Q: Can you explain why alcohol causes seizures? Do the seizures stop once the person quits drinking? — T.H., Lima, Ohio
A: The breakdown of alcohol results in the production of morphine-like substances that accumulate in all tissues, but especially the brain. In 80 percent of alcoholics, it lowers the levels of certain chemical transmitters in the brain, causing sleepiness and sedation. Withdrawal in these folks leads to a hyperactive brain response: tremors, panic attacks, palpitations, blood pressure elevation and seizures. In the other 20 percent of alcoholics, alcohol has the opposite effect: It actually raises the levels of certain chemical transmitters in the brain. Some of these transmitters are the same ones that antidepressants help to elevate.
Seizures, shakes, sweats and hallucinations don’t usually occur in the casual drinker; rather, they occur after 12-24 hours in the heavy, chronic drinkers. Since their bodies have become accustomed to alcohol, if they stop cold, they’ll likely suffer withdrawal symptoms. They may even die if untreated. If an alcoholic remains sober, there’s no risk of recurrent seizures.
Dr. Mitchell Hecht is a physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at: “Ask Dr. H,” P.O. Box 767787, Roswell, GA 30076. Because of the large volume of mail received, personal replies are not possible.