Wet Brain Syndrome: Meaning, Causes, Signs & How to Recover

What is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome is a dangerous (and permanent) risk of heavy drinking. Learn more about Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome today in our blog.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

March 9, 2023

It is not unusual to find people indulging in alcohol.

From the older generation to the youth, alcohol is a bonding factor for many. Unfortunately, developing at any age is not a very good habit. Millions and millions of people have been affected by alcohol addiction. It is impossible not to know at least one alcoholic in your life, which is the extent of alcoholism that has spread around us.

Abuse and addiction to alcohol are not restricted to gender, location, religion, or class. It is a global phenomenon, and now a problem, that the world is dealing with. Mostly all American adults have consumed alcohol at least once in their lifetime.

By the Numbers:

10.2% of Americans aged 12 or above have developed Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Similarly, as per the reports by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are about 138.5 million Americans who are active alcohol users. 61.6 million can be classified as binge drinkers, while 17.7 million people can be categorized as heavy drinkers. 

Even though the negative effects of drinking and alcoholism as a health condition have been widely portrayed in media and everywhere else, not much impact has been felt in reality.

Ways Alcohol Use Can Be Dangerous

Despite knowing the consequences, people have not paid much attention to it. Binge drinking, for instance, has become a big problem. Many people would claim to be non-alcoholic but still indulge in drinking every once in a while. That occasional drinking can into binge drinking, which can significantly affect the individual's health. As so many people have been afflicted by it, it is not surprising that more and more people are being diagnosed with alcohol addiction or, as it is clinically called, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

The official numbers we see are of those who have sought medical help from medical facilities and drug rehab centers. The actual number of people affected by this condition may be even higher. So many people out there do not recognize that they are suffering from a medical condition and hence do not seek treatment for it. In such circumstances, there is a high chance of developing various severe health conditions ranging from liver damage, heart issues, cancer, sexual dysfunction, alcoholic hepatitis, pancreatitis, and cardiovascular disease to a condition known as wet brain syndrome. 

Generally, when we talk about the health hazards of alcohol abuse, we hear about liver and heart-related problems. Still, very few talk about the dietary deficiency known as wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. It is among the lesser-known effects of alcohol use disorder. Even though it is a less common condition than other mentioned side effects, it is pretty severe.

Not many people are aware of wet brain syndrome; thus, it is imperative to know more about it. This article will discuss wet brain syndrome, its meaning, causes, symptoms, effects, and how one can recover from it. Read ahead!

What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?

Wet brain syndrome is a medical condition that develops over time when an individual drinks a large amount of alcohol. As a result, it can lead to brain damage, and that condition is known as wet brain syndrome. It's also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, alcohol dementia, Korsakoff Psychosis, and more.

The main reason behind this condition is the deficiency of thiamine or vitamin B1. Thiamine is a very crucial vitamin that the body needs for various functions. It is a water-soluble vitamin that must be at an adequate level for our heart and nervous system to work properly. Vitamin B1 is essential because its deficiency can cause various neurological problems.

Generally, the deficiency can be caused due to improper diet or to those who are heavy drinkers. It is quite common for those alcoholics who have been drinking for a long time. So, what causes the deficiency of thiamine? Thiamine cannot be produced by our body alone. It is naturally found in foods such as beef, pork, potato, whole grains, kale, etc. If we drink excessively, absorption problems begin. 

Alcohol is the main cause behind wet brain syndrome as it prevents the body from utilizing thiamine and reduces the thiamine stores in our body. Thiamine is stored in the liver, and by drinking alcohol, it can get depleted. When someone drinks a large amount of alcohol, the enzymes that help turn thiamine into active compounds are prevented from working. Understanding that thiamine is essential for us as a whole is crucial.

Each part of our body needs thiamine to function properly; without it, there is a good chance of dysfunction. When our brain does not get enough thiamine, it cannot convert the sugar into energy for our bodily functions. Besides, our brain has certain enzymes, including many neurotransmitters, that cannot rightly function without thiamine. When someone cannot get thiamine for a long time, they will develop brain damage, known as wet brain syndrome.

This condition can damage various parts of the brain, especially those responsible for our body movement and motor coordination. You may feel surprised that a deficiency of thiamine can occur within a month. It can lead to bleeding, and if it is not treated, there might be some sustained and permanent damage brain stem, thalamus, cerebellum, mammillary bodies, hypothalamus, and more.

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Stages of Wet Brain Syndrome

Wet brain syndrome develops in two distinct stages, Wernicke's Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Psychosis. Combined, the two conditions are called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

In Wernicke's encephalopathy, a person develops neurological symptoms due to lesions in the brain. These lesions are formed because of an inadequate supply of thiamine. This can also lead to various memory-related issues.

Thiamine (also called vitamin B1) must be consumed. It's not naturally found in the body. Many foods contain thiamine:

  • Meats like beef and pork

  • Eggs

  • Vegetables like asparagus, cauliflower, kale, and potatoes

  • Grains like cereals and rice

  • Fruits like oranges

One of the reasons people who struggle with alcoholism develop a thiamine deficiency is that addiction stops people from taking care of themselves.

After this part of wet brain syndrome, the condition evolves into Korsakoff's psychosis. Most alcoholics who aren't treated for Wernicke's encephalopathy develop Korsakoff's psychosis. This phase of wet brain syndrome damages the brain.

