wet brain alcohol

Wet Brain: The Symptoms Of Alcoholic Brain Damage

Wet brain, medically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is caused by frequent and heavy alcohol use; if not caught early, it can be permanent and lead to death.

In addition to excessive alcohol use, Wernicke-Korsakoff’s disease can have other causes relating to Thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B1). However, the term ‘wet brain’ is exclusive to those who develop this condition through heavy drinking; it insinuates a brain drenched in alcohol.

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome occurs in one to two per cent of the population. However, in those with an alcohol addiction, the risk is far higher.

Here, we explore what wet brain syndrome is, its early symptoms, stages of development and treatment. We hope that by providing this information, early help can be sought to help protect you or your loved one from this potentially fatal condition.

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What is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a cluster of neurological symptoms caused by low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) in the brain. The brain relies heavily on this vitamin so that it can function correctly.

Wet brain involves two different brain disorders that often occur together: Wernicke’s disease and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Wernicke’s disease develops when there is not enough thiamine in the brain, which leads to the brain becoming inflamed. If not properly treated, Wernicke’s can then progress, and Korsakoff’s psychosis can develop additionally. Once Korsakoff’s has developed, the condition is irreversible, and brain damage is permanent.


Why Thiamine Deficiency Occurs In Alcohol Addiction

Thiamine (B1) deficiency can occur from malnutrition but is often caused by excessive alcohol use in those with a severe alcohol use disorder. This occurs because alcohol stops the body from effectively absorbing thiamine (Vitamin B1) from food.

In those that have an alcohol addiction, vitamin deficiencies are common. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 80% of those affected by a chronic alcohol addiction suffer from a degree of thiamine deficiency.

If your doctor knows that you have an alcohol use disorder, they may prescribe additional thiamine supplements to help prevent wet brain from developing. It is vital that you take any supplements prescribed as instructed and seek help for your alcohol use. Otherwise, you will be at higher risk of developing wet brain symptoms.

Thiamine deficiency can lead to swelling of the brain, called Wernicke encephalopathy. This condition alone can be fatal and lead to coma and death. If it is not caught and treated in the early stages, it will eventually develop into Korsakoff syndrome.

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Can You Develop Wet Brain From Alcohol?

Whilst Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can occur due to reasons other than excessive alcohol use, i.e. through poor diet, the term “wet brain” specifically refers to the syndrome caused by alcohol.

Therefore, wet brain can only be caused by excessive drinking, although not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop this condition. The more alcohol you consume and the longer you have drank excessively, the higher your risk will be.

How Dangerous Is Wet Brain?

Untreated, Wernicke encephalopathy has a mortality rate of 10 to 20%. Of those who survive, a staggering 80% develop Korsakoff psychosis. This combination, where the two brain disorders coexist, is called Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke–Korsakoff (Wet brain) syndrome is a very serious and potentially fatal condition that is associated with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD).

The prevalence of wet brain across populations is not very well researched. However, it is estimated that around 80% of people who have this condition remain undiagnosed. 

The prognosis of wet brain depends on its early diagnosis and treatment. If treatment is started during the early stages of Wernicke encephalopathy, a full recovery is possible. However, of those who go on to develop Korsakoff syndrome, as many as 50% are expected to die within 8 years of diagnosis.

This is why it is so important to recognise the early symptoms of wet brain and seek help if you feel you or a loved one are at risk.

Who Is Most At Risk Of Developing Wet Brain?

If you are alcohol dependent and have been for an extended period, then you are considered to be at risk of developing a wet brain. Heavy alcohol use is defined as drinking more than four drinks in one day or more than fourteen units in one week – for both men and women.

Age also plays a factor. Up to 20%–30% of older adults without an alcohol use disorder have some degree of thiamin deficiency. As the body ages, it becomes less efficient at absorbing nutrients. Add to this, someone with an alcohol use disorder and those with an alcohol addiction of an older generation would be considered the most at risk for developing a wet brain.

The secondary stage of the disease, Korsakoff psychosis, can also be triggered independently by severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, in particular delirium tremens. This can occur even when Wernicke encephalopathy has not occurred first. This is why you must have medical help during alcohol withdrawal if you have alcohol dependence or addiction.

If you have Type 1/Type 2 diabetes, HIV, or an eating disorder involving restriction or purging, and have an alcohol use disorder, your risk of developing wet brain is considerable. All of these conditions can lead to low thiamine levels. When they are combined, they are often lethal.

Can Wet Brain Be Reversed And Treated?

The early stages of Wet brain syndrome can be reversed if caught in time and treated. Intravenous thiamine during the initial stages of inflammation can quickly stop and correct the symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy.

Remaining alcohol-free is vital if you have ever experienced symptoms of this potentially fatal condition. However, as the disease progresses, permanent damage to the brain occurs that cannot be reversed – even with treatment and continued abstinence from alcohol.

Adequate thiamine infusion can reverse the early symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy. Ocular symptoms and vision problems usually begin to diminish within 24 hours of treatment. However, Ataxia (the loss of control of body movements) and confusion can persist for days to months. Memory and learning impairment may never fully resolve itself, even with dementia treatment and therapy. 

