Alcohol and Balance
Alcohol intoxication has deleterious effects on balance. It is referred to as an ototoxic drug.
Alcohol intoxication has negative effects on one’s balance in many ways. The vestibular system is greatly affected even if ingested in small amounts. It is concluded that alcohol intoxication causes a series of multifaceted deterioration of body movement.
Effects of Alcohol on Balance
The effects of alcohol intoxication can be devastating to one’s health in a number of ways. More specifically, ethanol intoxication causes impairment in postural sway (Woollacott 1983). Its effects are well investigated on other structures of the brain and body, i.e., the oculomotor system, but there have not been many reports on the acute effects of alcohol on the vestibular system (Nieschalk et al. 1999). Nieschalk et al. have demonstrated in their study that alcohol intoxication affects mainly the vestibulocerebellum, a finding that disputed previous findings of Diener et al. (1983) who supported the fact that intoxication by alcohol affects mainly the spinocerebellum. Nieschalk et al. is consistent with Ikeda et al.’s (1980) research who indicated that small doses of ethanol interfere more with the synaptic transmission in the lateral vestibular nucleus (LVN) monosynaptic and polysynaptic II neurons than synaptic transmission in the spinal trigeminal nucleus (STN) relay neurons and interneurons.
Modig et al. (2012b) have comprehensively investigated alcohol-related impairments on postural control at specific blood alcohol concentration (BAC). They have found that alcohol has deteriorating effects on postural control based on certain doses, time of alcohol ingestion, and the direction of movement. Specifically, the researchers have noted that between 0.06% and 0.10% BAC, any increase in alcohol intoxication would result in a decrease in postural control. They further noted that ethanol consumption causes more destabilization in lateral motion than in anteroposterior motion and that intoxication decreases the adaptation mechanism, particularly for stability control in a lateral motion.
Further evidence on the relationship of alcohol and balance is supported by a research done by Tianwu et al. (1995) who concluded that a moderate quantity of alcohol affects both the oculomotor system as well as the vestibular system. They suggested that one of the reasons that postural instability takes places after alcohol consumption is reduced vestibular function. Consistent with this view, Bellé et al. (2007) suggested that alcohol interferes with hearing and balance, causing deleterious effects on the organisms referring alcohol as an ototoxic drug.
How Alcohol Affects Balance
When alcohol is digested in high amounts, the cupula in the semicircular canals becomes lighter than the endolymph, making it sensitive to gravity, a process referred to as the buoyancy hypothesis (Fetter et al. 1999). Consequently, this process lead to positional alcohol nystagmus (PAN) and rotatory vertigo. Fetter et al. (1999) concluded that alcohol intoxication causes a vertical velocity offset, which may represent a toxic effect on the central vestibular pathways, producing a tone imbalance of the vertical vestibulo-ocular reflex.
Furthermore, when under alcohol intoxication, there is an inability to use gravitational cues when there is an attempt to determine distance. Therefore, the person relies in visual information instead (Hafstrom et al. 2007). Hafstrom et al. further concluded that alcohol intoxication in high levels initiates a decompensation of small subclinical vestibular asymmetries and a dysfunction of the otolithic organs. In essence, alcohol intoxication causes a series of complex and multifaceted deterioration of body movement (Modig et al. 2012a).
The devastating and deleterious effects of alcohol intoxication on balance were briefly reviewed. When the vestibular system is affected, the person is lead to rely on other cues to determine distance – such as vision; a process that has potentially dangerous effects in one’s health.
- Diener, H. C., Dichgans, J., Bacher, M., Hülser, J., & Liebich, H. (1983). Mechanisms of postural ataxia after intake of alcohol. International Journal of Legal Medicine, 90(3), 159–165.Google Scholar