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Don't Rock the Brain-Damage Boat

by Zoe Patterson Ross

In a perfect turn of events for someone involved in writing a blog about wine, I am no longer supposed to drink. Nor was I supposed to use a computer for six weeks. Oh Hallelujah! Neither of these bans, thankfully, are part of a permanent state of affairs, but the good Doctors’ orders remain for now as “no alcohol for 6 months, it would be best if it were more”.

Me? Not imbibe any alcohol?! 
God help us all.

Let’s not aim for 6 months right now. Please, no. I will be working in shorter timeframes, something like when you go for a jog and tell yourself you will run to at least that next lamppost before you start walking.

Fair enough if you want to ask why. Or maybe you don’t. Either way, I’m more than happy to hear the sound of my own voice. I’ll keep it short though – my skull tried to occupy the same dimensions in space and time as a car. In a shocking turn of events, the car won. Fun, huh?

We all know that when you’re sick, or on most medications, you shouldn’t drink alcohol (especially not to excess), but why is that? Your body can’t handle it, you might say. Right, right, but…why? My doctor tells me brain damage. My brain has been damaged by my head trauma. (
“Well, that explains a lot” I hear the snide reader snigger). And, he says, by drinking alcohol at my usual levels, I would also wreaking irreversible damage on my brain cells.

How do brain cells become damaged as a result of drinking alcohol? The effect that alcohol has on the body, the whole sensation of being “
drunk” (see also: wasted, smashed, intoxicated, rummy) occurs after your liver is overcome. This means that more alcohol is getting through to your brain. And this, the breaching of the defences, is VERY, VERY BAD.

When you’re in good health, your champion of a liver pumps poisonous alcohol out of your system like nobody’s business. Most glasses of wine you are served in a restaurant or bar will hold about 150mL of liquid. Although the alcohol content varies between wines, a good rule of thumb is that a normal-sized serving of wine will be about 1.5 standard drinks. The
Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand recommends that men drink no more than 6 standard drinks and women no more than 4 in one session. In a week, men should drink no more than 21 and women no more than 14. More than this, and you’re considered to be binge drinking. In Australia, recommendations (this one's a pdf) are for even fewer drinks.

Think about the last time you got really drunk. How many drinks do you think you had? What happened to you? I’m going to bet that walking in a straight line became an effort, your vision started blurring, you started seeing double, your words slurred together, your reaction times stretched out way beyond normal and quite likely your memory of that night was a little patchy the next day. Motor function and mental capacity – now what controls these? The brain. So, obviously, the alcohol is having some negative effect on your brain…somehow.

In the short term, alcohol interferes with the communication between your neurons – distracting the receptors on cells so that they can’t receive signals they normally would. Chemical accelerators are slowed and inhibitors are sped up. This causes those effects of sluggishness that we ran through earlier. Alcohol is a depressant for this reason – it makes your central nervous system run slower.

That's just the short term. In the long term, excessive alcohol consumption will quite literally
shrink your brain.

Most of the cells in our body are able to regenerate and recover from damage (check out the healing process on your finger after a paper cut). It used to be thought that brain and spinal cord cells couldn't recuperate from damage. But, in an exciting turn of scientific events in the 1990’s, a
series of papers overturned the idea that brain cells can’t regenerate. They showed that, in fact, this process (called neurogenesis) does occur. Whoopah!

Unfortunately, these repairs never seem to take a person fully back to normal. These brain cells, or neurons, mostly form during early development – so if you’re destroying them when you’re 25, 30 or older then you’re in for some serious cognition and memory problems if you go too far at all those keg parties.

So how does this alcohol-induced brain damage relate to concussion? Well, being concussed is a lot like being drunk. When I was first concussed, I had all the above symptoms of being drunk – trouble walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, long reaction times, no memory, plus the added bonus of throwing up. Oh, and yeah, that can happen when you’re drunk too. There are some important differences though. Yes, being concussed is something like being drunk. But just take out all the fun parts. No friends, no gaiety, no music. Plus, you’re already feeling the next morning’s hangover, and, buddy, trust me when I say:
It is here to stay.

Basically, the drunk and the concussed are already in the same brain-damaged boat and neurons are leaking out the hull. So why bother rocking it with a delicious glass of wine?
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