Chronic alcohol consumption is a contributing factor in a startlingly high number of alcohol peripheral neuropathy cases. Learn what you can do to prevent alcohol-induced neuropathy, as well as the treatment you can do yourself if you are already suffering.
The more we learn about our nervous system, the more we discover that one of our very favorite pastimes is actually highly toxic, and can have severely damaging impacts on our nerves.
Alcohol consumption is a major contributor to a surprisingly high number of instances of peripheral neuropathy. In fact, one recent study published in January 2019 on the issue has shown that up to 66% of individuals that chronically drink alcohol are also dealing with at least some form of alcohol-induced peripheral neuropathy.
In other words, drinking too much alcohol leads to peripheral neuropathy far more often than it doesn’t.
This is not, of course, to suggest that moderate alcohol consumption is putting you at risk of nerve damage. Alcoholic peripheral neuropathy is a lot more sneaky, instead creeping in over time, and doing so specifically in individuals who tend to consume alcohol in high amounts, and with high frequency.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a very informative fact sheet that can offer up some insight in terms of how much is too much. Since no two people are the same, the onset of alcohol abuse can look different from person to person. This fact sheet can help you figure out where you stand.
When it comes to alcoholic peripheral neuropathy, lifetime consumption is the big statistic. For the most part, neuropathy is caused by the repeated consumption of high levels of alcohol, over a long period of time. And while there’s no way to turn back the clock, this does mean that alcoholic neuropathy can be treated, provided it hasn’t progressed too far.
Keep Your Internal Fish Tank Filtered
Alcohol-induced peripheral neuropathy has a lot to do with your internal body chemistry. Your body has natural filtration systems that is more or less constantly at work, maintaining the proper chemical atmosphere inside your body. Think of it, in a way, as being similar to how you must keep the water in a fish tank filtered and clean. If you don’t, the water becomes toxic to the fish, and the fish dies.
In this scenario, your nerves are the fish. If your body’s interior becomes toxic to your nerves, they become damaged and eventually die off: Over time, chronic consumption of alcohol eventually turns your body toxic, poisoning the nerves and causing you to endure painful symptoms.
Beyond this, not a whole lot is actually known about how alcohol causes nerve damage. The medical community is still working to better understand its exact mechanisms, but there is a lot that we do know about how chronic alcohol consumption causes nerve damage over time.
As found by lead researcher Kanwaljit Chopra in a 2012 study published in The British Journal of Pharmacology, “Chronic alcohol consumption produces painful peripheral neuropathy for which there is no reliable successful therapy, mainly due to lack of understanding of its pathobiology.”
Slowly-Creeping Symptoms of Alcoholic Neuropathy
Time really is the name of the game, when it comes to alcohol-induced neuropathy. It has a tendency to develop rather slowly, showing itself with the passage of time, as alcohol overconsumption continues.
Sensory symptoms are typically among the very first indicators that alcohol-induced neuropathy has arrived at the party. The thinner nerves in your hands and feet, due to their smaller size and relative lack of protection from the myelin sheath, tend to be among the first to begin a process known as “dying back.”
The early signs are most typically:
- odd, indescribable sensations
These are forms of a phenomenon known as paresthesia, or phantom sensations.
Another type of sensory nerve malfunction involves dysesthesia, a condition in which stimulation that would be normally acceptable produces an unnecessarily painful response. When dysesthesia is messing with your nerves, comfy socks can wind up feeling like torture devices.
Next up on the symptom call-sheet is the loss of motor function. As your motor nerves begin to die off, you will start to notice a loss of fine muscle control in the hands and feet. This might sound minor, but losing feeling in even one toe can have an impact on the way you walk, which can throw your joints out of alignment and cause muscle problems down the line.
What can be described as the “cascading symptom” principle is nothing to scoff at. Issues that seem like small ones can wind up leading to much larger problems, given time.
A Combo-Platter of Problems
There’s much that isn’t understood about how alcohol-induced neuropathy does its dirty work. Its onset involves a variety of different mechanisms, and the medical community is still working to form a comprehensive understanding of exactly how they all come into play as peripheral neuropathy develops.
Another way of saying this is to say that alcohol-induced neuropathy typically involves a variety of different situations, all of which are damaging to your nerves. For the sake of brevity, though, we can more or less split the problems that lead to alcoholic neuropathy into three different groups.
Direct Toxic Effects
There’s no two ways around it: Alcohol is, in effect, a mild poison.
It contains ingredients that are directly toxic to the body in general, and to the nervous system in specific. As it’s consumed more and more, over long periods of time, these chemicals build up in the body, eventually creating a toxic environment that is unsuitable to your nervous system.
Chronic alcohol consumption, in addition to involving an influx of chemicals that are directly toxic to the human body, also causes other problems – we can describe this as “indirect toxicity.”
Alcohol essentially interrupts the normal metabolic processes that your body undergoes. It’s particularly disruptive to the type of metabolism that your body relies on to keep its nerves healthy and functioning well.
Finally, chronic overconsumption of alcohol can have some simple behavioral impacts that help peripheral neuropathy to take root, as well. We’ll talk shortly in more detail about how alcohol overconsumption leads to certain nutritional deficiencies, but worth mentioning now is the behavioral component that comes along with this particular issue.
Many alcoholic beverages are pretty stuffed when it comes to calories…but they’re very conspicuously lacking in nutritional value. The end result is that one feels full from drinking a lot, but isn’t actually getting the nutritional value that would have come with feeling full after a meal of food.
As a result, chronic over-consumption of alcoholic beverages eventually leads to behavioral patterns in which important nutrients are regularly shoved to the side in favor of high-calorie alcoholic beverages.
