Alcohol Use Disorder affected 14.1 million U.S. adults in 2019 — 5.6% of whom were at least 18 years old.
And the true number of people who suffer from this disorder may be even higher, as some never seek treatment for it.
The medical consequences of alcoholism are many: liver disease. Heart disease. High blood pressure. Strokes. Even some forms of cancer.
But there’s another consequence you may not know about: “wet brain.” So what is it? What causes it? How can you detect it, and can it be treated?
What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?
“Wet brain” or “wet brain syndrome” is actually a colloquialism for two different but related conditions: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Together, the conditions are called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a type of dementia or cognitive impairment caused by a deficiency of thiamine, or vitamin B1.
Every tissue in the body requires thiamine to function. And thiamine doesn’t occur naturally in the body. Instead, it is stored in the liver after consumption.
Thiamine can be found in the following foods:
- Some types of rice
Thiamine deficiency can be caused by other factors. But in affluent countries like the United States, it is most commonly attributed to alcohol abuse, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
It’s common for people struggling with alcohol addiction to not eat balanced, nutritional foods. Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption could challenge the body’s ability to process and store thiamine correctly.
And if alcohol upsets a person’s stomach, this could trigger vomiting or loss of appetite — two other ways of depleting the body’s thiamine reserves.
Wet Brain Stages
Wet brain typically occurs in two stages: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Most people who develop wet brain experience symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy before Korsakoff’s psychosis.
“Encephalopathy” refers to any disease that affects the structure or function of the brain. In Wernicke’s encephalopathy, this commonly refers to bleeding of the brain.
Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:
- Impaired short-term memory
- Poor reflexes
- Uncontrollable or unusual eye movements
- Poor muscle coordination
- Loss of balance
- Blurred vision
- Drooping eyelids
- Increased heart rate
- Weakness and muscle atrophy
- Low body temperature
- Problems with mental processing
Most symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy can be confused with drunkenness or alcohol withdrawal. Additional telltale signs can include:
- Rapid weight loss within the last year
- Reduce body mass index
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting or consistent nausea
If left untreated, these symptoms can progress into the second, more severe phase of wet brain, known as Korsakoff’s psychosis.
This stage of wet brain lasts longer than Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Research shows that 80-90% of alcoholics who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy progress to the Korsakoff’s psychosis phase.
As Korsakoff’s psychosis damages the brain tissue, long-term symptoms can include:
- Short-term memory problems
- Creation of false memories
- Anger and frustration
- Personality changes
- Increased talkativeness
These physical changes to the brain can impact other areas of the body as well.
For example, a person in the Korsakoff’s psychosis stage of wet brain may begin to notice tachycardia or a more rapid heartbeat. They may also notice problems in their central nervous system and extremities, like hands and feet.
Detection and Diagnosis
There’s no single, universal test to diagnose wet brain. However, doctors may suspect thiamine deficiency or malnutrition based on physical appearance.
Heart rate, eye movements, body temperature, and even a person’s walk could all signal a doctor to a possible thiamine deficiency.
Blood testing can provide key insights into a person’s thiamine levels and other general nutrition. Decreased red blood cell activity could be an indicator of thiamine deficiency.
These signs — coupled with a doctor’s awareness of the patient’s alcohol addiction —could lead to further neurological testing.
If the doctor is unaware of an existing alcohol problem, testing of the liver enzymes could help eliminate other possible causes of these symptoms.
Can Wet Brain Be Reversed?
While wet brain isn’t curable, early detection can help treat symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.
As we mentioned, 80-90% of patients who do not seek treatment for these symptoms end up developing Karsakoff’s psychosis.
The long-term effects of this disease can range from difficulty with personal interactions and injuries caused by loss of coordination to coma or even death.
Treatment of Wernicke’s encephalopathy begins with increased intake of thiamine. Doctors will help patients identify a more well-rounded diet of vitamin B1.
Additionally, vitamin supplements can be administered through oral medication or injections through the veins or muscles.
The thiamine will help address problems of confusion or delirium, as well as vision and muscle coordination. However, additional medications may be needed to treat other symptoms.
It’s important to note that thiamine will not improve intellect or memory in wet brain patients. Brain damage cannot be reversed — only minimized in the future.
This is why it’s critical to seek help with alcohol addiction. Treatment for Wernicke’s encephalopathy is only effective if a person stops drinking.
Fortunately, there are several resources available.
Some alcohol rehab programs include cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy helps identify the underlying emotional causes behind a drinking problem, thus equipping alcoholics with better coping mechanisms.
Patients may also consider medication-assisted alcohol detox to help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal.
Regain Control of Your Life
Wet brain syndrome is determined by several factors, including how long a person has been drinking and how often they do it. But early detection can slow the progression of the disease and alleviate many symptoms.
If you struggle with chronic alcoholism, know that you aren’t alone, and it’s not too late to make a change.We offer a combination of both scientifically proven and evidence-based holistic treatment methods. And, we work with all major insurance providers. Reach out today to learn more about how we can help.