughts and memories, determines behavior, and regulates bodily processes both consciously and unconsciously. 
  • The spinal cord is the thick column of neural tissue enclosed in the vertebral column. It continues down from the brain stem, protected by the bones of the spine. The spinal cord is the main transmission route for signals going to and from the brain to the rest of the body. Efferent nerve fibers carry motor signals from the brain down the spinal cord to initiate muscle contractions, while afferent fibers transmit incoming sensory signals upward to the brain to be processed.

Together, the exceptionally intricate brain and the neural highways of the spinal cord form the central command network responsible for controlling and coordinating all of your body’s functions, voluntary and involuntary. 

In order to perform the vital controlling and coordinating tasks, your central nervous system relies on the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The peripheral nervous system

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) forms the intricate control and communication networks that connect the central nervous system to all other regions of the body. It extends and reaches every tissue, organ, limb, gland, and muscle. Its key purpose is to rapidly carry signals between the body and the central processing centers.

The PNS has two major divisions: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. 

  • The somatic system relays sensory information about external stimuli detected by sensory receptors in tissues (e.g., skin), transmitting the signals to the CNS to perceive touch, temperature, pain, position, etc. It also sends motor commands from the CNS to initiate voluntary muscle contractions and body movements.
  • The autonomic nervous system regulates unconscious, automatic functions: heart rate, breathing, digestion, and metabolism. The autonomic system has two further subdivisions, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.
    • The sympathetic nervous system activates “fight-or-flight” response mechanisms that accelerate heart rate, constrict blood vessels, inhibit digestion, dilate pupils, and release adrenaline.
    • The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates “rest-and-digest” responses that slow heart rate, increase digestion and nutrient absorption, relax muscles, and contract pupils to calmly restore homeostasis following periods of exertion.

Seamless communication between the central and peripheral nervous systems is what makes the lightning-fast, precise control of vital bodily functions possible. And a healthy nervous system is essential. Any kind of damage or dysfunction can lead to problems with movement, cognition, mood, behavior, bodily regulation, and really every aspect of your health.

If you want round-the-clock communication in your nerves, avoid alcohol. Alcohol is bad for your health and toxic to your nerves, inflicting damage across both the central and peripheral nervous systems.

What are the signs of neurological damage from alcohol?

Long-term alcohol abuse causes your nervous system networks to slowly erode. Here are some neurological and cognitive signs alcohol is eating away at your nervous system: 

  1. Memory problems (e.g., difficulty recalling events or learning new information).
  2. Poor coordination, balance, and motor control.
  3. Declines in reasoning, judgment, and problem-solving.
  4. Changes in personality and behavior.
  5. Slowed cognition and inability to focus or pay attention.
  6. Numbness, burning, or tingling sensations in the limbs.
  7. Sharp nerve pain, spasms, or loss of reflexes.
  8. Muscle weakness, cramps, or twitching.
  9. Hypersensitivity to touch or changes in temperature.
  10. Loss of bowel or bladder function.

Some damaging effects of booze are reversible. If you catch any of these neurological flags early, you may get a chance of reversing the damage. Your brain is an amazing machine capable of plasticity and regeneration. When you give up the bottle, your brain can heal and new neurons are able to forge new connections over time. 

The key is to quit drinking while you’re ahead. Our alcohol rehab center is here to help you every step of the way through comprehensive treatment and support.

How does alcohol affect the CNS?

The negative effects of booze are too many to count. When it comes to inflicting neurological damage, both acute intoxication and chronic alcoholism can promote widespread neural damage and cell death. 

It doesn’t matter how much you drink; alcohol triggers degeneration across your central nervous system.

Here’s why heavy drinking is bad for your central nervous system:

  1. Alcohol causes widespread inflammation in the brain.
  2. It causes cerebral atrophy. 
  3. It impairs synaptic plasticity.
  4. It disrupts neurotransmitters.
  5. It increases the risk of neurological disorders.
  6. It impairs motor skills and coordination. 
  7. It damages the hippocampus. 
  8. It alters the brain’s blood flow.
  9. It causes vitamin B deficiency (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome).

