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Most of us are aware of the complications that alcohol abuse brings on, such as liver cirrhosis, cardiovascular damage, and pancreatitis. While these conditions are relatively common and well-understood, many overlook one of the most damaging complications of using too much alcohol over a long time: a wet brain.
Although less common, wet brain syndrome is one of the most dangerous complications of longstanding alcohol abuse. Characterized by a mixture of symptoms like abnormal gait and eye movement, the condition can quickly progress to an irreversible stage with no possibility of resolution. Hence, people who drink alcohol more frequently than recommended must familiarize themselves with this complication and how to spot and manage it to protect themselves.
What Is Wet Brain Syndrome? An Overview
Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), wet brain syndrome describes a life-threatening disorder that involves the brain and occurs in two stages: Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is reversible with timely treatment, and Korsakoff psychosis which represents the more severe, irreversible form of the disorder. Wet brain more commonly occurs in people drinking alcohol for a long time. The name “wet brain” came into being due to this direct association with alcohol misuse and dependence.
While a wet brain can hit anyone, people who abuse alcohol are more likely to acquire it. The risk of its prevalence in the general population is up to 2 percent. However, in alcoholics, the risk sharply increases up to 14 percent. Studies estimate that up to 80 percent of people with alcohol use disorder have an underlying thiamine deficiency which ultimately triggers Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Despite being a dangerous condition, reversing it with timely medical intervention is possible, especially in the early stages.
What Causes Wet Brain?
According to surveys, wet brain affects up to 2 percent of Americans. The following are some potential causes leading to this issue:
People who regularly consume or abuse alcohol generally have poor dietary habits. These poor dietary habits eventually induce many nutritional deficiencies, including thiamine or vitamin B1. The human body cannot produce this vitamin on its own and requires it through food. Unfortunately, people who don’t eat thiamine-rich foods, like nuts, whole grain cereals, poultry, etc., become deficient, which puts them at a high risk of developing a wet brain.
Pre-Existing Health Issues
The existence of specific medical issues, such as heart failure, HIV/AIDS, cancer, or long-term dialysis due to kidney failure, also increase the chances of acquiring wet brain syndrome due to vitamin B1 deficiency.
Repeated episodes of vomiting can force the body to lose many essential vitamins and nutrients, including thiamine. Many people who regularly engage in excessive alcohol intake vomit profusely, losing most of their thiamine. As a result, they keep increasing their risk of experiencing a wet brain in the future.
Wet Brain Syndrome Stages and Symptoms
Wet brain syndrome comprises the following two stages:
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is the first stage of wet brain disease which describes a short-term neurological disorder with the following key symptoms:
- Mental confusion
- Loss of muscular coordination while walking or standing
- Visual disturbances
- Eye movement dysfunction
The nerves controlling the eyes undergo severe paralysis due to Wernicke’s encephalopathy, leading to drooping of eyelids, involuntary eye movements, and poor tracking of objects. Coordination issues arising due to this complication can also cause staggering and eventually make the person lose their ability to walk.
Remember that a person does not have to experience all symptoms mentioned above to get a diagnosis of Wernicke’s encephalopathy. Many studies have proven that experts missed the diagnosis because all three symptoms were simultaneously absent. It is imperative to rule out the suspicion if the symptomatic presentation correlates with a history of heavy alcohol use. Fortunately, Wernicke’s encephalopathy is reversible, provided a patient seeks timely medical intervention and follows up properly. However, any delay in seeking help can lead to poorer outcomes.
Up to 90 percent of people who abuse alcohol and develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy carry on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, the second stage of wet brain syndrome. This stage is characterized by neuropsychiatric dementia, which occurs when a patient does not seek treatment for the first stage as quickly and effectively as needed. Also known as alcohol amnestic disorder or alcohol dementia, Korsakoff’s psychosis can include the following symptoms:
- Changes in behavior
Some people also develop memory issues that make it difficult to form new memories (anterograde amnesia) or remember old ones (retrograde amnesia). These memory-related issues can eventually lead to another characteristic symptom called confabulation. Confabulation causes patients to make up fabricated stories to bridge the gaps in their memories. Experts believe these memory issues occur due to the excessive damage secured by specific brain areas controlling memory-related processes. Most people who develop Korsakoff’s psychosis do not realize their symptoms and may undergo specific behavioral changes, such as becoming more irritable, apathetic, or less emotional.
Alcoholic Wet Brain: How Alcohol Triggers the Condition?
The association between alcohol and a wet brain comes down to the role of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Thiamine is an essential nutrient that the body can only obtain through diet. Almost all body parts need this crucial vitamin to work correctly, and its deficiency can damage the nerves, heart, and brain. In the United States, alcohol abuse remains the primary cause of thiamine deficiency, putting thousands of people at risk of wet brain syndrome.
Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to low thiamine levels in two ways: malabsorption and poor nutrition. For example, people who drink too much alcohol do not often eat enough to fulfill their thiamine requirements. As a result, their levels begin to deplete, ultimately leading to a deficiency. Even if they get some thiamine from their diet, absorbing this vitamin becomes an issue. Alcohol is a natural irritant and can easily cause the digestive tract to inflame and swell. This inflammation reduces the ability of the body to absorb thiamine from the diet, further exacerbating the thiamine deficiency. This long-standing vitamin deficiency gradually builds up, elevating a person’s risk of experiencing Wernicke-Korsakoff at some point.
Treatment Plan for Wet Brain
A comprehensive wet brain treatment plan includes the following two parts:
If you or someone you know suffers from a wet brain, seeking medical treatment is crucial. As a part of the management plan, healthcare professionals provide additional thiamine to the body to cover up this vitamin deficiency. This supplemental vitamin can be in the form of an oral tablet or IV liquid, depending on how severe the shortage is. Once the thiamine levels increase to a sufficient level, most people start noticing improvements in their symptoms.
Seeking urgent medical care to tackle a wet brain is critical, as early intervention can lead to symptom reversal. However, allowing the disease to progress may lead to permanent damage with no hope of a turnaround. Most people in the first stage of th wet brains syndrome fully recover with their symptoms wholly reversed. Those who unfortunately enter the Korsakoff psychosis stage are very unlikely to make a full recovery. However, medical professionals still administer thiamine in both categories of patients to stop the disease progression and symptomatic exacerbation.
The second part of wet brain treatment includes seeking help for the underlying addiction that led to this disease. Addiction treatment is necessary, especially for someone who has already developed wet brain syndrome, as the disorder will likely progress if they keep drinking. Many people who have been chronically abusing alcohol find it difficult to abstain from alcohol consumption, even after being diagnosed with a wet brain. This is because of the underlying dependence they experience, which may be difficult to accept. However, remember that alcohol addiction is real and extremely dangerous for the body in the short and long term.
Once a person has successfully managed their life-threatening symptoms of the wet brain, they can focus on preventing its progression by eliminating alcohol from their daily life. Quitting alcohol and achieving sobriety will help them preserve their brain functions and minimize the risk of further nerve damage. However, treating a long-standing alcohol abuse is not easy, and experts advise undergoing it in a dedicated facility. These facilities have professionals who help people safely get through alcohol detox and withdrawal symptoms without experiencing any risks. Following the initial detox phase, patients can enter a rehabilitative program to learn and acquire life skills and coping methodologies to maintain sobriety.
Coping with Wet Brain: Tips to Minimize Disease Progression
Wet brain syndrome is a severe medical disorder that requires early diagnosis and prompt treatment. Patients fortunate to receive an early diagnosis can control it in time and reverse its effects. However, these people are still at significant risk of re-experiencing the syndrome at some point in the future. To minimize these risks, consider following the tips mentioned below:
Abstain from alcohol at all costs.
Most people who develop wet brain syndrome are chronic drinkers who have been abusing alcohol for years. If they keep drinking, their thiamine levels will drop, increasing the risk of another attack. Hence, it is imperative to cut down on the daily alcohol intake gradually until you completely stop drinking it. Professional help is always available to make the process easier.
Eat thiamine-rich foods.
As mentioned above, thiamine deficiency is the number one cause of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Even if you have received the initial supplementation for this vitamin, you must take steps to ensure that these levels remain balanced throughout. Because the body cannot produce this vitamin independently, you must take it in adequate quantities through external sources, such as food. Some good natural sources of thiamine include pork, spinach, milk, oranges, etc.
Focus on a balanced diet.
In addition to thiamine, pay attention to other essential nutrients and vitamins as they can help the body absorb this vitamin more effectively.
Is it possible to reverse wet brain syndrome?
Depending on the stage, it may or may not be possible to reverse wet brain syndrome. Most people who present in time during Wernicke’s encephalopathy stage end up making significant recovery with the resolution of all symptoms. On the other hand, Korsakoff’s psychosis usually remains irreversible, with symptoms lingering for the rest of their life. However, remember that the reversibility also depends on various other factors, such as the severity of the symptoms, how early an individual begins treatment, and the type of treatment they get. Most people start showing improvement within 5 to 12 days of thiamine supplementation; however, a 100 percent recovery is generally rare.
What are the risk factors behind wet brain syndrome?
Alcohol use disorder remains the leading cause of wet brain syndrome. At the same time, many other factors may also prevent the body from absorbing adequate thiamine levels, triggering the condition. These factors include the following:
- Advanced stages of certain cancers
- AIDS and HIV
- Extreme vomiting and nausea
- Diuretic therapy in people with heart failure
- Thyrotoxicosis, a condition leading to high thyroid hormone levels
- People on long-term dialysis
- Kidney failure
How much alcohol can cause a wet brain disorder?
There is no set limit to alcohol that can trigger wet brain syndrome, as the risk varies from one person to another. The most significant factor determining this risk is the current thiamine levels and how rapidly they deplete in a user. Most people who end up experiencing this disorder are the ones who have been abusing alcohol in heavy amounts for a long time.