What Is Alcoholism-Caused Wet Brain?
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), known commonly as “Wet Brain” is a syndrome that affects the brain due to specific imbalances in the brain. The Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a very dangerous condition that can lead to permanent muscle damage, chronic confusion, and at worst, hallucinations.
Below we will go over what exactly is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, its specific causes, how alcohol relates to wet brain, the treatments that can be done, and how important it is to recognize the symptoms before they get out of control and cause permanent damage.
Wet Brain: a Quick Summary
The Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a life-threatening condition that is actually made up of two distinct conditions. Called “wet brain” in most non-scientific circles, WKS is a brain condition that results from a lack of vitamin B1. It is a dangerous, lethal brain condition that needs to be treated at the sign of first symptoms.
Wet brain is broken up into two parts. The first, “Wernicke’s encephalopathy” is a serious, short-term mental condition that expresses itself as massive confusion, broad loss of muscular coordination, and unusual rapid eye movements. In the most serious cases, Wernicke’s encephalopathy can end with major or minor hallucinations.
The second part of wet brain, called Korsakoff’s psychosis, is a chronic and permanent condition that immediately follows the final stages of Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Korsakoff’s psychosis mimics the symptoms of the first part of wet brain, but the effects are slightly different and all permanent.
Wet brain is called wet brain because of its connection to long-term alcohol abuse. The image clearly being that one who abuses alcohol in such a way is drowning their brain and saturating it in a way that is unhealthy and is therefore somehow slowing down their primary functions.
Wet brain starts from a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. This deficiency is usually connected to heavy alcohol abuse, but the deficiency can present itself in other ways, such as malnutrition. There is a clear connection between a vitamin B1 deficiency and alcohol. In fact, nearly 80% of individuals with alcoholism (or Alcohol Use Disorder) will find themselves with a vitamin B1 deficiency.
In order to diagnose wet brain, the patient must be sober. People suspected to have the condition may not have it, as the use of alcohol can mimic the symptoms of wet brain. Withdrawal can also mimic the symptoms of wet brain, so it is best for the patient to be completely sober in order to get a proper diagnosis.
A vitamin B1 deficiency does not guarantee that the vitamin B1 deficient person will get wet brain. In fact, only 1%-2% of the population as a whole develops wet brain, however, that number significantly goes up when studying only those who have a chronic attachment to alcohol. People who regularly abuse alcohol or have Alcohol Use Disorder have a 12%-14% of developing Wernicke-Koraskoff syndrome.
Wet Brain and Alcohol
The cause of WKS is a vitamin B1 deficiency. This vitamin is used by all parts of the body and its absence is felt quickly throughout all major physical and mental functions. A vitamin B1 deficient person will suffer severe damage to their heart, brain, and nervous system. Vitamin B1 is taken in by the body through diet alone.
While not the only cause, Alcohol Use Disorder is the leading cause of those with a vitamin B1 deficiency. There are other disorders that facilitate a vitamin B1 deficiency, though those conditions usually have treatments to help compensate for the deficiency. As this is the case, it is widely understood that the main cause for a vitamin B1 deficiency is long-term, chronic alcohol abuse.
For one’s body to properly absorb vitamin B1, it must pass through one’s gastrointestinal tract and be absorbed by the tissues in the body. Alcohol abuse flatly decreases the amount of vitamin B1 that is absorbed by the tissues in the body. If vitamin B1 is not absorbed properly, it passes through and is wasted – this is known as “malabsorption.” If that wasn’t bad enough, heavy drinking can also cause the amount of vitamin B1 to not be effectively absorbed, thereby decreasing again the amount of vitamin B1 that is effectively received by your body. Therefore, since alcohol directly inhibits absorption and reduces the effectiveness of vitamin B1 that is absorbed, simple supplements do not assist in remedying this disease.
Even if supplements helped, studies have shown that chronic heavy drinkers do not take care of their intake in general, and do not receive a healthy amount of vitamin B1, to begin with. These individuals do not follow a strict diet and can find themselves deficient in vitamin B1 just from malnutrition.
Symptoms of Wet Brain
Wet brain symptoms are often confused with the typical symptoms of drinking. However, one can tell the symptoms of wet brain by seeing the effects of alcohol even when the individual is not drinking. This means that one, even without any alcohol at all, will still exhibit the traditional symptoms of being drunk.
This still makes the diagnosing of this rather difficult, as the symptoms of drunkenness, withdrawal, and WKS are all very similar. To be sure that one has WKS, one must ensure that none of the other criteria are met before being confident in their diagnosis.
Symptoms to look out for that define wet brain are:
- Loss of coordination
- Rapid, unusual eye movements
- Blurred vision
- Significant memory loss
- Mood swings
Close friends or family members may notice certain changes in behavior, including:
- Unusual frustration or quick temperament
- Obvious lying or being disconnected from reality
- General aggravation or obstructiveness
WKS is a dangerous, life-threatening disease that should be dealt with as soon as possible. In addition to the symptoms above, wet brain can cause strenuous, chronic mental degradation. This will be accompanied by more frequent losses of consciousness, infrequent but possible comas, and also in severe cases, death.
As mentioned before, wet brain is segmented into two distinct parts. Here we will go into more depth into what exactly the first part entails, called Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. Wernicke’s Encephalopathy (WE) is a short-term mental disorder that precedes the second part of WKS.
WE is expressed by three different symptoms. Again, these symptoms can be confused with normal drunkenness, but they are always present in someone with Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. The first is mental. Usually, this means that the individual will have massive confusion about who they are, where they are, what they’ve been doing for the last few minutes/hours. They can also exhibit signs of overwhelming apathy that may be uncharacteristic of the individual that is expressing these signs. The second and third are physical. Someone with WE will show signs of major instability while standing still or walking. The third major physical sign is a loss of control of their eyes. The nerves in their eyes will tense up, losing the ability to see properly, causing the individual to suffer from involuntary eye movements, and losing the ability to consistently track objects.