As a progressive brain disease, as many as 80% of people who survive Wernicke encephalopathy develop Korsakoff psychosis without treatment. The mortality rate of Wernicke encephalopathy is high and is fatal in approximately 20% of cases.

Wet Brain Stages

There are two stages of wet brain that are associated with alcohol-related brain damage: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff psychosis. Like all diseases, symptoms can range from mild to severe but become worse over time without treatment.

Wernicke Encephalopathy

The early stage of wet brain results in inflammation in the brain, known as Wernicke encephalopathy. This inflammation is due to the brain not having enough thiamine. Wernicke encephalopathy damages the lower parts of the brain, called the thalamus and hypothalamus. This stage can either progress into permanent brain damage or be treated without causing further harm. It is considered the most dangerous stage due to its potential to cause coma and death. Spotting the early signs can lead to life-saving treatment.

Korsakoff Psychosis

Korsakoff psychosis, or Korsakoff syndrome, is the late stage of wet brain and results in permanent brain damage. Korsakoff psychosis tends to present as symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy go away. People with Korsakoff psychosis often experience substantial memory loss, difficulty learning and personality changes, hence the “psychosis” part of Korsakoff syndrome. Once the disease has progressed this far, the alcohol-related brain damage is substantial and cannot be reversed. Most people affected eventually require long-term residential care.

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Wet Brain Symptoms

The symptoms of wet brain vary depending on whether it is in the reversible early stages or the permanent late stage.

One of the primary symptoms of wet brain syndrome is global amnesia, which may be referred to as a type of alcohol dementia. This type of amnesia affects a person’s ability to form new memories and recall recent events. This has a profound impact on their ability to function normally, often leaving the person in a state of confusion.

Signs and Symptoms of Wernicke Encephalopathy

  • Altered mental status
  • Difficulty walking and moving normally (Ataxia)
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Memory issues
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Tremors
  • Vision problems
  • Coma

The three main common symptoms of Wernicke’s Encephalopathy that can lead to a diagnosis and treatment are: confusion, ataxia and eye (ocular) abnormalities.

Signs and Symptoms of Korsakoff Psychosis

  • Confusion
  • Memory loss, especially difficulty forming new memories
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Personality and behavioural changes
  • Substantial emotional changes
  • Hallucinations
  • Inability to recognise that memory problems exist
  • Difficulty concentrating and paying attention
  • Spontaneous confabulations (subconsciously making up memories to fill gaps in memory)

Confabulating is one of the most dominant early signs of alcoholic Korsakoff syndrome. Emotional and personality changes can be so profound that loved ones no longer recognise the person and are even frightened by their behaviour.

Preventing Wet Brain In Alcohol Addiction

Wet brain that is caused by excessive alcohol consumption can be prevented but not cured.

If you, or someone you know, drinks excessively and frequently, it is important to address a potential thiamine deficiency and alcohol use.

Abstaining from alcohol will help stop thiamine levels from dropping further. However, if you or they are not at a point of seeking help for an alcohol problem, having a regular vitamin b1 injection or high-strength supplements can help prevent wet brain. You should also increase the amount of thiamine you consume within a healthy diet.

Whilst increasing levels of thiamine and other essential vitamins during heavy drinking periods can help, it is important to understand that this does not guarantee the prevention of wet brain. As alcohol heavily impairs the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B1, even high-strength thiamine supplements may not be enough.

Caution: Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Not drinking alcohol is crucial in preventing further progression at all stages of Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome. However, stopping alcohol abruptly, where withdrawal symptoms are likely to occur, could cause even further brain damage. This is one of the reasons that going cold turkey from alcohol withdrawal is medically advised against.

Even if you do not currently have any symptoms of wet brain disease, severe withdrawal symptoms could trigger its onset. We cannot stress enough how important it is to have a safe way of stopping alcohol when you are physically dependent.

Only two methods are considered safe when it comes to alcohol withdrawal. The first is to taper off gradually, which can be assisted with our natural supplements and professional counselling to ease the process. 

The second method is to undergo a full medical detox. A medical detox for alcohol involves the administration of pharmaceutical medications to prevent dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms from developing.

Medications and supplements used in alcohol detox reduce brain overactivity and keep the brain safe whilst it adjusts to being without alcohol. This, in turn, diminishes alcohol withdrawal symptoms and alcohol cravings.

When alcohol withdrawal is unmanaged and untreated, potentially life-threatening symptoms can occur, including confusion, delirium tremens, seizures and hallucinations.

Medical alcohol detoxes should only be carried out by medical professionals. Counselling and rehabilitation are vital in preventing further drinking episodes and relapse.

Treatment for Wet Brain

If you suffer from heavy alcohol use and need help, the first step is to contact us for more information on how we can help you reduce your drinking and prevent wet brain. We will be able to determine if you or a loved one are at risk of developing this potentially fatal condition.

The treatment process for the prevention of Wernicke’s encephalopathy consists of an infusion of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Additional supplements are given to maximise thiamine absorption. Thiamine treatment should also continue some months after successful detoxification.

Aside from vitamin b1 and supplements, we treat symptoms on an individual basis. Our tailored help will vastly improve your quality of life and help prevent relapse. We combine unique, powerful nutritional supplements and therapy for a comprehensive healing experience. We can also advise on additional therapies to help you or your loved one cope with memory loss.