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Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and How it Can Affect You

Many individuals who abuse alcohol have a thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is an essential ingredient for the nervous system. Thiamine also turns carbohydrates into energy. When thiamine levels are too low, some common results include fatigue, weakness, psychosis, and eventual nerve damage (Beriberi disease).

The main reason thiamine deficiency occurs is from alcohol abuse. Alcohol contains sulfites, which breaks apart thiamine’s chemical structure, making absorption impossible, and therefore useless. If left untreated, this deficit can develop into a serious affliction known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

This condition is made up of two conditions called Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.[1]WKS is actually two differing sets of symptoms that describe the onset of a pervasive, devastating disorder. Some researchers believe Wernicke and Korsakoff syndromes are separate yet related disorders; others believe them to be different stages of the same disorder.[2]Wernicke’s encephalopathy materializes as a severe, yet short-lived debilitation. This condition quickly progresses into the prolonged, often irreversible, Korsakoff psychosis.

If you haven’t told your doctor the truth about your alcohol use, she may not know to look for a simple vitamin deficiency as the cause of your difficulties. While supplements are essential to avoid lasting damage, they don’t fix the problem.

Alcohol use must be strictly regulated. If it is not, detox and rehab are essential to get your life back from the grips of alcoholism.

Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

Encephalopathy is a general medical term that means “disease of the brain.” In this case, the damage involves a myriad of nerves in the brain and spinal cord as well as nerve endings located throughout the body.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms include:

  • Vision impairment
  • Sluggish pupil reflexes
  • Uneven pupil size (anisocoria)
  • Involuntary eye movement (nystagmus)
  • Eye paralysis (ophthalmoplegia)
  • Mental confusion/ stupor
  • Loss of coordination (ataxia)
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Without treatment, Wernicke’s encephalopathy evolves into Korsakoff’s psychosis, coma, or death.

Korsakoff’s Psychosis

Korsakoff’s psychosis impairs the heart, blood vessels, and nervous system. This condition is the cognitive and intellectual deterioration that manifests itself as dementia in late-stage alcoholics through the following:

  • Disorientation
  • Delirium (restlessness, confusion, hallucinations)
  • Attention deficit
  • Inability to learn new skills
  • Memory loss (amnesia)
  • Confabulation

Trouble with memory can take the form of retrograde amnesia (recalling details from the past) or anterograde amnesia (acquiring recent information). Confabulation occurs when individuals attempt to fill in missing memories with fabricated or “borrowed” experiences, believing them to be genuine.

The Symptoms

Individuals with this condition are often easily frustrated, agitated, or aggressive. At other times they may appear to be dazed or in a trance-like state. Walking, grasping objects, eating, drinking, or grooming becomes extremely difficult.

Short-term memory is virtually non-existent.Confusion sets in easily. However, patients can talk in detail about past events or experiences.

It is important to remember that not every alcoholic exhibits all the recognized signs or symptoms of thiamine deficiency. The disease is just as damaging even if only one or two symptoms materialize.


Treatment consists of thiamine supplements, adequate nutrition, hydration, and abstinence from alcohol.Most signs of the deficiency go away if caught early. Return of memory and cognitive function is at best irregular, and at worst absent altogether. Some alcoholics suffer permanent brain damage and require assistance with basic daily living (custodial care) due to lack of treatment.

Rehab at The Canyon

The Canyon’s qualified medical staff is experienced in recognizing the symptoms of thiamine deficiency and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Essential vitamins, supplements, nutrition, and counseling services are essential elements of detox and the treatment process. Individuals at The Canyon find vitality and balance while creating the foundations of an addiction-free lifestyle. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, call us today to find out how we can help.

[1] Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

[2] Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome