Wet Brain: What are the chances I develop this syndrome?

Chronic alcoholism can lead to wet brain syndrome
Chronic alcoholism can lead to wet brain syndrome

What is Wet Brain?

There’s no escaping the fact that at least one of America’s favorite pastimes is drinking alcohol. In fact, it’s a cultural staple. Are you going out for the night? Have a few shots with friends. Maybe you’re staying in and barbecuing with the family? Have a few beers. Did you have a stressful day at work? Make a cocktail and relax.

Radio and television commercials, billboards and even online ads bombard us with messages that drinking is fun. That doesn’t mean it won’t affect our mental wellbeing, along with our physical health.

Alcohol consumption comes with quite a few health risks. These include alcohol-related injuries, addiction, an increased risk of some cancers, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Beer, wine and spirits are responsible for about 1 in 10 fatalities for adults aged 20 – 64. That means alcohol is among the leading causes of death in the United States.[1]

Furthermore, if heavy, long-term drinkers manage to survive and don’t kick their booze habits, the health risks worsen. Wet brain or Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is debilitating, potentially fatal brain damage caused by an alcohol-induced thiamine deficiency.

What Causes this Syndrome and can I get it?

The symptoms of wet brain are particularly unpleasant. Before we get into those, though, we have to talk about what causes this condition. Vitamin B1, AKA thiamine, is a nutrient the body does not manufacture naturally.

Still, we need thiamine for good health and generally get it in our diets, without even thinking about it. It’s in foods like oranges, nuts, cereal grains, milk, seeds, beans, meats and yeasts. You know, food you eat in a regular, balanced diet.

Every tissue in the human body needs thiamine to function properly, especially brain tissue. This nutrient actually converts sugar into energy for the brain. Without this energy, the brain struggles to control memory function, body temperature, emotional response, metabolism and hormone production.

Excessive alcohol intake creates two problems, in regard to thiamine. First, alcohol depletes thiamine stores in the liver, making it harder for the body to even process the vitamin. Second, people living with untreated alcoholism tend to have extremely poor diets.

There are two ways you can develop wet brain or WKS, through malnutrition or chronic alcoholism. Malnutrition is relatively rare in the U.S. Alcohol use disorders are not.

More than 14 million adults battled alcoholism in 2018. Unfortunately, less than 8 percent of those people received addiction treatment[2].

What are the Symptoms of this condition and how Common is it?

Research suggests that about 1 – 2 percent of the population have this syndrome. It affects more men than women, and the most affected age group is 30 – 70[3]. To diagnose wet brain, physicians primarily use patient history and the presence of symptoms, which can include:

  • Difficulty forming new memories or extreme memory loss
  • Problems distinguishing between or mixing memories up
  • Ataxia, which is the loss of coordination, leading to an unsteady or irregular way of walking or moving around
  • In advanced cases, psychosis – hallucinations – may occur
  • The absence of brain activity, causing coma or death

Physicians might order a thiamine test if they’re aware a patient is a chronic alcoholic. Similarly, a patient recently treated for alcoholism may need one. In either case, symptoms may not be present, but the test suggested as a precautionary measure.

Good Brain Health
Good Brain Health

Is Wet Brain Treatable?

Early detection of this syndrome is key in effective treatment and recovery. “Treatment often requires hospitalization and involves intravenous injections of thiamine…coupled with a substantive lifestyle change…”[4].

In advanced WKS situations, brain damage is likely permanent even with treatment, though proper care may slow the syndrome’s progress.

Am I at Risk of Getting Wet Brain?

Lower your risk of developing wet brain syndrome
Lower your risk of developing wet brain syndrome

The short answer is that chronic alcoholics, especially long-term, excessive drinkers are at risk of wet brain. Whether or not you fit into that category is between you and your healthcare provider. Obviously, if you or someone you know is exhibiting symptoms, seek immediate medical treatment.

Our biggest defense against a harmful thiamine deficiency is to avoid alcohol altogether and maintain a healthy diet. Drinking in moderation may work for some people, but alcohol is still not a benefit to overall health. Anyone is susceptible to addiction, though researchers are trying to understand who is most at risk.

Substance use disorders, like alcoholism or drug addiction, are treatable though. There is no benefit in putting off treatment and, at the same time, it is never too late to ask for help.

With proper care and treatment, many people go on to live healthy, happy and productive lives.


[1] Alcohol Use and Your Health – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[2] Alcohol Facts and Statistics – National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

[3] Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome – National Organization for Rare Disorders

[4] Bishop, Shawn – “Prompt Diagnosis and Treatment May Eliminate Symptoms of Brain Disorder” – Mayo Clinic News Network