Alcohol addiction is deadly. A few drinks here and there can feel harmless, but if a person’s drinking snowballs into a serious addiction, they could face serious consequences. One of those many consequences is known as “wet brain,” or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a serious medical condition, but we don’t go into the details of how certain enzymes and amino acids work with and against the body. This page will provide a basic overview of what “wet brain” is, how it affects the body, and how you can seek help for alcohol addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, get help. The sooner you can revert back to a healthy relationship with alcohol, the better.
What Is Wet Brain?
Wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a form of brain damage caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency. Malnutrition and alcoholism are the two most common causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It causes serious damage and can be fatal if left untreated.
How Does A Person Get “Wet Brain?”
Wet brain is caused by a thiamine, or vitamin B1, deficiency.
About Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
Vitamin B1 is a critical vitamin that humans consume through diet only. You can find vitamin b1 in foods such as:
- Brown rice
You can also consume Vitamin B1 by buying cereals or milk fortified with Vitamin B1, or taking supplements. Since Vitamin B1 is a water-soluble vitamin, there is no need to worry about taking too much - you’ll just pee it out if you do!
Vitamin B1 plays a role in many processes in the body. It aids in converting carbohydrates to glucose and ATP, which provide cells with energy. Basically, Vitamin B1 and other B vitamins ensure that food works as fuel within our body. This is especially important in two areas of the body: the brain and the heart.
How Do We Become Thiamine-Deficient?
Studies have shown that chronic alcohol consumption can lead to thiamine deficiency. For thiamine to do its job, it has to travel through the GI tract to the bloodstream and the brain. Alcohol prevents thiamine from properly moving through the GI tract. This leaves the body and brain waiting around for the energy needed to function.
Since thiamine can only be found in food (rather than through sunlight or other sources, like Vitamin D,) malnutrition can also lead to a thiamine deficiency.
Wernicke’s Encephalopathy vs Korsakoff Syndrome
Wet brain is actually the name for a more serious-sounding condition: Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome. The condition is named for the two psychologists who first studied the effects of thiamine deficiency on the brain: Carl Wernicke and Sergei Korsakoff.
Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome covers two different progressions of the syndrome. The first symptoms appear once a person has developed Wernicke’s Encephalopathy. If left untreated, or if symptoms progress, the syndrome could develop into Korsakoff’s Syndrome. People may develop Korsakoff’s Syndrome separately if certain parts of the brain that deal with memory are hit the hardest by the person’s thiamine deficiency. Korsakoff’s Syndrome looks similar to dementia or ataxia.
Symptoms of Wet Brain
The early symptoms of wet brain may be hard to recognize in someone who suffers from alcoholism. Wet brain looks like a person has had too much to drink even when they do not have any alcohol in their system at all. These symptoms include:
- Loss of memory
- Inability to concentrate
- Odd or unwanted movements in the eyes
- Double vision
- Loss of coordination
- Reduced nutrition or rapid weight loss
- Consistent vomiting
- Strange behavior changes (unexplained giddiness)
Wet Brain vs PAWS
Alcohol addiction can cause a lot of damage throughout the body and mind. Even if you get sober, you may feel the effects of addiction.
A Reddit user on the dryalcoholics subreddit worried that they might have wet brain:
“...I've read about wet brain and how it is a thiamine deficiency developed in 80% of alcoholics. Now, I still remember things which happened years ago like memories and such. After quitting alcohol I started to remember things which happened 20 years which I completely forgot about. However, at times I will go through short term memory loss. Mainly, I'll forget people's names and small things. Like I freaked out the other night because I forgot what the bag for our inflatable mattress looked like. Crazy right? I'll go on deep dives because I forgot what some guy's last name was who I worked with over a year ago. Just random small things I'll forget about. Sometimes I do go through confusion but nothing like I forgot where I am, where my car is, or how to tie my shoes. But it is enough to get me wondering if this was some permanent damage done by alcohol….”
Reddit users assured the OP that their symptoms were likely from another condition: post-acute withdrawal syndrome:
- “My guess is no. I think wet brain is closer to dementia and not just normal forgetfulness. Someone on here described their relative who had it. They would say something and then repeat the same story every 5 minutes, forgetting they had already said it. It really affects heavy drinkers who are extremely thiamine deficient and in the throes of their addiction. You’re sober 1 year and eat healthy.”
- “It’s probably post acute withdrawal syndrome PAWs and hits every few months after getting sober.”
- “Paws lasts up to 5 Years but the time between each episode gets longer and longer. So your almost(?) Out of it….Just remember it will come back, take your vitamins, be sober and your life will regenerate yourself.”
Post-acute withdrawal syndrome may last for weeks and months, but will eventually go away as long as a person can maintain sobriety. If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of PAWS, go see a medical professional.
Is Wet Brain Curable?
There is no cure for wet brain, although doctors can stop or slow the progression of the condition. The key to reducing wet brain symptoms is catching the condition early enough. People who experience wet brain while experiencing addiction to alcohol need to get sober immediately. This often means working with a doctor or support group to ensure a safe transition to sobriety.
How Common is Wet Brain?
Four in five alcoholics develop some sort of thiamine deficiency, but not all of these cases turn into WKS or wet brain. Up to 2% of the overall population is affected by this disorder. Older men are more likely to develop this condition and suffer from it.
Other Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain
A night of binge drinking quickly has its effects on the brain. Want to know the reason people slur their words, stumble around, or make impulsive decisions while drunk? Alcohol affects the communication between neurons in the brain. The more a person drinks, the more dramatic these effects become. Even the next day, neurons have a hard time sending messages. They might communicate with neurotransmitters in more dramatic ways. Essentially, alcohol sends the brain off balance.
Long-term effects of chronic alcohol use on the brain (including wet brain) include:
- Hippocampus shrinkage
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Development of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Other Ways Alcohol Damages the Body
Long-term alcohol use can impact pretty much every area of the body. Frequent binge drinking will eventually increase your risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Heart failure
- Liver damage
- A weakened immune system
- Sleep disturbances
Ways to Seek Help for Alcohol Addiction
- Frequently blacking out from alcohol use
- Experiencing mood swings related to alcohol consumption (or not drinking alcohol)
- Making excuses to drink, even when you are alone or need to drive a car
- Drinking alone
- Changing friend groups in order to drink
- Frequently drinking more than you intended on a night out
- Inability to cut down or stop drinking
Tackling your alcohol abuse now can prevent serious health problems down the line. You can get help by:
Calling a helpline. It may be more comforting to talk to a stranger about your experiences with alcohol. The following helplines can get you started on the right path toward health and sobriety:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD): 1 (800) NCA-CALL (622-2255)
- Alcoholics Anonymous Hotline: 212-870-3400
Talking to supportive friends or family. Recovery requires support from friends and family (including chosen family.) If you are experiencing problems with alcohol, share them. Alcohol addiction is not as uncommon as some people think it is. A supportive friend or family member will help connect you to resources or offer you encouragement on your journey. If your friends or family want you to continue drinking alcohol, you may want to consider who you are surrounding yourself with.
Attending an AA (or similar) meeting. AA is not for everyone, but it can be a great first step toward recovery. Look up local AA meetings near you or online. It’s possible to get help and understand how addiction works. Even if you do not go to a second AA meeting or decide to get help in other ways, you can use an AA meeting as a chance to meet others, hear raw stories of the dangers of alcohol, and take your first steps toward recovery.