Alcohol is one of the most commonly used psychoactive substances in the world, along with caffeine and nicotine. But as a culturally accepted recreational substance, few come close to alcohol’s ubiquity. Unfortunately, while alcohol is common among adults, it’s one of the main substances of choice among teens. Adolescents are in a specific stage of development that makes them more vulnerable to alcohol’s effects than adults are. Alcohol can have profound effects on the brain, especially in brains in vital stages of development. But how does alcohol affect adolescent brains that are still developing?
Learn more about how alcohol can affect brain development and the permanent changes alcohol can have on an adolescent brain.
Why Do Teens Drink?
Teen drinking is widespread across the U.S., despite its dangers. For many, drinking is a rite of passage that initiates them into adulthood. Others are drawn to it out of mere curiosity. Though it comes with medical and social risks, teens may start drinking and even drink excessively for many reasons. Here are a few common reasons an adolescent might drink:
Risk-taking is common among teenagers. They know certain unsafe activities will give them a rush, but they usually don’t think about the potential consequences. Some researchers believe this is due to the fact that it takes the human brain about 25 years to fully develop.
For example, drinking has apparent short-term benefits, such as social acceptance and a “buzz” that makes them feel relaxed. However, teenagers may have difficulty recognizing future consequences, such as decreased academic performance, addiction, or drunk driving accidents.
Expectations about alcohol and other addictive substances are crucial risk factors for early alcohol abuse. Beliefs about alcohol are usually formed early in life. Children under age 9 tend to have a negative view of alcohol but change their views as they become teenagers.
Teenagers expect drinking to be an enjoyable experience and may be more likely to drink. Those who aren’t afraid of getting caught and facing minor consequences will likely engage in increasingly risky behavior. Teens tend to focus on the positive aspects of alcohol and downplay the consequences.
Sensitivity and Tolerance
Teenagers tend to handle the negative effects of alcohol better than fully grown adults. For example, teens and young adults can drink more without experiencing drowsiness or hangovers. However, they are also more sensitive to the positive effects, such as the decrease in social anxiety, which makes them more likely to drink in social situations. While adults may experience the positive and negative effects of drinking, teenagers may only experience positive effects unless they get in serious trouble or drink excessively. Researchers believe all this may have something to do with brain development.
Peer and Parent Influence
The influence of peers and parents is a major contributing factor to teen drinking. U.S. culture strongly promotes alcohol use. In fact, more than 85% of adults have tried alcohol at least once in their lives. However, environmental factors can have varying degrees of influence on different age groups.
Peers can lead teenagers to believe that underage drinking is normal and a rite of passage. Because drinking is widely understood as a social activity, teens can start drinking early on.
Romantic partners can have an even stronger influence on teenagers. When teenagers date older teens that drink, they become more likely to drink. This is especially true of teenage girls romantically involved with adult men.
Though peers and romantic partners majorly impact teen drinking, parents play the most significant role. They often are the first to expose a young person to alcohol and shape the household view of alcohol. Teenagers with parents who drink and foster a positive view of alcohol are likelier to drink. Those with little supervision may also be more likely to drink and experiment with other addictive substances.
Genes make significant contributions to the development of biological and mental health disorders. Traits and behaviors parents and their children share may be linked to genes. Even behavioral issues like substance use disorders and addiction can be caused by genetics.
Of course, some traits are learned through environmental factors. For example, some teens drink because they watch their parents drink. Researching children that were separated from their biological parents early in life can help differentiate between learned behavior and behavior caused by genetics.
Researchers have used these methods to understand how genetics affect teen drinking and alcohol use disorders. Genetics can impact how the body responds to alcohol and even alcohol tolerance levels. Children whose parents are alcoholics are four to 10 times more likely to develop alcohol problems themselves. They are also much more likely to start drinking at a young age and develop drinking problems faster.
Genetics also have a hand in the development of conduct and mental health disorders that contribute to alcohol addiction. In fact, about half of people who experience mental illness will also develop a substance use disorder. Usually, alcohol addiction and mental health disorders share many of the same environmental and genetic risk factors.