One: excessive drinking causes neuroinflammation

Booze sparks neuroinflammation in so many ways. Ethanol and its metabolites directly trigger oxidative stress and cell death signaling cascades among neurons, enabling inflammation to rage on. Researchers show that “chronic alcohol consumption induced microglia activation and peripheral macrophage infiltration in the CNS, particularly in the hippocampus.” This nonstop alcohol-fueled neural assault impairs mood, memory, and clear thinking. 

A 2022 study found that alcohol also triggers neuroinflammation by tampering with the anti-inflammatory responses of your exogenous and endogenous cannabinoid signaling in the endocannabinoid system. 

If left unchecked, this self-perpetuating cycle of neural inflammation and damage can culminate in neurodegenerative outcomes.

Two: alcohol can shrink brain volume

Did you know your brain can actually shrink in size due to alcohol? Your brain naturally loses volume as you get older, but binge drinking can accelerate this process.

Repetitive spikes and crashes in alcohol levels bombard your neurons and rapidly exhaust your cells in planning, problem-solving, and memory areas. The brain struggles as it tries to achieve homeostasis after each bender. Over months, the perpetual metabolic stress causes neural circuits to atrophy: neurons die, connections unlink, and tissue scaffolds wither. 

According to research, “heavy drinkers had significantly shrunken frontal lobes compared with abstainers.” A 2022 study found that “alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional gray matter volumes, and white matter microstructure.” Atrophied prefrontal cortexes and withered hippocampi in chronic drinkers are linked to weaker organizational skills and memory.

Three: chronic alcohol abuse impairs neural plasticity

Your brain constantly rewires circuits to adapt to new learning. This is called plasticity and it’s crucial for acquiring new skills and encoding memories. Alcohol disrupts your brain’s remodeling by flooding hippocampal synapses and hampering plasticity mechanisms vital for memory formation. When you drink, your brain diverts energy to deal with alcohol’s toxins rather than nurture new connections. 

Plastic mechanisms are particularly active in the hippocampus, an inner brain region vital for learning. Leuner and Gould show that the hippocampus is the most vulnerable to ethanol flooding nerve synapses, while Bell, et. al. reveal that excessive activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate “alters synaptic plasticity, learning, memory, and stimulus conditioning associated with the development of alcohol and substance use disorders.”

Four: alcohol use disrupts chemical signaling

Speaking of neurotransmitters, alcohol hijacks the chemical messengers that orchestrate your every thought, feeling, and action. It disrupts their production over time, paving the way for addictive behaviors and alcoholism—numbing some, over-exciting others, and triggering vicious cycles of deficiency and cell damage. 

Here’s the lowdown on alcohol’s terrible effects on neurotransmitters:

  • Excessive glutamatergic stimulation during alcohol withdrawal can induce toxicity and excitotoxic damage to neurons.
  • Alcohol enhances GABAergic relaxing and sedative effects initially, but chronic drinking reduces GABA function, depleting crucial signaling mechanisms in the CNS.
  • Short-term alcohol boosts dopamine levels, overstimulating your brain’s pleasure center. Chronic booze dysregulates dopamine, erodes motivation, and increases the risk of addiction.
  • Alcohol consumption interferes with serotonin activity associated with improving mood and feelings of well-being. That’s why, when you’re addicted to alcohol, your mental health suffers

Five: heavy drinking promotes neurological disorders

Years of heavy alcohol abuse can culminate in an array of insidious brain disorders, ranging from strokes to permanent memory loss, by starving, inflaming, and eroding neural structures. Ethanol prunes neuron connections over time, directly poisoning cells, depleting regenerative nutrient reservoirs, and causing the protective myelin sheaths around your neurons to wither. 

A 2020 study hints at some sinister connections between heavy drinking and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Alcohol triggers inflammatory and cell-killing cascades in the brain that also destroy proper nerve function in these conditions. 

Crews reveals that long-term alcohol consumption can inflict pervasive damage across delicate neural structures controlling personality, judgment, movements, and vital processes. 

