The effects of abusive drinking

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The effects of abusive drinking on the nervous system

All excessive drinking has neurological consequences. In low doses, alcohol has mild stimulant effect that is exciting and even disinhibiting. In higher doses, it acts as a sedative and can cause reduced attentiveness, loss of balance, speech impairment and mental confusion.

Chronic, abusive drinking can cause a variety of disturbances in the central and peripheral nervous systems:

  • Some problems may result from the malnutrition that often plagues alcoholics.
  • Some neurological complications may be linked to liver malfunction.
  • Alcohol can be a primary cause of specific neurological problems.
  • Some neurological problems, such as acute alcoholic delirium (delirium tremens), occur when an alcoholic stops drinking.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

One of the most serious problems resulting from continued excessive drinking is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is caused by a significant thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a severe syndrome characterized by confusion, lack of coordination (ataxia), paralysis of the eye muscles and sometimes even stupor and coma. These clinical conditions may develop suddenly or over several days.

Individuals diagnosed with Korsakoff’s psychosis usually have symptoms of anterograde and retrograde amnesia (severe memory loss), as well as temporal disorientation, false recognition and confabulation (invented memories). Korsakoff’s psychosis generally follows Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is why both are often considered as a single syndrome. Such cases are quite spectacular, and fortunately very rare.


Alcoholic polyneuritis is the most common neurological complication caused by chronic alcoholism. Multiple nerves become inflamed, involving a breakdown of the myelin (the sheath around the nerve) and the impairment of the peripheral nervous system. The condition usually starts insidiously, with symptoms including unusual numbness or prickly sensations (dysesthesia), cold feet, cramps, particularly in the calves, and reduced walking endurance. It is caused by the toxic effect of alcohol and its metabolites, and is exacerbated by thiamine deficiency. In more severe cases, it may spread to the upper limbs. Polyneuritis is slowly reversible after the person stops drinking.

Optic neuritis

Optic neuritis is a lesion in the optic nerve that can be caused by chronic alcohol intoxication. The condition is characterized by a progressive and bilateral reduction in visual acuity. Field of vision is reduced and patients have difficulty distinguishing colours. The condition is reversible if the person stops drinking – and smoking – and takes the proper vitamins.

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The effects of abusive drinking on mental health

Abusive drinking can cause a variety of psychiatric disorders. Studies show that alcoholics have more mental problems than non-alcoholics. The term psychiatric comorbidity is used when an individual displays maladaptive drinking behaviour, along with mental or psychiatric problems that are caused neither by acute intoxication nor withdrawal.

Three major types of psychiatric problems affect alcoholics to a much greater degree than non-alcoholics:

Personality disorders

People who have drinking problems suffer from the full range of personality disorders. For example, antisocial personality disorder is ten times more common among alcoholics than among the general population. There is also a strong connection between alcoholism and all kinds of eating disorders, particularly among women.

Mood disorders and anxiety

This category includes bipolar disorder and depression, the latter being extremely common among alcoholics. Depression must be taken very seriously: suicide – one of its consequences – is eight to ten times more common among alcoholics than among the general population.


While there is no link between schizophrenia and intoxication or withdrawal, this very serious disease is observed more among alcoholics than non-alcoholics. Most psychotic problems observed among alcoholics are related to alcohol intoxication, as described above in Effects on the nervous system.

The effects of abusive drinking on the social environment

Abusive drinking leads to social problems with serious social and medical consequences that are frequently underestimated.

Too much alcohol causes disturbances in the brain, the central nervous system and the hormonal system, which, in turn, affects cognitive and physiological processes. When people are drunk, everything suffers: response time, muscle control, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, short and mediumterm memory, and problem-solving capacity.

In other words, the mortality rate is higher among alcoholics not only because of the particular diseases and conditions caused by alcohol, but also because alcohol increases the normal risk of suicide, homicide and injury resulting from car accidents and violence, for example.

Road accidents

In Quebec, alcohol is a primary cause of road deaths. The problem is particularly tragic among young people, but is not limited to them. In 2000, nearly 40% of drivers who died on Quebec roads had been drinking. From 1995 to 2003, 1,655 Quebecers died in road accidents in which at least one of the drivers was under the influence of alcohol.


While it is wrong to believe that alcohol directly causes violence, the fact remains that, in our society, alcohol intoxication has a direct impact on violent behaviour and the resulting injuries. Because one of the neurological effects of drinking is a loss of inhibition, alcohol is a determining factor in the kind of violence often associated with the removal of inhibition, such as sexual and physical assault.

Victims are often also intoxicated when violence occurs. In some cases, drinking makes people more vulnerable to aggressive behaviour, and in others it makes them provoke an attack.

Conjugal violence

Abusive drinking by one partner in a couple often leads to an escalation of conflict that can result in physical violence. The risk of conjugal violence increases with frequency of intoxication. In Canada, 41% of female victims and 25% of male victims said that their partner was under the influence of alcohol when the violence occurred. According to Statistics Canada, 26% of men and 55% of women who have killed their partners were drunk at the time the murder was committed.

In addition to the physical injury that can result from conjugal violence, studies show that the partners of alcoholics are more likely to suffer from anxiety, insomnia, tension and depression.


Alcohol intoxication, particularly among young people, is linked to unprotected sex, which increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unwanted pregnancy.

Alcohol and the fetus

Pregnant women who drink to the point of intoxication risk giving birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS encompasses a host of problems that can include growth retardation, intellectual deficits, heart malformation, an abnormally small head and other facial and skeletal abnormalities.

For more information, see the Éduc’alcool booklet called Pregnancy and Drinking: Your Questions Answered.

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