Why Is Teen Drinking Dangerous?
Alcohol is one of the most common psychoactive substances in the world. One of the main reasons drinking as a teenager is dangerous is because teen brains are still in the process of development. Regularly introducing active chemical substances like alcohol to the brain can have damaging effects, especially on a brain that hasn’t fully formed. Brain development starts before birth and likely continues well into your mid-20s.
However, the teen years are a period of accelerated growth for a person’s brain and body. During this critical stage of development, alcohol can do significant damage.
Biological Risks of Teen Drinking
Myelination is an example of an important developmental phase that alcohol can affect. Myelin is white brain matter that coats the part of your nerve cells called the axon. This white matter helps with conductivity. Healthy myelin can help your brain send signals faster, which aids in reaction time, judgment, memory, and other key cognitive functions.
Your brain goes through an increased period of myelin growth, called myelination, during your adolescent years. However, heavy drinking during this time can slow or impair myelination. Heavy drinking that lasts long enough can permanently impair brain functions like memory, decision making, and judgment.
Teen brains may be more vulnerable to memory and learning problems when exposed to alcohol than adult brains, even in the short term. Again, this is associated with brains still undergoing development.
Social Risks of Teen Drinking
Early alcohol exposure may also increase your risk of developing a substance use disorder later in life. Early alcohol use isn’t just associated with an increased risk of an alcohol use disorder; it’s also associated with higher risks of addiction to other kinds of drugs. In fact, early alcohol exposure is associated with several poor outcomes in adulthood, including herpes infection, educational problems, and criminal convictions.
Alcohol use and abuse can come with a host of social dangers, especially for teens. Teen drinking is associated with violent behavior, being the victim of sexual assault, disease transmission, drunk driving accidents, and teen pregnancy.
Is It Better for Teens to Drink at Home?
While teen drinking under adult supervision can mitigate some of the social risks of drinking, like opportunistic assault or drunk driving, it doesn’t protect against some of the biological dangers. Early exposure to alcohol can still increase a teen’s risk of problems in adulthood, especially alcohol use problems. Plus, heavy drinking can still lead to impaired learning and cognitive functioning, even if it happens at home with adult supervision.
Alcoholic neuropathy is a serious consequence of alcohol use problems, and it often happens after a severe alcohol use disorder. Years of binge drinking can have severe long-term health effects. Many of them are reversible with cessation, like the early to middle stages of alcoholic liver disease. Unfortunately, nerve damage that’s caused by heavy alcohol misuse is often permanent. Heavy drinking during development can make
What Is Alcoholic Neuropathy?
Alcoholic neuropathy is a nerve disorder in which alcohol abuse causes damage to the nerves that can cause pain and impaired functioning. It is a form of polyneuropathy, which is the malfunction of multiple peripheral nerves. Alcoholic neuropathy can cause nervous system problems, such as pain, muscle weakness, and numbness, usually in the limbs, hands, and feet.
Excessive alcohol consumption can start to affect the vitamins and chemicals needed for the nervous system to function properly. Niacin, folate, thiamine, vitamins B6, B12, and E are all crucial to the brain’s health and can be negatively affected by heavy drinking. Deficiency in these chemicals and vitamins can cause nerve damage over time.
Your nervous system controls everything in your body, from conscious to unconscious functions. When a nerve is damaged, it can slow down or block the connections between your brain and body, leading to pain, poor motor control, numbness, and even serious problems affecting your organs. Severe nerve damage can affect breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Alcoholic neuropathy can reverse the damage if you stop drinking, but sometimes nerve damage is permanent. For the most part, alcoholic neuropathy is associated with long-term heavy drinking caused by severe alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy
Alcoholic neuropathy is associated with several symptoms that can signal something is wrong in your nervous system. These symptoms may be similar to other problems that cause damage to your nervous system, including injuries, autoimmune disorders, and exposure to certain toxins.
