10 Minutes

Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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Surveys suggest that approximately 6.2% of adult Americans successfully meet the clinical criteria for alcohol addiction. When people think about alcoholism and the problems it may induce, they usually picture fights, car accidents, and frequent run-ins with the police. The truth is that excessive drinking can also lead to a completely different range of severe and potentially irreversible health issues, such as cancer, sexual dysfunction, and nutritional deficits. The more a person drinks and the longer they continue without quitting, the higher their risk of developing these problems. The dietary shortages due to alcohol use disorder, in particular, sometimes trigger a life-threatening condition called wet brain syndrome.

Wet brain syndrome, scientifically known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a brain disorder that triggers an underlying vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. Since thiamine deficiency is a hallmark of alcoholism, the disorder commonly occurs in alcoholics as a long-term complication. While it is possible to reverse the symptoms of a wet brain with timely treatment, it may lead to irreversible damage if a timely diagnosis is not made. Hence, learning more about the disorder, how to identify it, and its long-term treatment is advisable.

Wet Brain Syndrome

Wet brain symptoms generally vary, depending on which stage you are currently in. Confusion is a common and persistent sign that often makes it difficult for the affected person to realize something is wrong with them. Many of this condition’s symptoms are similar to alcohol intoxication, making it essential to notice these signs when the affected individual is sober.

Some common wet brain symptoms include:

  • Double vision 
  • Memory loss 
  • Loss of coordination 
  • Memory issues
  • Drooping eyelids 
  • Abnormal eye movements 
  • Decreased body temperature or hypothermia 
  • Drowsiness 
  • A racing heart
  • Eye muscle weakness 

If left untreated, the wet brain quickly transforms into Korsakoff’s psychosis which signifies the fatal stage of this condition. It includes symptoms like:

  • Fatigue 
  • Severe memory loss 
  • Delirium 
  • Hallucinations
  • Confabulations, or the tendency to fabricate stories based on lies
  • Difficulty paying attention 

If you or someone around you is exhibiting these symptoms, it is imperative to seek emergency help before it progresses to a life-threatening stage.

Wet brain syndrome occurs in the following two stages:

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

This first stage of the wet brain is severe but temporary. If not diagnosed and treated in time, Wernicke’s encephalopathy can quickly devolve into Korsakoff’s psychosis which is much more powerful and intense. At this stage, the patient may find it difficult to walk or develop extreme confusion while performing daily activities, such as getting dressed.

There are three main features of Wernicke’s encephalopathy:

  • Vision changes
  • Confusion
  • Muscle coordination

Keep in mind that a person does not need to exhibit all three of these symptoms to get a diagnosis of Wernicke’s encephalopathy. At this initial stage, early treatment with thiamine supplements can considerably alleviate the symptoms and prevent the condition from degenerating into a more complicated stage. Although alcoholism is the primary cause of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, other factors like liver disease, severe malnutrition, severe anorexia, and hyperthyroidism can also trigger it.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis 

Korsakoff’s psychosis is the second stage that follows Wernicke’s encephalopathy, especially in the absence of professional treatment. This stage is chronic, persistent, and irreversible in most cases. The common symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include learning abilities and impaired memory skills.

Individuals with Korsakoff’s psychosis find it difficult to coordinate their movements. They also exhibit symptoms of retrograde amnesia, in which it becomes difficult to retrieve memories from the past. At the same time, learning and processing new information also takes a toll. Because of its ability to induce severe memory loss, behavioral changes, and hallucinations, some experts also refer to Korsakoff’s psychosis as alcoholic dementia.

The majority of victims of wet brain syndrome are alcoholics. Mentioned below are some ways alcohol can trigger this condition:

Poor Nutrition

People with alcohol addiction or those who frequently indulge in heavy drinking usually have nutritional deficiencies, such as B1 deficiency and poor dietary habits. The human body cannot produce vitamin B1 or thiamine on its own; hence, it requires it from external sources, such as daily diet. Several natural foods, like nuts, whole grain cereals, and dried beans, are rich sources of this vitamin. A diet plan that lacks these foods can quickly induce B1 deficiency, consequently increasing the risk of wet brain syndrome. Alcohol is also an irritant that damages the tissue lining the digestive tract, making it hard for the body to absorb vitamin B1 and other nutrients from food.