Six: alcohol damages movement and coordination 

Alcohol’s sneaky effects on movement and coordination stem from the widespread damage to parts of your brain that keep muscles running smoothly. Your balance, coordination, and motor skills are controlled by the cerebellum. Years down the road, brain-to-body messages strain through spotty wiring unable to orchestrate fluid movement or balance. 

Excessive alcohol exposure results in cerebellar ataxia and alterations in hand movements, speed when striking a target, impaired postural stability and balance, and slower attenuated foot taping. (Luo)

Your neurons can’t seamlessly do their job, causing signals to misfire between your brain and your muscles. Hence the clumsiness, a lack of coordination, and even slurred speech.

Seven: heavy alcohol use harms the memory center

Chronic alcohol misuse has negative effects on your memory. As the hippocampus and frontal lobes get bogged down by alcohol, concentration and memory start to stutter. The hippocampus is responsible for learning new information and forming memories. Damage to the hippocampus causes severe short- and long-term memory impairments. 

Individuals with heavier drinking patterns had a larger rate hippo-parahippocampal volume decline. This higher rate of GMV decline in the hippocampus was associated with poorer memory, and with greater number of memory blackouts. (Meda, et. al.)

People with alcohol-damaged hippocampus may frequently repeat themselves, forget appointments or obligations, and struggle with learning. 

Eight: heavy alcohol consumption alters blood flow in the brain

For your entire CNS to work properly, you need great blood circulation. The bad news is, alcohol restricts blood flow to the brain, reducing oxygen and nutrients nerves desperately need. Reduced blood flow to the brain and the spinal cord can contribute to tissue damage and dysfunction.

Pervin and Stephen found that alcohol intoxication causes changes in the configuration of endothelial cells in the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Alcohol disrupts the critical filtering mechanism that controls transport between blood and brain fluid. Over the years, nerves slowly starve and accumulate toxic byproducts without enough blood-borne cleaning crews on site. 

Read more about the devastating effects of alcohol on your cardiovascular system.

Nine: large amounts of alcohol lead to vitamin B deficiency

Your nerves need vitamin B, or thiamine, to keep growing and functioning. It also plays a key role in producing energy within cells and conducting signals along nerve fibers. Heavy drinking leaches vitamin B from your body. 

Deficient nerves essentially “short circuit” during transmission as myelin sheaths deteriorate and circulation slows. You may experience weakness, numbness, and excruciating leg pain. Without vitamin B reserves, deadly Wernicke’s encephalopathy may eventually set in, inflicting permanent psychiatric and memory disorders. 

Langlais believes that thiamine deficiency might be “one factor contributing to the cognitive deficits and brain pathology characteristic of [Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome].”

If you think your central nervous system shows any signs of alcohol-induced damage, now is a good time for a change. Our inpatient program helps you overcome addiction and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Here at Ardu, you will learn healthy coping strategies to deal with alcohol cravings. After completing the inpatient portion, you can continue on the road to recovery with our intensive outpatient program.

Reach out and change your life for the better.

I hold the experience I had at Ardu very close to my heart and stringing some words together won’t ever be able to adequately describe what it did for my life. Which is save it. Ultimately, I know it was me who made the decision to change, but without the guiding hand, compassion, challenges, and honest work from the therapist and staff, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Lani Lye


What does alcohol do to the PNS?

The CNS may be the “brains” of your entire nervous system, but the sprawling peripheral infrastructure enables flawless coordination across the body. The PNS proves just as vulnerable to alcohol’s deleterious effects.

Here are the issues your peripheral nervous system may face if you suffer from alcohol use disorder:

  1. Peripheral neuropathy.
  2. Altered or abnormal sensations.
  3. Muscle weakness and atrophy.
  4. Autonomic dysfunction. 
  5. Disturbed pain perception. 

This seems like a whole lot of bad news for your peripheral nervous systems. Let’s see why.

One: alcohol causes peripheral neuropathy

Alcohol inflicts sneaky harm along intricate peripheral nerve fibers. As ethanol exposure breaks down myelin insulation around your nerves’ conductive arms, it opens the floodgates to all kinds of disruptive molecular invaders.

