Whether it is a glass of red wine with dinner, a poolside mojito, or a hot cup of coffee and Baileys after a long day spent in the cold, there are many ways for us to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. But, what most of us enjoying these beverages fail to realize is the adverse effects that alcohol has on our nerves.
Although most of us are aware of the detrimental effects alcohol abuse may have, fewer of us realize what alcohol does to our nerves. This conversation is an important one to have because alcohol can cause peripheral neuropathy, something many of us do not realize. Alcohol neuropathy, also called alcoholic neuropathy or alcohol induced neuropathy, is a degradation of nerves due to the abuse of alcohol. In fact, alcohol neuropathy is one of the most common adverse effects seen in patients with chronic alcoholism (Sadowski and Houck, 2019).
How Does Drinking Alcohol Cause Neuropathy?
The cause of alcohol neuropathy is multi-factorial, with both nutritional deficiencies and alcohol metabolism’s direct toxic effect on neurons being to blame.
People who regularly consume alcohol often have issues absorbing nutrients in their gastrointestinal tract which causes malnutrition and nutritional vitamin deficiencies. Among the most common vitamin deficiencies in alcoholics are vitamins B12, folate and most notably B1 (thiamine). Thiamine has roles in both carbohydrate metabolism and neuron/myelin development, and therefore a lack of thiamine in the nervous system affects the cellular structure of neurons making them more susceptible to damage. Alcohol and its metabolites also has detrimental effects on neurons such as removing the protective layer on a neuron (the myelin sheath). As alcohol abuse continues, the damage to the nerves continues and worsens.
What Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Look Like?
Alcohol neuropathy manifests itself in similar ways to other neuropathies with symptoms including burning and tingling sensations in the feet, muscle weakness, pins and needles etc. Pain in the lower extremities is often noted as well. The muscle weakness and lack of balance and coordination which accompanies these symptoms of neuropathy can make individuals more at risk for injuring themselves by falling, losing balance, etc. The symptoms of alcohol neuropathy can last anywhere from a few months to years, depending on the severity of the nerve damage or deficiencies.
How to Treat Alcoholic Neuropathy?
Alcohol neuropathy continues to worsen over time as alcohol consumption is continued. To prevent any further damage to the nerves, individuals diagnosed with alcohol neuropathy should immediately cut back their consumption of alcohol. Treatment should primarily be focused on alcohol sobriety and a replacement of key nutrients.
Dietary supplements such as vitamins E, B1, folate and B12 are often recommended. Although severe damage to the nerves caused by alcoholic neuropathy is usually permanent, alcohol abstinence for several months up to a few years has shown vast improvements with most patients showing complete regain of function. Other treatments considered may be medications for pain management, physiotherapy or occupational therapy to regain function and movement, etc.
So, if neuropathy is something you are struggling with it is best to limit alcohol use as well as for preventative measures. Like everything in life- moderation is key.
For those struggling with alcohol abuse visit https://www.ccsa.ca/
Alcohol.org. (2019). Alcoholic Polyneuropathy: Nerve Damage, Sensitivity, Coordination. [online] Available at: https://www.alcohol.org/comorbid/polyneuropathy/
Sadowski, A. and Houck, R. (2019). Alcoholic Neuropathy. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499856.
The Foundation For Peripheral Neuropathy. (2019). Alcohol & Peripheral Neuropathy – Pins & Needles, Nerve Damage. [online] Available at: https://www.foundationforpn.org/what-is-peripheral-neuropathy/causes/alcohol/.
Sabrina Martini is a student entering the 4th year of her Bachelors of Science, majoring in Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge.