There’s no mistaking it. A lot of people will drink alcohol at one point in their life. The NIAAA has stated that 86.8% of American adults over 18 will have consumed alcohol in some capacity during their lifetime.
So how does this relate to wet brain exactly?
Having a few drinks from time to time isn’t usually too harmful. However, when binge or heavy drinking occur for years at a time, dangerous health risks can occur. One of the risks of abusing alcohol is wet brain.
The NIAAA also published that up to 80% of alcoholics potentially have a thiamine (B1) deficiency. They are all at risk of the onset of wet brain at any given moment. Thiamine is an important vitamin that aids the body in breaking down sugars which produce energy. When the vitamin is depleted due to alcohol abuse and poor diet, wet brain can occur.
What Exactly is Wet Brain?
“Wet brain” is another name for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It’s a type of brain damage that is directly connected to excessive alcohol abuse. The syndrome is due to a lack of vitamin B1, thiamine and it’s a life threatening condition.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is made up of two separate conditions that will co-occur. They are often considered to be different stages of one disorder. The conditions are Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis. Alcoholics will often experience Wernicke’s encephalopathy first.
Alcoholism, or chronic abuse of alcohol is the most common cause of wet brain. It can be linked to deficiencies in your diet as well. There are medical conditions that also impair thiamine absorption. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be related to genetics so some people may be more susceptible than others. Rapid introduction of glucose to a brain that is already B1 deficient can cause wet brain. Anorexia and other disorders that cause thiamine depletion can also be involved with its onset.
Wernicke’s Disease and Korsakoff Psychosis
Wernicke’s encephalopathy involves bleeding in the lower part of the brain. The affected areas control the nervous and endocrine systems. The bleeding leads to brain damage which will have an effect on;
The signs of Korsakoff psychosis will set in following the decrease of Wernicke’s symptoms. If Wernicke’s disease can be diagnosed immediately, Korsakoff syndrome may not develop at all. It is the intense result of chronic brain damage. This syndrome will forever affect the parts of your brain that control memory.
Cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS)
Wet brain can be described as an alcoholic syndrome. The number one reason of the onset of wet brain is alcoholism. While it can affect other people with separate conditions, it is mainly alcoholics that will suffer from WKS. Another cause can be due to conditions that don’t allow nutrients to absorb properly. These conditions include;
- Colon cancer-it’s too painful to eat so you may not get your nutrients.
- Eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia where you become nutrient deficient.
- Gastric bypass surgery-you can’t meet daily nutritional needs because of small food portions.
How Does Alcoholism Cause WKS?
Generally, alcoholics or people who abuse alcohol will have a poor diet. On top of that, alcohol prevents the absorption and storage of thiamin. Alcoholism is the number one cause of WKS because people who are alcoholics generally have a poor diet. They make poor nutritional and lifestyle choices. They may drink before they eat which causes them to not eat at all.
Alcoholics won’t spend the time making food or going out for dinner often enough. When they do eat, they lean towards greasy, unhealthy foods. This puts them at risk because they don’t get the essential nutrients they need, like thiamine.
If an alcoholic tries to abstain from drinking, symptoms like nausea can cause vomiting. This depletes the vitamins and nutrients even further. Alcohol also prevents vitamin B-1 absorption and storage.
Risk Factors for Developing Wet Brain
Risk factors are directly related to the way you live your life and what your diet is. The major risk factors for developing wet brain include chronic alcoholism and malnutrition. There are other risks however that are less common. They include;
- The inability to eat properly due to financial constraints.
- When you undergo kidney dialysis, it can reduce the body’s ability to absorb B1, thiamine.
- For someone who has AIDS, they may develop conditions that can lead to a deficiency in B1.
Challenges of Diagnosing WKS
It’s not easy for a doctor to diagnose Wernicke’s disease if they don’t know you’re an alcoholic. The three main symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include confusion, abnormal movement of the eye and a staggering gait. These symptoms are present in 10% of patients. This makes diagnosis extremely difficult. The NIAAA believe that up to 90% of alcoholics will develop Korsakoff psychosis.
Lesions on the brain occur due to a lack of vitamin B1 in the body. For diagnosis, a doctor will look for clinical signs that indicate a B1 deficiency. Due to the symptoms of WKS, you may feel mentally confused. This makes it challenging to get the help you need. You may not be able to communicate properly so a doctor will be flying blind without your guidance. Even if you’re not confused, you will likely deny you have a problem with alcohol.
