5 Areas of Mental Ability Affected by Alcohol

In episode 282 of the Elevation Recovery Podcast, Matt Finch discusses the 5 different areas of mental ability that are “consistently compromised” by alcohol abuse. These include memory formation, abstract thinking, problem-solving, attention and concentration, and perception of emotion.

He reads a passage from the book “Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs” about how to regain those areas of mental ability.

Links to Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

Here are some ways to learn from this episode:

Matt Finch: We didn't like the once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. And we didn't like the ideas, the old ideas, where once you lose your brain cells, you can never grow them back and you can never get a healthy brain again and permanent brain damage. And so that's why we became really, really passionate about learning all the different natural modalities and other types of therapeutics that one can do to first of all, quit drinking, second of all, stay quit, and third of all, to start to really, really repair, rejuvenate and restore healthy brain function.

Announcer: Thanks for tuning into the Elevation Recovery project. Your hub for addiction recovery strategies, hosted by Chris Scott and Matt Finch.

Matt Finch: Five areas of mental ability are consistently compromised by chronic alcohol abuse. In this episode, I'm going to do a brief reading from one of my books from college, when I was in a trade school to become a certified substance abuse counselor. Here's the book right here. It's very, very good. The title is Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. It's about 300 and some odd pages. I'm going straight to the chapter of alcohol, which is really comprehensive. It's about 30, 35 pages. And I thought this would be really fun to read today. Very informative. And this is the section in the alcohol chapter on effects on mental functioning. So five areas of mental ability are consistently compromised by chronic alcohol abuse. Those are, one, memory formation, two, abstract thinking, three, problem solving, four, attention and concentration, and five, perception of emotion.

Matt Finch: As many as 70% of people who seek treatment for alcohol related problems suffer significant impairment of these five abilities. So we're going to go through, there's a paragraph or two on each of these five abilities that become consistently compromised by chronic alcohol drinking. All right. Memory formation. By memory formation, we mean the ability to form new memories, not the ability to recall information that was learned from the past. That is an individual with a chronic drinking habit might vividly and accurately recall what he learned early in life, but not be able to tell what he ate for lunch hours earlier. And the richness and detail of his memories during the past few years of drinking might be significantly less than in those earlier memories. On some tests of mental ability that assesses different kinds of brain functions, chronic drinkers often perform just fine on most of the categories, but perform poorly on the memory sections. This selective and profound memory deficit may be a result of damage to specific brain areas, such as the hippocampus, the mammillary bodies, or the frontal lobes.

Matt Finch: Now we're going to go to the section on abstract thinking. This is area two that chronic alcohol exposure can impair, chronic impairment. Abstract thinking. By abstract thinking, we mean being able to think in ways that are not directly tied to concrete things. We think abstractly when we interpret the meaning of stories, work on word puzzles or solve geometry or algebra problems. Chronic drinkers often find these abilities compromised. One way to measure abstract thinking is to show someone a group of objects and ask her to group the objects according to the characteristics they share.` Chronic drinkers will consistently group things based on their concrete characteristics, such as size, shape, and color, rather than on the basis of their abstract characteristics, such as what they are used for or what kinds of things they are. It is as if abstract thoughts do not come to mind as easily for the chronic drinker.

Matt Finch: Next is number three, problem solving. We all have to solve problems each day. If that's not the understatement of the millennia, I don't know what is. Some are simple ones, like determining whether to do laundry or the grocery shopping first. Some are more complicated, like setting up a new personal computer or deciding on what inventory to order for the next month needs in a business. In either case, one of the required abilities is mental flexibility. We need to be able to switch strategies and approaches to problems, particularly the complicated ones, to solve them efficiently. People with a history of chronic drinking often have a lot of difficulty with this. Under testing conditions, it appears that they get stuck in a particular mode of problem solving and take a lot longer to get to a solution than someone else who's better able to switch strategies and try new approaches. This difficulty could relate to the effects of alcohol and chronic drinking on the executive functions of the frontal lobes.

Matt Finch: Next for category number four, attention and concentration. Chronic drinkers also develop difficulty in focusing their attention and maintaining their concentration. This appears to be particularly difficult when related to tasks that require visual attention and concentration. Again, the deficits may not appear until the person is challenged. In casual conversation, the sober chronic drinker may be able to concentrate perfectly well, but placed in a more challenging situation, like reading an instruction manual, driving a car, or operating a piece of equipment, she might be quite impaired.