You often first notice numb, tingly extremities or motor coordination going awry as the toxicity kills nerve fibers. Without myelin or neuron maintenance, it’s just a matter of when the accumulated nerve injury impacts your daily life.

There may be other mechanisms for alcoholic neuropathy. Chopra and Tiwari propose the “activation of spinal cord microglia after chronic consumption of alcohol, activation of mGlu5 receptors in the spinal cord, oxidative stress leading to free radical damage to nerves, release of pro-inflammatory cytokines coupled with activation of protein kinase C,” and others.

Two: drinking leads to disrupted sensory perception

You probably already knew this, but too many alcoholic beverages muddle the senses. When you drink too much, alcohol blocks your peripheral nerve capacity to transmit accurate touch, temperature, vibration, and position info to the brain. Myelin sheaths decay, causing nerve fibers that rely on sensory details to lose structural integrity. 

In other words, booze deadens the nerves that carry physical sensation signals to the brain so you feel less and process the stimuli around you inaccurately. This is far from a good thing, as disrupted sensory perception can impair your coordination and function over time.

Three: chronic alcohol abuse triggers muscle weakness and atrophy

Booze doesn’t just dull the nerves tuning muscle movement—it directly strikes the fibers responsible for strength and capability. Motor neurons coordinate electrical bursts in tissue telling muscles to flex and relax across intricate chains with flawless timing. Ethanol erodes the sheathing insulation vital for speedy signal conduction to orchestrate smooth, balanced motion.

Alcoholics are at an increased risk of several types of injuries, including those resulting from nerve damage to the limbs (i.e., peripheral neuropathies), falls caused by incoordination and imbalance, motor accidents, or muscle atrophy. (Simon, et. al.)

Exercise may help, but you actually need to get off the booze if you want to keep your mobility and prevent further nerve and muscle degradation.

Four: heavy consumption impairs autonomic regulation

Drinking sabotages the intricate feedback loops that maintain a healthy balance of critical bodily functions such as digestion, respiration, heart rate, and metabolism. Peripheral nerves of the autonomic system self-regulate organ performance to meet situational demands. However, alcohol depletes neurotransmitters essential for homeostasis between the energizing sympathetic nerves and calming parasympathetic branches. 

Symptoms such as acid reflux, irregular bowel movements, arrhythmias, and panic attacks start to show. With impaired interplay, your gastrointestinal tract may continue churning when it should rest, the heart races unrestrained, and energy storage misaligns with your needs. 

Five: alcohol may distort pain sensitivity 

Alcohol hijacks the mechanisms regulating appropriate alarm responses across both the central and peripheral gearwork coordinating your nociceptive experiences.

Alcohol may block some of the nerves that make you feel pain momentarily, numbing any injuries and making you less sensitive to discomfort when drunk. However, years of heavy drinking could actually destroy your pain-sensitive nerve fibers. Formerly minor or normal sensations get registered as severe, unpleasant pain signals instead, which is a clear sign your entire nervous system is now wired overly sensitive. 

It’s never too late to make positive changes in your life. Take the first crucial step towards sobriety and health and seek help. 

Our Utah rehab center will help you break the cycle of alcohol dependence. At Ardu Recovery Center, we provide comprehensive treatment for addiction to alcohol, including medically monitored alcohol detox, counseling, group support, and aftercare planning. 

Don’t be ashamed to ask for help

Alcohol-related damage to your nervous system can be difficult to recover from. The sooner you start, the more chances of recovery and a healthy, happy life you’ll have. Our treatment center helps people heal their brains as they embark on sobriety.

We take a multifaceted approach to nursing your neural pathways back to health. This involves therapy to enhance neuroplasticity—both group sessions to empower the healing social brain and individual psychotherapy to nurture areas like the prefrontal cortex.

Some of our patients prefer our holistic treatment methods. We help them delve into the underlying factors that contribute to their alcohol addiction. Our holistic detox relies on nutrition therapy, supplements, acupuncture, exercise therapy, and other non-pharmacological therapies to aid your body’s natural detoxification. 

