Alcohol related neurological disease: Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

woman crying

One of the lesser known or discussed dangers to chronic alcohol use and addiction is what the medical community has coined, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or for simplicity sake, WKS. This neurodegenerative brain disease is caused by a lack of vitamin B-1, also known as thiamine in the body. When the body is not receiving the proper nutrients it requires, parts of the brain begin to shut down and not function as it once did. 

This brain disease is broken down into two stages of severity: Wernicke’s disease (WD) also referred to as Wernicke’s encephalopathy and secondly, Korsakoff syndrome. 

Some of the symptoms of WD include: 

  • Double vision
  • Ataxia, or loss of muscle control, resulting in difficulty walking and 
  • Confused mental state that can lead to aggressive behaviour
  • Drooping eyelid and/ or abnormal eye movements

As the disease worsens, other symptoms may arise which can suggest that the person is now entering into the secondary stage of the disease: Korsakoff’s syndrome. Some of the most notable WKS symptoms include: 

  • Confabulations/ exaggerated storytelling
  • Apathy and personality changes
  • Hallucinations
  • Difficulty holding onto new memories
  • Not being able to understand new information being presented

Memory issues are a key factor when it comes to WKS resulting in the person having difficulties managing day-to-day tasks. Friends and loved ones may even be led to believe that the person is lying through their confabulations; however, these are not deliberate and happen as the brain tries to fill in the blanks from forgotten memories. 

Though people can be diagnosed with WKS for other reasons including gastric bypass surgery, colon cancer and eating disorders, alcoholism is the number one contributing factor. 

But why does alcoholism cause WKS?
Simple, alcoholics are much more prone to WKS because many have a very poor diet, which limits the nutrients their body is able to receive. Also, alcohol itself prevents important vitamins and nutrients from being absorbed into the body. 

What can you do if you think your loved one may have WD or even WKS?
First thing you should do if you suspect your loved one may have either WD or WKS is to have them evaluated by a doctor. WKS treatment involves intravenous (IV) thiamine and will require hospitalization and should be done promptly to increase the chances of delaying or even stopping the progressions of the disease. 

Abstaining from alcohol and following a nutrient-filled diet and healthy lifestyle is the only way to prevent the progression of the disease; however, here at The Farm, we understand that is sometimes easier said than done. If your loved one has been diagnosed with WD or WKS and is still struggling with their addiction, please contact us to see how we can help. We understand alcohol addiction is difficult to manage and have the resources to help you and your loved one through this difficult time. Contact us at 1 (877) 353-2777 to get the conversation started.