Matt Finch: Finally, we come to category five, perception of emotion. One of the most important elements of our social behavior is the ability to recognize and interpret the emotions of other people. Alcoholics have a deficit in the ability to perceive emotion in people's language. There's a specific brain function that normally gives us the ability to detect attitude and emotion and conversation. It turns out that chronic heavy drinking markedly reduces this ability. It is important to realize that this deficit is one of perception, and does not reflect the alcoholic's own emotional state. It's as if the subtle things like the tone and cadences of the other person's language that convey attitude and emotion are simply not perceived by the alcoholic. This is particularly interesting because we know that chronic heavy drinkers often have difficulty in social relationships. Perhaps this perceptual deficit causes some of these problems. Now, after learning about this, these five categories and how chronic consistent drinking over the span of months and years can negatively impact these five important areas for having a healthy brain and problem solving and emotions and attention focus, these are all very important things.

Matt Finch: The question I would be asking right now, if I didn't already know the answer and I was back in my drinking days would be, do these deficits go away? So they have a section on that. And then we're going to conclude this podcast episode by reading this. Chronic heavy drinkers who quit recover these functions, partially during the first month or two after the last drink. However, once this time passes, they have gotten back all that they will recover. It is difficult to identify precisely how much recovery occurs, but clear deficits do appear to persist permanently in these individuals. In one study, people who had quit drinking completely after many years of alcohol abuse were examined for seven years. Even after this time, they had significant memory deficits. This persistent pattern of memory deficits in previous alcoholics is common enough to have a specific diagnosis. It is generally called either alcohol amnesic disorder or dementia associated with alcoholism.

Matt Finch: Now that we've covered that section, it is very important for you to note that this book was written more than a decade ago, I think closer to maybe even 15 years ago or longer ago. And so this was not informed with all the new research on how to repair the addicted brain after quitting drinking and after quitting drugs. So there are so many different types of therapies that we can do to heal our brain and to get really, really good brain function back. So when they follow these people, it didn't say anything about what their diets were like, what kind of supplements they were taking, what kind of, if they're doing neurofeedback or other types of brain enhancing therapies. So if you've been following this podcast for a while, you know how much Chris Scott and I are basically obsessed about healing the brain, because when we were learning about alcoholism and addiction and how to recover for ourselves, we didn't like the prognosis.

Matt Finch: We didn't like the prospect of, well, if I have to go to AA meetings for the rest of my life, and we didn't really want to do that long term, it just wasn't for us. And we saw the people that loved it, and that were happy being there long term for life, that just wasn't us. And also we didn't want to be totally powerless and dependent on meetings and our sponsor. Otherwise we were at risk of going back to drinking and we didn't like the once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. And we didn't like the ideas, the old ideas, where once you lose your brain cells, you can never grow them back, and you can never get a healthy brain again and permanent brain damage.

Matt Finch: So that's why we became really, really passionate about learning all the different natural modalities and other types of therapeutics that one can do to first of all, quit drinking. Second of all, stay quit. And third of all, to start to really, really repair, rejuvenate and restore healthy brain function. Now we've learned from things like exercise, for example, especially high intensity interval training, that boosts something called BDNF. BDNF stands for brain derived neurotrophic factor. I've heard it kind of related to Miracle-Gro. If you remember that stuff, Miracle-Gro, well, they call this Miracle-Gro for the brain. BDNF increases something called neurogenesis, and neurogenesis refers to the birth of, and creation of, new, brand new and healthy brain cells. So number one, and there's supplements that can do this as well. Shoot, even nicotine. That's a very addictive chemical. I'm not recommending it, but even that increases BDNF. So does a supplement called lithium orate, which both Chris Scott and I both used in early recovery when he was quitting drinking, and when I was quitting drinking and using drugs as well.