You don’t have to face this alone. We are here to support you every step of the way. If you’re ready to take the first step toward a healthier, alcohol-free life, reach out to us today

Brandon Okey

Brandon Okey is the co-founder of Ardu Recovery Center and is dedicated to empowering people on their journey to sobriety.

Alcohol FAQ

What diseases can alcohol cause?

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a wide range of diseases, including liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers. It can also contribute to neurological disorders such as alcoholic neuropathy and alcoholic myopathy. 

Alcohol abuse also weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Long-term alcohol misuse is a major risk factor for chronic diseases (e.g. high blood pressure, anxiety, allergies) that can have serious health implications.

What is alcoholic brain damage called?

Alcoholic brain damage is commonly referred to as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD). This umbrella term encompasses a range of conditions, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, alcoholic cerebellar degeneration, and alcoholic encephalopathy. These conditions result from the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain, leading to cognitive impairment, memory loss, and difficulties with motor skills.

What is the long-term effect of alcohol on the nervous system?

Long-term alcohol use can have detrimental effects on the nervous system. Chronic alcohol abuse may lead to neurodegeneration, affecting cognitive function, memory, and coordination. Conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, where nerves in the extremities are damaged, and alcoholic polyneuropathy can result from prolonged alcohol misuse. These effects underscore the importance of moderation to preserve proper nervous system function.

Does alcohol calm the nervous system?

While alcohol may initially produce a calming effect, it is a central nervous system depressant that can impair normal brain function and coordination. It might provide a temporary sense of relaxation, but excessive alcohol intake can lead to long-term negative consequences, including addiction, mental health issues, and disruptions in sleep patterns. It’s a bad idea to rely on alcohol to calm the nervous system, as this can contribute to a cycle of dependence and exacerbate stress and anxiety over time.

How does alcohol affect mental health?

Excessive consumption is linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and other psychiatric conditions. Alcohol alters neurotransmitter levels in the brain, affecting mood regulation. Additionally, alcohol abuse can contribute to impulsive behavior and exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues. 

How does alcohol affect the digestive system?

Alcohol can have profound effects on the digestive system. It irritates the gastrointestinal tract, leading to inflammation and an increased risk of conditions like gastritis and pancreatitis. Chronic alcohol use is a major contributor to liver disease, affecting the organ’s ability to process nutrients and toxins. Alcohol also interferes with nutrient absorption in the intestines, potentially causing deficiencies. Overall, moderation is key to preventing these negative impacts on the digestive system.

How does alcohol slow your reaction time?

Alcohol significantly impairs reaction time through its toxic, negative effects on the central nervous system. It acts as a depressant, slowing down neural processing and diminishing the brain’s ability to send rapid signals. This delayed communication between nerve cells results in a slower reaction time. 

Even moderate alcohol consumption can compromise coordination and reflexes, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. It’s crucial to be aware of these effects and exercise caution, especially when engaging in activities that require quick responses, such as driving or operating machinery.

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome?

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome occurs when you suddenly stop or reduce alcohol intake after being addicted to it. Symptoms may include anxiety, tremors, sweating, nausea, and in severe cases, seizures. Proper medical supervision is essential during withdrawal to manage symptoms safely. 

The period of time you need to go through the withdrawal depends on how much you’ve been consuming prior to quitting, how often, how hard alcohol has affected your body, and even other factors such as family history (history of alcoholism in the family), body weight, and overall health. It’s important to seek professional help for a successful and safe withdrawal process. 

With proper management and treatment options, including nutritional support to address potential deficiencies, you can potentially alleviate symptoms and minimize the risk of irreversible damage associated with prolonged alcohol misuse.

How does alcohol affect the body’s temperature regulation?

Alcohol disrupts the body’s temperature regulation mechanisms. While it may initially create a sensation of warmth, it actually causes blood vessels to dilate, leading to heat loss. This can result in lowered body temperature, especially in cold environments. Chronic alcohol misuse can impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature, increasing the risk of hypothermia. Understanding these effects is vital, especially in situations where exposure to extreme temperatures is a concern.


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