Ethanol and the Direct Toxicity of Alcoholic Beverages
Ethanol is damaging to your nerves. It’s also the main active component in alcoholic beverages.
Ethanol, to be specific, is the part of the drink that gets you drunk. And it’s an outright neurotoxin, meaning it’s a compound that is specifically toxic for your nerve endings. But it doesn’t really stop there — ethanol is bad for your liver, your bones, the muscles in your cardiac system, and both your central and peripheral nervous systems, all at the very same time.
Ethanol is very damaging, and over time, chronic overconsumption of alcoholic beverages causes dangerous levels of it to accumulate within your body.
When your body works to process ethanol, the byproduct is a very highly-reactive compound known as acetaldehyde. This is something known as a metabolite, and your body produces it when it works to metabolize the ethanol in an alcoholic drink. Unfortunately, acetaldehyde is very highly reactive, which makes it damaging to nearby tissues.
The acetaldehyde enters your bloodstream through the gut as you consume alcohol (the literal process by which you become inebriated, more or less), and essentially damages anything it comes into contact with. We know that it’s harmful to your liver and other organs, and is thought to damage peripheral nerves in a similar way. According to Chopra, “…the mechanisms by which acetaldehyde has toxic effects on peripheral nerves may be similar to those in the liver and other organs.”
Metabolic (Indirect) Toxicity
While there are plenty of ways that alcohol is is directly toxic to the human body, there are also methods by which it results in what we’ll call indirect toxicity. Another way to describe this idea is to say that there are certain processes that your body undergoes to keep itself working properly, and alcohol directly impairs these processes.
One of the specific ways that this impacts your nerves is by having an effect on what’s known as neuronal metabolism. Just like your whole body, nerves have a system in place to filter out waste products that are created as a result of normal use.
Ethanol directly impairs this metabolic system, meaning it contributes to neuron damage on a cellular level. This is a big part of the reason that alcoholic neuropathy tends to be directly axonal in nature — it’s harming the parts of your nerves that are responsible for keeping the axons healthy.
Malnutrition is another one of the big problems that come along with alcohol overconsumption. We mentioned earlier that alcoholic drinks tend to have high-calorie counts, but don’t really bring a lot to the table when it comes to nutritional value.
As a result, overconsumption of alcohol has a tendency to lead to under-consumption of other foods, which have important nutrients that our body needs in order to function properly.
Alcohol also has the unfortunate impact of diminishing your body’s ability to process certain compounds — thiamine, in particular.
Ethanol has a strongly negative impact on your body’s ability to absorb thiamine via the intestinal tract. Your body is therefore no longer able to absorb the thiamine it needs, store enough of it up in its tissues, and is also unable to convert it into the form that is required in order for it to be healthy. Eventually, this leads to nerve death.
Oxidative Stress, Run Amok
Another impact that alcohol overconsumption can have on the body is a chronic increase in something known as oxidative stress. This is a term that describes the body’s inability to regulate compounds known as free radicals.
These unstable molecules are highly reactive, and they can damage nearby tissues. Our bodies, then, rely on compounds known as antioxidants to help control oxidative stress and keep it from damaging tissues in our organs, muscles, and nerve endings.
We mentioned earlier that ethanol and the acetaldehyde that gets produced when your body processes it are both very highly reactive and unstable, meaning they ricochet from cell to cell, causing oxidative stress in whatever tissues happen to be nearby.
Since these compounds travel through the body by way of the blood, this basically means that they can go anywhere and cause their damage. The result is potentially widespread oxidative stress, which leads to chronic inflammation, and ultimately leads to peripheral neuropathy.
Does Alcoholic Neuropathy Go Away?
Treatment for alcohol-induced neuropathy tends to focus more on stopping it in its tracks when this is possible. As the medical community still works to understand the fine biological mechanisms behind alcoholic neuropathy, the most reliable course of action is a preventative one.
1. Start Saying, “No”
Alcohol abstinence is the number one way to treat or prevent alcohol-induced peripheral neuropathy. Worth reiterating is that chronic alcohol overconsumption, over sustained periods of time is what leads to peripheral neuropathy. Responsible, occasional drinking, in safe quantities, does not put you at risk.
This, however, is not an option if peripheral neuropathy has already set in. When this is the case, alcohol consumption must be eliminated completely, in order for any successful regeneration to be possible.
2. Improve Your Diet and Exercise More Often
Diet and exercise are two of the other key components in the treatment of alcohol-induced neuropathy.
A diet high in B vitamins and antioxidants is an effective way to combat the nutritional deficiencies that come as a result of alcohol abuse. You can get these compounds from a variety of foods, many of which also have anti-inflammatory effects, as well.
- Berries (strawberries, blueberries, etc)
- Red grapes
- Peanuts, almonds, cashews
- Salmon and other fatty fishes
Exercise goes a long way towards maintaining healthy nerves, as well. It helps your body to better flush out toxins left over from alcohol consumption through urine and sweat, and it also increases blood flow throughout the body. When you regularly encourage elevated blood flow through exercise, you’re feeding those nerves a steady diet of all the healthy nutrients that your (hopefully alcohol-free) blood brings to your limbs.
3. Limit Toxins to Limit Nerve Damage
As you can see, overdoing it on the alcohol can have some very serious effects on the overall health on the human body. Not only does it give your liver and other internal organs a tough time, but it’s toxic for your nerves, as well.
While we’re still working to learn more about how alcoholic neuropathy comes about, we’ve at least learned enough to know how to start fighting it. The strategies aren’t that complicated, either:
- Fight back against malnutrition with a balanced diet,
- encourage better blood flow with exercise, and
- say no to alcohol.
With these strategies in mind you can do on your own, and a more comprehensive understanding as to how alcoholic neuropathy causes nerve damage, a healthy nervous system is more attainable.
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