Wet brain is complex because it is not very easily diagnosable. It is especially hard for those patients who cannot recall and share their medical history. Plus, they need to be sober for the diagnosis.

Many tests and additional physical examinations have to happen to diagnose wet brain syndrome.  

What Causes Wet Brain Syndrome & Who's at Risk?

As mentioned before, the main reason behind wet brain syndrome is a severe deficiency of thiamine or Vitamin B1 which is vital in converting sugar into energy.

Excessive drinking makes our digestive tracts flare up, and it becomes difficult to absorb thiamine. The body needs thiamine for sustenance; without it, our bodily function slowly shuts down. Wet brain syndrome is not a genetic disease that can be passed down from generation to generation, like drug and alcohol addiction. Instead, it develops due to poor hygiene and an alcoholic lifestyle.

Regarding the adult population in America, about 80% of people with AUD have a thiamine deficiency, and about 2% have a wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Statistics also point out that more men are affected by this syndrome compared to women; similarly, people in the age bracket of 30-70 years are most impacted by it. 

Various risk factors are associated with wet brain syndrome:

  • Alcohol Use Disorder: One of the leading causes of this syndrome is alcohol addiction. People who abuse alcohol over a long period have a poor diet and malnourishment. Similarly, alcohol causes thiamine depletion and prevention of absorption of thiamine which causes wet brain syndrome. 

  • Poor Diet: Malnourishment can be caused by various health issues like alcohol addiction, anorexia, and other eating disorders. People with these conditions have a higher risk of getting Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. 

  • Kidney Issues: People who are going under kidney dialysis due to health problems can also develop wet brain syndrome. Why? Because when a person is on dialysis, the absorption of vitamins is difficult. This can lead to this brain condition. 

  • AIDS: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS can cause serious health problems and can lead to the deficiency of thiamine. 

  • Age Factor: As we age slowly and steadily, our body's nutrients start to deplete, and our body is not able to absorb them properly. Similarly, at an older age, people do not consume vitamin-rich food, including vitamin B1.

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What Are Wet Brain Syndrome Symptoms?

Wet brain syndrome has two different but related conditions Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis. They are two stages where Wernicke encephalopathy is not diagnosed and treated; it can further develop into Korsakoff's psychosis. Together, these conditions are called wet brain syndrome or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

There is a possibility of misdiagnosis because initial signs of a wet brain can be easily confused with alcohol after effects. A wet brain can cause various symptoms depending on the health condition. Confusion is one of the most prominent initial warning signs of this syndrome. However, confusion is not a big red flag that people often overlook. Plus, this disorientation can be confused by alcoholism too, so it is essential to look for signs when a person is sober. 

Symptoms and Signs of Wet Brain Syndrome

  • Lack of motor coordination: Once the brain damage starts to set in, various things change. One such health effect is a lack of coordination and the ability to move properly. The wet brain affects several parts of the brain, and it can be challenging to maintain balance as the muscles start to get weak. This impairing of reflexes is known as Ataxia. 

  • Vision problems: The initial stage of a wet brain can cause odd eye movements. The person may experience moving of their vision laterally or in up-down movements. They can also experience drooping eyelids and double visions. 

  • Confusion: A person with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can exhibit signs of confusion. This can lead to disinterest in daily work, aggression, agitation, apathy, etc. This can make daily tasks difficult. 

  • Changes in heart rate and body temperature:  Another wet brain syndrome symptom includes increased heart rate and a rise in body temperature. 

Other common symptoms are memory loss, drowsiness, confabulation, hallucination, emotional problems, hypothermia, amnesia, comprehension issues, and more. 

Wet Brain Syndrome Treatment

The most important thing regarding the treatment for wet brain syndrome is recognizing that a person is struggling with alcohol addiction and cannot be treated by themselves. It would help to consult medical experts and addiction specialists about the condition. After the initial diagnosis, you will finally know whether you are suffering from this.

The treatment of wet brain syndrome should start immediately as the wet brain syndrome life expectancy can be as limited as 6 months only. Its initial treatment would include a) Thiamine Administration and b) Hydration. The thiamine will be administered either intravenously or orally.

In most cases, it is done intravenously only. On the other hand, oral supplements will also help in the production and utilization of thiamine. Their body would also need proper hydration. Many other nutrition supplements would also be given to the patients. Even though memory loss cannot be reversed effectively, one needs comprehensive treatment. One should also make several changes in their lifestyle, like a healthy diet, abstinence from alcohol, and nutritious supplements. 

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Can Wet Brain Syndrome Be Reversed?

Yes, possibly. However, recovery from wet brain syndrome depends on multiple factors, including severity, how long a person has had it, when a person started treatment, and more.

Wet Brain Syndrome Is a Serious Complication of Alcohol Abuse. The Edge Treatment Center Can Help

Wet brain syndrome is a frightening complication of alcohol abuse. If you have finally decided that you need an intervention for alcohol abuse, the best way to move forward is by seeking help from a drug rehab center.

The Edge Treatment Center successfully treats alcohol abuse by combining cutting-edge addiction medicine with evidence-based treatment practices. We'll help you detox from alcohol safely by matching you with a trusted drug detox facility. At our outpatient drug rehab, we'll continue to build on your progress from drug detox and inpatient drug rehab, ensuring you have everything you need to fashion a life free from alcohol abuse.

Don't risk wet brain syndrome or worse. Talk to The Edge Treatment Center today.

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If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is hope. Our team can guide you on your journey to recovery. Call us today.