If there’s someone with you that knows you, medical professionals may ask if you’re an alcoholic. If nobody is there with you, they may check alcohol levels or conduct a liver function test. Liver damage is a common symptom of alcoholism.
Tests to Determine if You Have Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Your doctor might order nutritional tests as well to ensure you’re not malnourished. As they’re trying to diagnose the problem, there may be a variety of tests. They include:
- An albumin test to determine how much of this protein is in your blood. This will help to determine if you have kidney or liver problems.
- A vitamin B1 blood test to determine your thiamine levels in the blood.
- Imaging tests to help a doctor find damage that’s connected to WKS.
- Your blood alcohol levels.
Liver damage can occur from alcohol abuse. A doctor will conduct a physical exam to see if you are a chronic drinker. This is the link to diagnosing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. These physical symptoms include:
- Your eye movement.
- Your reflexes.
- How high your blood pressure is.
- Your body temperature.
- Your heart rate.
Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy
Wernicke encephalopathy will be the first condition to occur usually. It is when internal bleeding in the brain occurs. The main symptoms will often include:
- You see double.
- Your upper eyelids may droop.
- Strange eye movements that either go up and down or side-to-side.
- You lose your coordination.
- You become confused.
- You lose balance.
- You experience a rise in your heart rate.
- Your body temperature lowers.
- You have a hard time walking.
Then Korsakoff syndrome kicks in. This is the part of WKS that causes you to lose your memory with the possibility of not forming new memories. It can be highly debilitating and permanent if not treated right away. The symptoms include:
- A loss of memory.
- You’ll have trouble learning new things or building new memories.
- You may hallucinate.
- You can become forgetful which causes frustration.
- Coordination and balancing troubles.
- You may invent events to fill in the gaps you can’t remember. This is otherwise known as confabulation.
- You may have a problem seeing.
- You can become disoriented and confused.
- Your personality changes.
Along with the common symptoms, if you’ve developed Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome due to alcoholism, you may suffer from withdrawal symptoms. This can include tremors, sweating, and vomiting.
Treatment for Wet Brain
Treatment of wet brain should be administered as soon as possible. If you get help right away, it can delay or altogether prevent the full progression. There are treatments available that can reverse non-permanent brain problems connected to alcoholism.
Treatment will involve being hospitalized. This is to monitor your digestive system to make sure food is absorbing properly. Getting thiamine back into the body is paramount. Part of the treatment often involves giving you vitamin B1 shots to get vitamins into your bloodstream right away. They will also offer you a balanced diet to help keep your thiamine levels up.
Getting help for alcoholism will also be a part of the treatment. Abstaining from alcohol while focusing on eating properly will help ensure you never have to go through a scare of WKS again. If you take part in an intense outpatient treatment program, they can help you with your dietary needs as well as your addiction.
Recovery Chances from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
There is a possibility that someone suffering from WKS can recover. The outlook has a lot to do with how far the disease advances. With early enough treatment, irreversible damage can be prevented. If the syndrome progresses because it’s left untreated, there’s a high rate of death.
Common reasons for death include lung infection, blood poisoning, or permanent brain damage. If you get treatment quickly, you’ll notice an improvement on eye functions, your coordination, and clarity of the mind. If you stop drinking alcohol, you can improve memory and mental functions. This might not be easy but with help from support groups, your friends or family, you can recover from alcoholism.
What You Can Do to Recover from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
The first thing you’ll need to do is stop drinking. This is not debatable as the effects of alcohol are directly to blame for wet brain. You will also need to eat food that’s rich in vitamin B1. This includes food such as:
- Rice, pasta, bread, cereal and flour (they are often fortified with B1)
- Spinach or kale
- Skim milk
- Lean pork, lean beef
Thiamine deficiency, which is most prevalent in alcoholics, can lead to brain damage. If unattended, it can result in wet brain. When this occurs, there will be negative effects that are permanent. Some might even state that its alcohol-related dementia. This is due to the loss of memory with a sense of constant confusion.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will come on suddenly. Getting medical help immediately with proper diagnosis is the first priority. Abstaining from alcohol can prevent it from further causing damage.
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