Monday, May 24, 2010

Wet Brain in Sobriety

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, alcoholic encephalopathy (brain damage), Korsakoff psychosis, Wernicke’s disease… all these names refer to what is most commonly called by people in recovery as “Wet Brain”. What’s the real story with Wet Brain Syndrome?

You have probably heard the scary stories about the dangers of LSD - people who dropped acid one too many times or had a bad trip just once who would then suffer random hallucinations and psychotic episodes the rest of their life despite never doing acid again. Perhaps the closest thing to that phenomenon of acid flashbacks for alcoholics would be Wet Brain Syndrome since it involves neurological damage and symptoms that can last long after putting the plug in the jug. 

When “partying” back in the active days, despite maybe a few jokes about killing brain cells, rarely do heavy drinkers think the alcohol could slowly cause such very serious neurological impairment as is the case with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. And much like the disease of alcoholism itself, wet brain can sneak up on the heavy drinker, as it develops gradually.

Symptoms of Wet Brain

In reality a much better comparison of Wet Brain would be to Alzheimer’s. Dementia, short term memory loss, and confabulation (false memories) characterize wet brain syndrome. Also, Wet Brain aka Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, typically includes problems related to eye movements, balance and gait, and loss of coordination. 

Some of these symptoms resemble drunkenness; like with the acid flashbacks, despite absence of the drug, the neurological effects can prevail long after the initial damage was inflicted. Other signs include fatigue, irritability, and sleep disturbances. Late stage Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can even result in coma and death.

If you are in early in sobriety, sometimes concerns of Wet Brain are confused with actually suffering from PAWS. PAWS stands for Post Acute Withdrawl Syndrome which can include symptoms such as inability to think clearly, memory problems, sleep disturbances, emotional overreactions or numbness, sensitivity to stress, and problems with coordination. 

PAWS is temporary, whereas Wet Brain is typically more permanent. Experts suggest PAWS starts a week or two after abstaining from alcohol and can last for 3 months to 2 years into sobriety!

What Causes Wet Brain

Wet brain is caused by gradual brain damage from thiamin (vitamin B1) deficiency. For alcoholics, this syndrome technically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff, develops gradually as a result of a deficiency of thiamin which leads to brain function decline and even neuron death. Chronic excessive alcohol consumption leads to a multitude of vitamin deficiencies, including that of vitamin B1 a.k.a. thiamin. 

Thiamin plays a crucial role in glucose metabolism, and anything that inhibits the crucial creation of glucose (which the brain relies on to function) can thus cause the brain to rapidly decline in function. Active alcoholics typically have a poor diet which contributes to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, however even with healthy eating habits the heavy drinking will interfere with absorption of thiamin.

Can Non-Alcoholics Get Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

While wet brain is mainly associated with alcoholism, sometimes non-drinkers can develop Wernicke’s disease as well. There are other ways to become thiamin deficient and therefore susceptible to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, as with the following conditions: severe malnourishment, Chron’s disease, stomach surgery (gastric bypass or stapling), eating disorders involving starvation or vomiting, and even side-effects of chemotherapy.

Can Wet Brain Be Treated

The successful treatment of wet brain depends mainly on the stage of its progression. Early onset of wet brain can be treated and often reversed entirely if caught in time. Anyone exhibiting signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome should be given thiamin immediately. Doctors typically administer thiamin intravenously at first. 

For those looking to supplement on their own, the closest thing to IV is taking a supplement in an isotonic form (for 90-95% absorption, versus 100% with IV, and as little as 20-30% with tablet supplements). In this case, it is recommended to take a B complex supplement rather than choose an individual B vitamin as the various Bs work synergistically together.

Late stage wet brain may be referred to as “Korsakoff psychosis” due to the serious permanent nature of its symptoms. Unfortunately, in its later stages the disease is not reversible.

Patients with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome are sometimes treated with medications used for Alzheimer’s disease when thiamine treatments are ineffective. For those seeking a natural approach to support their cognitive health may check out Cognitin, a cognitive support formula. 

Cognitin contains the antioxidants acetyl L-Carnitine and alpha lipoic acid (both very beneficial to brain function), and contains vinpocetine (derived from periwinkle extract) which has been used for decades around the world to treat Alzheimer’s and dementia, and is becoming more widely used for general cognitive support.

Do All Recovering Alcoholics Have Some Brain Damage?

On a more subtle level, it is probable that all recovering alcoholics have suffered various degrees of cognitive impairment over the course of active drinking years. With this in mind, even the younger and seemingly healthier recovering alcoholics who have no fear of wet brain can benefit from supplementing with a quality vitamin B complex in sobriety (see related article). In fact, researchers have found that supplementing with thiamin (part of B Complex) can also help prevent the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome a.k.a. Wet Brain in heavy drinkers.

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