Co-occurring Health Problems

Most alcoholics are also likely to suffer from co-occurring disorders, including cancer, heart failure, kidney failure, and HIV/AIDS. These conditions may also increase the risk of acquiring B1 deficiency and wet brain syndrome.

Increased Vomiting

Heavy alcohol can cause frequent vomiting in individuals as a part of alcohol overdose or hangovers. These repeated episodes of vomiting every other day deplete the body of essential vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin B1.

Unfortunately, the wet brain is not curable; however, early detection can help manage symptoms while slowing down its progression. Seeking timely treatment is necessary as up to 90 percent of those who do not get help for their symptoms end up developing the late stage or Korsakoff psychosis. The long-term side effects of this disease include severely impacted personal interactions, injuries due to loss of coordination, and death.

Professional treatment of Wernicke’s encephalopathy includes an increased intake of thiamine. For this purpose, doctors help patients curate and follow a more well-rounded diet plan rich with maximum B1-rich foods for this purpose. Additionally, they may also administer vitamin supplements orally or through injections into the muscles or veins. This rapid compensation of dropping thiamine levels in the body through external supplementation will address the issues of delirium and confusion while improving muscle coordination and vision. However, patients may require additional medications for the rest of the symptoms.

It is essential to remember that thiamine supplementation will not improve memory or intellect faults secondary to wet brain syndrome. As for brain damage, there is no way to reverse it, but steps can be taken to minimize it in the future. For long-term management, seeking help with alcohol addiction is critical since any treatment for Wernicke’s encephalopathy is only effective if the patient stops drinking.

Family members and friends are crucial in helping a patient with wet brain syndrome fully recover. In the long term, it is essential to ensure that their loved one continues to abstain from consuming alcohol, maintains a nutritious and balanced diet, and stays adequately hydrated. In the short term, ensure that your loved one continues to follow the physician’s recommendations regarding daily thiamine intake.

Some other tips to keep in mind while supporting a loved one with a wet brain include the following:

Keep your expectations realistic and reasonable

Even if your loved one abstains from alcohol and works on replenishing their thiamine levels, they may continue to show some signs of a wet brain, such as lack of coordination, confusion, and memory troubles. Remember to recognize and associate these symptoms as a part of the disease due to irreversible damage to the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Do not consider them unimpaired just because they can conduct entertaining and intelligent conversations from time to time. They still require your support and help in day-to-day life.

Safety first

The caregivers of a person with wet brain syndrome must take precautions to make their loved one and other house members as secure as possible. If the affected person is disoriented or exhibiting confusion, do not leave them alone at home. Make sure someone is always watching them so they do not wander away from home, leaving the tap running or the stove on.

Be kind in your responses

Wet brain syndrome often causes short-term memory problems that may leave your loved one confused and repeating the same questions repeatedly. This frequent repetition may sound annoying initially, but remind yourself that this is not their fault or intention. To deal with these tiny issues, keep the following strategies in mind:

  • Practice patience and respond to them calmly. If your voice is angry or loud, the confused person may pick on your mood and become frustrated 
  • Place different reminders in the house to help them feel more secure. For example, you may put labels inside the drawers and doors with pictures or words of what’s inside them. Alternatively, put a sticky note on the fridge regarding meal times 
  • Consider distracting them with another activity or topic, for example, taking them for a walk or discussing an old photograph

If your loved one continues to experience agitation and anger, discuss these symptoms of wet brain and anger with a physician, psychiatrist, or neurologist. They may prescribe a suitable medication to control these outbursts.

Do not forget yourself

In addition to taking care of the affected person, consider getting some support and time off for yourself. Take a break from the constant caregiving time to attend to your own every once in a while. You may: 

  • Plan periodic respites for yourself by asking for help from another family member, friend, or a home care worker
  • Focus on the fundamental acts of self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating well, and going for regular medical check-ups
  • Continue your social life by planning to dine out with friends as someone else takes care of the affected individual



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