Neuropath often causes numbness or pain in the arms and legs, such as a “pins and needles” sensation. Alcoholic neuropathy usually starts in the extremities and travels up the limbs as the condition worsens. If a damaged nerve is affecting a specific area, you may feel the following symptoms there:
- Muscle spasms
- Pins and needles
- Decreased muscle tone
- Chronic pain
- Movement disorders
Alcohol use problems are most commonly associated with peripheral neuropathy, which is nerve damage in the hands, feet, arms, or legs. However, it can also affect nerves in your spine or brain, which can lead to issues with your autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that controls unconscious functions.
Among these functions are breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and many other things you never have to think about. When alcohol affects this part of your nervous system, it often leads to bowel problems. Your nervous system controls bowel functioning, and damaged nerves that affect this area could cause the following symptoms:
- Difficulty starting to urinate
- Feeling that the bladder isn’t fully empty
Other autonomic functions that could be affected by alcohol neuropathy could include sexual dysfunction, speech impairments, problems swallowing, intolerance of heat or cold, chronic nausea, and lightheadedness. If alcoholic neuropathy is left unaddressed and you continue to drink, it could lead to fatal health complications.
How Does Alcohol Work in the Brain?
Even though alcohol is a culturally accepted substance, it is a psychoactive chemical that can have some profound effects on your brain. Alcohol primarily works in the brain by affecting a chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an important chemical messenger in the brain that’s involved in sleep and relaxation. When GABA binds to its receptors, it releases negative changes that slow down activity in the central nervous system of the brain.
Alcohol also binds to GABA receptors and increases the effectiveness of GABA in your brain and nervous system. Alcohol’s influence on GABA is what gives it its sedating and relaxing effects. However, alcohol can also influence dopamine levels, which can contribute to substance use disorders and addiction.
Dopamine and Alcohol
Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system and is often referred to as the “feel good” hormone. It’s responsible for pleasurable feelings, motivation, emotion, and movement. Alcohol can have an effect on dopamine levels in the brain, which is what creates the euphoric feeling that can come from binge drinking.
When high dopamine levels overstimulate the reward system, it creates a euphoric feeling that encourages the person to continue drinking so they can feel that euphoria again. Because alcohol causes these rewarding effects, your brain learns to treat it like naturally rewarding activities that are important for your survival, like eating a warm meal. Your brain learns to prioritize this potent source of reward, which can lead to addiction. Addiction is identified by compulsive drug use, despite serious consequences.
Abusing alcohol at a young age makes an already stressful time even more stressful. As a result of their alcohol abuse, young adults from ages 18 to 25 may experience:
- Impulsive behavior, such as experimenting with addictive substances
- Poor judgment, as they don’t consider the consequences of drug and alcohol addiction
- Difficulty controlling their emotions.
Excessively drinking alcohol while the brain is still developing can also affect other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which regulates emotions and stabilizes moods; norepinephrine, which increases alertness and speeds up the fight or flight response; and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which decreases anxiety and regulates the stress response.
How Common Is Adolescent Drinking?
Drinking as your brain is still developing is dangerous, but teenage drinking is much more common than it should be. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 4.1 million people 12 years old or older initiated alcohol use for the first time in 2020. Around 1.8 million were between the ages of 12 and 17.
More than 22% of Americans 12 and older engaged in binge drinking in 2020. Of this group, 10.5 million were between the ages of 18 and 25, while 1 million were 12 to 17. Around 6 million engaged in underage drinking. More than 10% of people 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder in the United States in 2020. Of these, 712,000 were between the ages of 12 and 17.
Protective Factors for Teen Drinking
Several potential factors can help or hurt a teen’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Risk factors can increase your likelihood of a substance use disorder, while protective factors decrease your risk. Risk factors can include early aggressive behavior in childhood, a lack of parental involvement or supervision, substance abuse among peers, high drug availability in your school or neighborhood, and poverty.
However, there are other factors that can serve to protect a teen from substance use problems, or at least make them much less likely. Protective factors include the development of self-control, parental monitoring and supervision, academic competence among peers, drug and alcohol prohibition at school, and a strong sense of community attachment.
Preventing alcohol use problems among teens and adolescents often involves mitigating these risk factors and increasing protective factors.