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The Link Between Alcohol and “Brain Fog”

Many people experience “brain fog” at some point in their lives. While brain fog isn’t a medical condition, the term is often used to describe cognitive difficulties, such as trouble with focus, memory, and thinking.1 Brain fog may be a response to lack of sleep, malnutrition, medication, neuroinflammation, and the use of certain substances, such as alcohol.1

Alcohol can disrupt cognitive processes in both the short- and long-term, which is why a person may have trouble paying attention or concentrating after a night of drinking more than usual or as a result of chronic, heavy drinking.2, 3

Chronic, heavy drinking, in particular, can cause cognitive impairment that can persist even after a person stops drinking. Fortunately, some alcohol-related cognitive impairment is reversible with abstinence.4

This article will help you understand how alcohol’s effects on the brain can contribute to “brain fog” and other cognitive difficulties.

How Are Alcohol and Brain Fog Connected?

Alcohol can have several short- and long-term effects on the brain, which can contribute to a person experiencing cognitive impairments they might describe as “brain fog.”2

Alcohol affects the way the brain functions, making it harder for the areas of the brain responsible for memory and thinking to work properly.2 Alcohol-induced blackouts, for example, can create “memory gaps,” which is why a person may not remember events that occurred while they were intoxicated.2 Even if a person doesn’t experience an alcohol-induced blackout, they may still have a hangover following a bout of heavy drinking.3

In addition to physical symptoms, a hangover can produce mental symptoms such as cognitive disturbances including decreased attention and concentration. This is due to the physiological effects of alcohol on the body and brain, which can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, low blood sugar, and disturbances in biological rhythm and sleep patterns.3

As a person continues to drink heavily over long periods, progressive changes in the brain’s function and structure can occur. This can negatively impact a person’s cognitive functions and may promote continued alcohol misuse, potentially contributing to the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcohol addiction.5, 6 Studies show that as many as 50% of people with AUD have detectable cognitive impairments.7

Cognitive impairments associated with AUD include difficulty with processing information and problem-solving, as well as reduced visuospatial abilities. Although rare, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a severe consequence of AUD that affects cognitive functioning.8 WKS is a condition involving 2 different but related disorders: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.9

Korsakoff’s psychosis can develop when a person has Wernicke’s encephalopathy that goes untreated.  The chronic condition causes long-lasting problems with learning and memory and can interfere with a person’s daily functioning.9, 10

Brain Fog Symptoms

“Brain fog” symptoms can vary depending on the underlying cause but often include cognitive difficulties such as trouble with focus, memory, and thinking.11

Alcohol use can have both acute and chronic effects on cognitive functions that can contribute to a person experiencing brain fog-like effects. Acute cognitive impairment can occur when a person is intoxicated. As their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, a person may experience symptoms such as impaired judgment and thinking, memory blackouts, and amnesia.4, 12

Following a bout of heavy drinking, a person may experience symptoms including decreased attention and concentration.3 This can impair a person’s ability to perform certain tasks. As a result, they may perform poorly at school or work and be at an increased risk of injury.

Cognition-related symptoms of long-term alcohol use may include amnesia and difficulty in recalling information.13 Unfortunately, even after a person stops drinking, cognitive impairments can still exist. This is in part because many substances, including alcohol, can produce cognition-related withdrawal symptoms, including deficits in attention and working memory.5

Cognition-related symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can range in severity but may include difficulty concentrating, impaired judgment, memory loss, and more.12

The cognition-related symptoms associated with withdrawal are generally temporary, however, chronic, heavy alcohol use can lead to lasting decline and has been associated with impaired decision-making, exercising judgment, problem-solving, and mental flexibility.5, 14

Unfortunately, cognitive impairments like this can make it difficult for a person to remain abstinent in the early stages of recovery. However, the “brain fog” that makes abstinence and many other tasks difficult, may fade the longer a person remains abstinent.14

How Long Does Brain Fog From Alcohol Last?

“Brain fog” and other symptoms that are caused by a hangover usually lessen within 8 to 24 hours.3 However, the timeframe can be longer for people who experience cognitive impairment as a result of alcohol use disorder.

Following alcohol detoxification, many people experience deficits in cognitive abilities, including problem-solving, short-term memory, and visuospatial abilities. Fortunately, abstinence can help. Studies show that people who maintain abstinence continue to recover cognitive function over several months to 1 year and experience significant increases in brain volume compared to people who relapse.4

For people with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, most symptoms can be reversed over a few months if they are treated quickly. However, if the condition progresses to Korsakoff’s psychosis, permanent brain damage and memory impairment can occur.10, 15

How to Get Rid of Brain Fog

If you’re wondering how to get rid of alcohol-induced “brain fog,” it may be time to seek professional treatment. Professional treatment can help you stop drinking and regain control of your life.

Cutting back or stopping your alcohol use on your own can be hard and can have potentially dangerous physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Medical detox can help you achieve an alcohol-free state more comfortably and safely while under the care of medical professionals. Following medical detox with a period of inpatient or outpatient treatment can help you address the underlying causes of your addiction and maintain sobriety.16

Fortunately, there is hope for people who are struggling with alcohol. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 1/3 of people who receive treatment for alcohol-related problems experience no further symptoms 1 year later.16

If you are ready to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is ready to help. AAC is a leading provider of evidence-based addiction treatment with facilities across the U.S. You can call our free, confidential helpline at for more information about rehab, and easily verify your insurance by filling out the form below.

 

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