Many people know that alcohol, when overused, can create serious side effects for the individual who is drinking as well as those close to them. Alcohol addiction can cause conflict in relationships, impact your physical and mental health, and lead to legal, financial, or professional issues. In addition, alcohol poisoning and the problems resulting from drunk driving and other behaviors commonly associated with being under the influence can be destructive. Addiction treatment programs can be highly effective in helping those struggling with alcohol addiction.
However, a less commonly known health problem related to alcohol abuse and addiction is wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is both a physical and psychological condition that can be life-threatening if left untreated. If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol addiction, reaching out for help from a treatment center can help you avoid serious and irreversible consequences like wet brain, the alcoholic brain disease.
What Is Wet Brain?
Wet brain is a layman’s term for a brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, this disorder is also sometimes called Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome, as it is technically two separate issues that usually occur together. Some scientists also believe, however, that it is two parts of the same condition, with Wernicke’s encephalopathy being the acute phase and Korsakoff’s syndrome being the chronic stage.
Other names for the condition—or parts of it—include:
- Alcohol dementia
- Korsakoff’s psychosis
- Alcoholic encephalopathy
- Wernicke’s dementia
- Wernicke’s disease
The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually occur first, causing brain damage to the hypothalamus and thalamus. Afterward, the symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome will begin to occur, which are what cause permanent brain damage and other risk factors in the afflicted individual, affecting the nerve and supporting cells in the brain.
Wet brain is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 or thiamine. A deficiency in this vitamin can lead to serious side effects. Someone with wet brain may not be getting enough thiamine in their diet or may be participating in activities that cause them not to absorb vitamin B1 properly. Alcohol use can make it difficult for the body to absorb thiamine even when it is present in the diet.
Signs and Symptoms of Wet Brain
As Wernicke’s encephalopathy usually occurs first, you will likely notice these symptoms first as well. Some of the most common symptoms of this condition include:
- Mental confusion
- Muscle coordination problems
- Leg tremors
- Vision problems
- Low blood pressure
- Nystagmus, or the rapid back-and-forth movement of the eyes
- Double vision
- Drooping of the eyelid
Normal mental activity can become harder and harder for the individual to maintain as Wernicke’s syndrome progresses. It can potentially become so severe, in fact, that it progresses into coma-like states and even death. This is one reason why the early signs of this disorder should not be ignored.
The symptoms associated with Korsakoff’s syndrome, which usually begins to appear after the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy are well established, might include:
- Confabulation or fabricating stories that didn’t happen
- Hallucinations (usually auditory or visual)
- Memory loss (mild to severe)
- Amnesia and problems forming new memories
- Vision problems
Like with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Korsakoff’s syndrome can eventually lead to coma and death. As a joint problem, both of the syndromes that make up wet brain are extremely severe and should be dealt with as soon as possible in order for the individual to be able to avoid further, serious effects and neurological symptoms.
How Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Develops
Wet brain is the direct result of a lack of thiamine in the body, making it hard for the brain to process sugar into the energy it requires to function properly. People can develop wet brain for a number of reasons, either because they are suffering from cancer, a chronic infection or infections, or AIDS. People who don’t eat enough, are on extreme and dangerous diets, and/or have eating disorders like anorexia can also become thiamine deficient and develop wet brain.
However, the most common reason this issue develops is as a result of alcohol abuse. This is why the disorder is sometimes called alcoholic encephalopathy or alcoholic dementia.
Wet Brain and Alcohol Addiction
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the liver requires the use of so many nutrients to process large amounts of alcohol regular drinkers consume that, eventually, it starts to call on the nutrients meant for other areas of the body to get what it needs. This is what leads to a vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency that causes this brain disorder in most people who have it.
Unfortunately, around 80 or 90 percent of the individuals who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy develop Korsakoff’s syndrome afterward, leading to serious memory loss, social withdrawal, confusion, moodiness, and potentially even outbursts of aggression and anger. As such, it is important to be able to cope with strange behaviors your loved one may now exhibit as a result of these rare disorders.
Helping a Loved One With Wet Brain
Following these strategies can help you in dealing with someone who is suffering from wet brain or any kind of alcohol-related brain impairment syndrome:
- Speaking in soothing tones
- Setting and repeating boundaries or rules to the individual when necessary
- Reassuring the individual that you support them and care about them
- Listening to the individual, as they will want to feel heard and understood
- Avoiding arguing or provoking the individual when they forget something
- Trying not to take their behavior or lack of memory personally
Wet brain can be extremely difficult to deal with as a family member or loved one of the afflicted individuals, but it is even worse if the problem is affecting you. It can be scary and frustrating, so try to have as much patience with your loved one as you can.
Treating Wet Brain
Treatment for this condition is typically focused on controlling symptoms that already exist and preventing them from worsening over time. Unfortunately, it is not likely that symptoms that have already begun to form could be reversed. Some individuals need to stay in a hospital where they can receive vitamin B1 injections. This will often help them become less delirious and confused, as well as minimize vision problems and muscle coordination problems, but it will not reverse the issue of memory loss.
One of the most dangerous complications associated with this disorder, however, is alcohol withdrawal. When the individual stops drinking, they will be likely to go through withdrawal symptoms and will need professional early treatment. A professional detox program is typically the best option for someone going through withdrawal. Afterward, individuals can enter outpatient alcoholism treatment, such as our program at Westwind Recovery®.
Reach Out to Westwind Recovery® Today
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, early intervention is the best way to prevent the onset of wet brain. At Westwind Recovery®, we offer alcohol addiction treatment programs in our Los Angeles recovery center. Connect with a member of our team today or contact us online to learn more.
Dr. Deena is the Chief Clinical Officer of Westwind Recovery®, an award-winning outpatient treatment center in Los Angeles where she oversees the clinical and administrative program and treatment methods. Dr. Deena is a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker since 1993. LCSW #20628. Originally from the East Coast, Dr. Deena has worked running treatment centers, worked as a therapist in psychiatric hospitals as well as school settings and currently has a thriving private practice in the LA area. Dr. Deena has appeared regularly on the Dr. Phil Show as an expert since 2003. She has also been featured on many other TV shows, podcasts and has contributed to written publications as well as podcasts.