Wet Brain (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome) — Alcohol Abuse and Thiamine Deprivation

November 15, 2022

“Wet brain” is a condition caused by alcohol abuse. Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, “wet brain” is a form of degenerative brain damage that typically only happens in people who have been suffering from alcohol use disorder for some time.

Alcohol is one of the oldest and most widely abused drugs in the world, with over 15 million Americans suffering from some form of alcohol use disorder. It’s no surprise that many of these Americans end up with wet brain — it affects up to 2% of the population.

The mechanism behind wet brain is fairly simple as far as diseases go. It starts with inflammation in the GI tract caused by alcohol consumption, and when the inflammation occurs, it limits the absorption of thiamine, an essential vitamin regulating brain function. 

If the brain is deprived of thiamine for long enough, it can cause a severe loss in brain function that’s hard to recover from.

Even though wet brain occurs after years of alcoholism, the onset of symptoms and the declining mental state can happen very suddenly, especially if the person struggling with alcoholism is also consistently eating unhealthy foods.

Wet brain is typically only a risk for alcoholics; however, pregnant women with severe morning sickness, dialysis patients, people with AIDS, and significantly malnourished people are all at risk for developing wet brain.

Symptoms of Wet Brain Include:

There is no test to diagnose this disorder, but if these symptoms are present, doctors can do a blood test to see if thiamine levels are low and make a determination based on a number of factors. 

If they are certain wet brain is the cause, they will likely have to do an MRI scan to see if there is any significant brain damage. 

Stages of Wet Brain

Wet brain happens in two stages: the first is known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. The second stage is called Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

The first stage is a drastic (but often short-lived) phase of extreme mental impairment. Someone experiencing this may be confused about doing ordinary daily tasks, such as cooking or dressing. 

They may also have a difficult time standing, walking, and even keeping their eyelids open since the nerves that control the eyes will become paralyzed at this stage.

If the development of Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caused by alcoholism and not a more benign source, such as morning sickness or poor diet habits, there will be an 80-90% chance that the second phase of wet brain occurs.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

This stage has much more severe symptoms. If the disease isn’t caught by now, the symptoms may be irreversible.

Korsakoff’s psychosis is a form of dementia, and it’s characterized by severe memory loss and hallucinations. It’s also not uncommon for people to fall into chronic lying or “confabulation” to make up for massive gaps in their memory.

After this, if left untreated, or if treatments fail to produce any tangible results, people suffering from wet brain can fall into permanent states of dementia, coma, and even death.

There’s an additional risk that someone could develop Korsakoff’s psychosis even without the first stage of wet brain during especially difficult alcohol withdrawals if delirium tremens (DTs) start to occur.

How to Prevent Wet Brain

Due to the difficulty in diagnosing and reversing wet brain, prevention will be your best course of action against it. 

Significantly reducing or abstaining from alcohol entirely is by far the best thing you can do to boost thiamine levels — supplementing with B1 vitamins or broad-spectrum multivitamins is also a good idea.

However, another excellent method of prevention is to eat healthily by adding thiamine-rich foods to your diet. Sunflower seeds, eggs, asparagus, yogurt, fish, and pork are all excellent sources of B1 vitamins that, in time, can get you back to healthy levels.

Treatments for Wet Brain

Late stages of wet brain are incurable as of now, but when the symptoms are caught and treated early on, it’s possible to manage a number of the symptoms and possibly reverse them (even though this is rare) through direct I.V. drips of thiamine. 

It is possible to curb the mildest symptoms with B1 vitamins from a drug store; however, it’s estimated that you’re only getting around 5% absorption when you take B1 orally, so it’s only recommended to use this as a preventative measure.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism, it may be tough to tell the difference between drunkenness and the early stages of wet brain. That’s why getting help now could be your best defense to make sure none of your loved ones fall victim to this terrible disease.

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