Matt Finch: Then new research comes out when the CBD craze happened and CBD went through this really big fad, and it's still going on. It's not just a fad. It's not just a trend. It's a new normal. So many people nowadays are aware of how healthy CBD is for most individuals. One of the mechanisms of action of CBD, and there's many positive mechanisms of action, is hippocampal neurogenesis. So we just discussed how neurogenesis creates the stimulation and birth of new healthy brain cells. So hippocampal neurogenesis is the creation of new healthy brain cells in the specific region of the brain known as the hippocampus, something that deals with memory. In my Psychology 101 class in college, I remember my professor helping us to remember what this area of the brain was, but she said this, "If you saw a hippo on campus, you would remember it." So ever since then, I've remembered that hippocampus deals largely with memory. So I don't want to scare you based on the things I read from that book Buzzed, that was not the intent was to scare you into stop drinking.

Matt Finch: No, it was to number one, really kind of portray and frame and maybe bring to the surface and magnify some of the negative consequences of drinking. Because, unfortunately, we can't see our brains. We've got our skin over it. I mean, a lot of people have hair, Chris and I don't. Maybe I got a little bit going right now, but most people have hair and then everyone's got skin and then we've got this cranium underneath the skin. And then the brain's underneath that. So we don't see our brain. We see our teeth, we see our skin, we see these types of things. So a lot of us can become more self-conscious of these, right? More kind of taking care of them. Like you don't just want to not take care of things that you can see, because then you can see them getting worse and worse. The issue with our brain is we cannot see it.

Matt Finch: So it's often out of sight, out of mind. That's certainly how it was for myself. When I was drinking all the time, back in the day, many times, mixing alcohol with pills and other drugs, many times just taking drugs without alcohol. So I was really concerned with feeling good, feeling comfortable in my own skin, and getting the boost, the neurotransmitter boost such as dopamine and other neurotransmitters, from administering these substances. Basically, I didn't know it back then, but ultimately the reason I was drinking so much and using so many different types of drugs was to boost dopamine and to boost GABA and to boost endorphins, primarily. Those were my substances of choice, sedatives and pain killers that boosted those very calming, very relaxing neurotransmitters, as well as dopamine in combination with GABA and with the opioid receptors.

Matt Finch: Some people start off right from the get go, early on in life, realizing that they don't like sedatives and they don't like pain killers, but they like uppers. They like stimulants something that just boost dopamine with no other neurotransmitters, but boosts dopamine radically. Methamphetamines, stimulants, like Adderall. Those things can boost dopamine. So high. In fact, there's a new book that came out recently called Dopamine Nation: How To Find Balance In The Age of Indulgence, by Dr. Anna Lembke in that book contained research that one hit, one hit of methamphetamine is equal to the same amount of dopamine that someone would produce from 10 sexual orgasms. That is a high dopamine boost right there. I never liked stimulants, like cocaine and methamphetamines. I did dabble in them, but I never got addicted to any stimulants because I'm already so stimulated and so kind of more like anxious and kind of aware of things.

Matt Finch: So I always really resonated with biochemically the effects of sedatives and painkillers and especially the combination of both of those together, which gave my central nervous system this synergistic, ultimate relaxing feeling mixed with dopamine in there too, because all addictive substances spike dopamine as well. Some of them, many of them also stimulate other neurotransmitters, but any substance that can become addictive typically increases dopamine too. I can't think of any addictive substances that do not increase dopamine, but just straight dopamine was not great for my biochemistry. I need a dopamine mixed with GABA or mixed with endorphin or mixed with GABA and endorphin preferably.

Matt Finch: So that's going to conclude this podcast episode, one to keep this one relatively short. And if you're at all worried about long-term effects of drinking on those five areas we just discussed, if you haven't listened to this podcast for a while, I recommend going back, looking, checking through the titles of episodes and finding any episodes that are about biochemical optimization that are about supplements that are about diet and lifestyle tips for recovering from alcoholism or addiction in general, and healing the brain to as optimized of a capacity as you can get.

Matt Finch: So all of our longtime listeners, this information was probably not alarming because they're aware that, oh, wow, no, I've learned so many things already from this podcast where you can heal the brain. Matter of fact, in this episode alone, a couple of the caveats I introduced to you after the section I read, CBD increases hippocampal neurogenesis, lithium orate, and types of intense exercise, stimulate BDNF, Miracle-Gro for the brain. So we can regenerate and create new brain cells. We can optimize current brain cells. We can do all sorts of natural and semisynthetic and even synthetic pharmaceutical medications used under the care of a physician or psychiatrist, et cetera, to give us back our neurotransmitter health. There's a book called The Mood Cure by Julia Ross that revolutionized the way that I viewed this. We can actually take certain different types of foods, certain types of diets, certain amino acid supplements and other supplements that can help us to naturally increase GABA and dopamine.