These coordination issues will often cause those with WE to walk with a stagger and sometimes will lose the ability to walk entirely. As this is a short-term condition, it can be difficult to distinguish these symptoms from one who has been chronically drunk. These symptoms usually appear in those who are already commonly drinking. Those who are close to the individual might not be able to see a difference in their behavior at all, and just assume that they are drinking more than usual or when they can’t see it.
Someone with WE does not have to exhibit all three symptoms to have a positive diagnosis. That said, one of these three symptoms is key in diagnosing the individual and getting them treatment. Some individuals have gone untreated because they may not exhibit all three symptoms at the same time. Just like WKS, WE is caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency. As such, it is treatable if it is caught early. This is a short-term disease, the window is short but still reachable. Diagnosing this is key in finding treatment before it becomes too late and develops into the more serious, life-threatening, and permanent WKS.
Korsakoff’s Psychosis is theorized to be the result of untreated Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Somewhere between 80% and 90% of individuals that develop WE and have it go untreated will inevitably develop Koraskoff’s psychosis. Koraskoff’s psychosis is a type of neuropsychiatric dementia. Its only cause seems to be the residual effects of WE that aren’t treated swiftly or efficiently. Korsakoff’s psychosis results in symptoms that directly inhibit the individual’s ability to function in society. These symptoms include:
- Blanket amnesia
- Mood swings
- Improperly remembering real events
These symptoms are debilitating and will completely prevent a person from participating in society. Korsakoff’s psychosis is also commonly referred to as “alcoholic dementia” or “alcohol amnestic disorder.”
Memory issues that stem from Korsakoff’s psychosis are a combination of both long-term memory loss and the inability to create new memories. This condition is critical to the brain’s natural ability to function, and as a result, the individual will find themselves making up stories that they truly believe in order to fill the gaps in their memory.
The causes of these memory issues are due to actual physical damage to the memory centers of the individual’s brain. This, unfortunately, means that the damage is permanent, and at this stage is irreversible. The damage is usually expansive, and the cases are generally more severe than minor. That being the case, there are cases of individuals with Korsakoff’s psychosis that don’t even realize that they have symptoms, and will only find themselves being mildly more irritable than they used to be, more apathetic in general, and display less emotion towards those that they used to care about.
Because of the permanent damage that Korsakoff’s psychosis causes, it is important to identify the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and treat the cause as soon as possible.
What to do with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
The question at any stage of this disease often is: “is it reversible?” As with most complicated situations, the answer is, it depends. If Wet Brain isn’t diagnosed until late in the process, there has never been a case that was reversed. The damage is permanent, and as such there is treatment, but no cure.
If the disease is caught early enough, there is hope. In every case, it depends on the individual’s own resistances and body chemistry, as well as how serious the symptoms are. If the individual starts treatment early, there can be recovery rather quickly if the person is able to get and stay sober and go through vitamin B1 treatment.
Full recovery is rare. Because of the nature of this disease, it is difficult to spot early. The only way to ensure that one doesn’t get this is to not drink alcohol and ensure that they have a healthy diet. This often doesn’t happen for individuals who are starting to show signs of Wet Brain.
Different types of treatment will also have differing effects depending on when in the recovery process they are. If the disease is identified and treated early, with vitamin B1 treatment some individuals see an improvement in just 5-12 days. Even these cases don’t all display full recovery, however, and the treatment must be followed to the letter to have any chance at effectiveness at all.
Treatment for Wet Brain
Treating Wet Brain usually involves very similar things: complete abstinence from alcohol and incredibly large vitamin B1 supplements. As mentioned above, vitamin B1 supplements without alcohol abstinence can cause serious issues. WKS causes the body to not process thiamine and therefore, supplements are generally not effective treatment if one’s body completely ignores the supplements that it’s given.
Vitamin B1 treatment can cause other health issues. An increase in thiamine into the body without your body being able to properly absorb it puts your kidneys at risk, increasing the chance of kidney disease or kidney stones. Kidney disease is uncomfortable, but it is certainly preferable to Wet Brain. In order to help ensure that one doesn’t get kidney disease, help your body process the alcohol that you take in by reducing or completely stopping your alcohol intake.
Doctors will prescribe an oral supplement, or in serious cases an injection that will help one’s body to properly absorb the appropriate amounts of vitamin B1. A proper diet will also commonly be prescribed, as general health will help naturally increase the levels of vitamin B1 in one’s body. Additional supplements might be prescribed that will help one’s body properly absorb the thiamine into one’s body, however many of these supplements react negatively to alcohol use or also have reduced effectiveness when taken with alcohol.
The Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a terrible neurodegenerative disorder that needs to be treated as early as possible. Symptoms are difficult to spot, but not impossible. Keep on the lookout so one doesn’t suffer permanent damage from the residual effects of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy.
WKS is caused by a lack of Vitamin B1 (thiamine) as alcohol decreases the body’s ability to properly absorb it and process it. Treatment is stopping all consumption of alcohol and beginning supplements of thiamine under close supervision. Treatment is helpful but not guaranteed, as full recovery is rare.
If you or someone that you love is suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder or is a chronic binge drinker, reach out to your local rehabilitation facility at the earliest notice. These centers are made available to all that want help, information, or just a place to start their journey to sobriety.
As stated above, up to 15% of people that suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder will suffer from WKS. This is a serious condition that needs to be monitored and treated as soon as possible. Lower your chances of getting this by treating alcoholism early.
If you or a loved one doesn’t know where to start, reach out to us at ecosoberhouse.com we have the materials and the desire to help you on your journey to sobriety.