Matt Finch: The two primary neurotransmitters that alcohol stimulates when you drink it, when you drink any type of ethanol, whether it's a beer or wine or hard liquor, what it does is it gets into your bloodstream. Some of it digests in the small intestine, and some of it gets through digestion into the bloodstream, then it binds to your GABA subtype B receptors in the central nervous system. Once alcohol binds to those GABA subtype B receptors, then it turns on the receptors. It's like going in there and then it fits perfectly, then it's a full agonist. So it goes in there and mimics those receptors. So all alcohol does is boost GABA, dopamine, and other things that we already create naturally. And then the problem is we like those feelings so much, oh, GABA and dopamine, that's a great combination, relaxing and motivating at the same time. Plus it elevates your blood sugar too.

Matt Finch: So it's got a lot of ... And it hits really quick. There's a lot of reasons that alcohol is so addictive, but then when we drink it too much and for too long, then we can start to have major problems. First minor problems, then major, and then can be life threatening issues, marriage threatening issues, and other types of really big problems. But it's all to get that GABA and dopamine boost at a minimum. So it's both calming and euphoria and motivating at the same time. And depending on the person's biochemistry, depending on the type of alcohol, depending on the dosage of alcohol in a sitting, and many other VA variables, genetic vulnerabilities and other genetic factors, and so much more alcohol, can have a wide range of biphasic action. From very, very sedating to very, very stimulating. Some people get hypomania, energy, lots of energy and motivation, and it's like a new tropic for them, almost. Other people, it's like a sleeping pill, like a sedative just makes them kind of tired and spaced out.

Matt Finch: SO that's the biphasic action of alcohol. So you can have all these different things. And so a lot of people drink alcohol too much, myself included, for many years of my life. Because number one, I just didn't know why I was drinking. I wanted to feel good, but I didn't know that it was because it was boosting neurotransmitters that I already should create naturally in ample amounts. So the whole time I was drinking, I never knew anything. I don't even know if I'd ever heard the word neurotransmitter. Certainly hadn't heard the word GABA or anything like that the first couple of years I was addicted.

Matt Finch: So to make a long story short, you can really, really learn a lot. We call this knowledge therapy and the more you learn, the more it's going to excite you, build your belief in yourself that you can do this and that you can recover and that you can heal body, mind, and soul. And the more knowledge you have, the more potential you have to take action on. Then it's just about figuring out which things that you learn you're going to implement. And then it's about writing it down somewhere so you can make sure that you keep that in your awareness, come up with a start date to start a new therapy, and the speed of implementation. So it's this never ending ongoing journey of knowledge, wisdom, and implementation. And with that being said, thanks so much. We love you all so very much and take care, see you on the next episode.

Chris Scott: Hey everyone, Chris Scott here. If you like the information on today's episode regarding supplementation and empowerment strategies for addiction recovery, then please subscribe to the Elevation Recovery podcast and leave us a rating and review on iTunes. And if you benefited directly from this information, I'm confident in saying that you'll love the information packed online courses that Matt Finch and I have created. Matt Finch's Ultimate Opiate Detox 4.0 is a six module 30 activity course that contains video lessons, written lessons, PDF downloads, worksheets, audios, and much more. And it has everything you could possibly need to know to conquer opioid addiction in the easiest and most comfortable way possible. My own course, Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0 is the most cutting edge resource for anyone who wants to transcend alcohol and build their best lives. To get these courses, to learn more, and to read testimonials, simply go to opiateaddictionsupport.com/ultimate. Again, that's opiateaddictionsupport.com/ultimate for Matt's course. Or for my course go to fit-recovery.com/course. Again, that's fit-recovery.com/course. You can also go to elevationrecovery.com to see the show notes for this episode.


  • Chris Scott

    Chris Scott founded Fit Recovery in 2014 to help people from around the world dominate alcohol dependence and rebuild their lives from scratch. A former investment banker, he recovered from alcohol dependence using cutting-edge methods that integrate nutrition, physiology, and behavioral change. Today, Chris is an Alcohol Recovery Coach and the creator of an online course called Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0.

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