Can Alcohol Cause Brain Zaps?

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

Alcohol consumption itself does not cause brain zaps, rather brain zaps result from sudden withdrawal from alcohol.

Brain zap symptoms may also occur when ceasing antidepressant medication [1].

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Brain zaps are also known as brain shocks, brain shivers, or head shocks.

They are often confused with wet brain syndrome or Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome [2].

Symptoms may also occur with antidepressant withdrawal symptoms, e.g. Zoloft withdrawal (Sertraline).

A 2017 survey of 250 people who used long-term psychiatric drugs, mostly antidepressants, found that nearly half of the users experienced severe withdrawal symptoms along with brain shock symptoms, when attempting to discontinue the drug [3].

What Are Brain Zaps From Alcohol?

Brain zaps are a sudden condition that occurs during withdrawal syndrome.

Brain zaps are not dangerous to the brain or central nervous system, but are disorienting, and disrupt daily life.

Research suggests that zaps happen when an individual moves their eyes from side to side during withdrawal [6].

The effects last for a few minutes before disappearing.

Brain zaps may occur over a few weeks, based on a systematic review [7].

Individuals with alcohol use disorder or who drink heavily, can experience brain zaps soon after their last drink, due to physical dependence issues.

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Brain zaps are frequently accompanied by other symptoms [8]:

  • Short bursts of white light in the vision
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears
  • Difficulty swallowing food
  • A sudden movement of the head and eyes
  • Loss of appetite and nausea
  • Shaky eyes and momentary dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Ringing, pulsing, buzzing in the ear during and after the zap
  • An episode of anxiety elevated stress, nervousness, and fear

What Do Brain Zaps Feel Like?

People who experience brain zaps describe them as a momentary sensation in the brain, similar to electrical shock [9].

Peer reviewed studies describe them as a short period of losing consciousness, hearing eyes move, a zap in the head along with a buzzing sound, a feeling of disorientation, and vertigo [9].

In less common experiences, participants reported headaches and a seizure-like feeling in the head.

Descriptions Of Alcohol-Related Brain Zaps Include [8]:

  • An electrical charge has jolted the brain or head
  • A shiver, vibration, or tremor in the brain
  • Brain zap in the entire head rather than the brain alone
  • Feeling of being buzzed, jolted, zapped, or shocked
  • Vibration that stops as suddenly as it begins

Brain zap symptoms differ in every person undergoing alcohol or drug withdrawal since each body is chemically unique.

Frequency And Intensity Of Attacks

The attack may be isolated to the brain in one episode, while it occurs in the entire head in the next episode.

It may also precede, follow, or accompany, an escalation of anxiety sensations.

Brain zaps are slight, intense, or moderate, depending on the individual.

Brain Zaps Are Not

Although some believe brain shakes are very minor, localised seizures [17], in practice, brain zap episodes differ from full blown alcoholic seizures, in that they are shorter, momentary episodes; usually experienced internally only, and do not involve whole body tremor, protracted loss of consciousness, or continual involuntary movements.

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Alcohol As A Cause Of Brain Zaps

Professionals are unsure how precisely how brain zap attacks are caused by withdrawal syndrome or antidepressant discontinuation.

However the common theme is discontinuation.

Discontinuation syndrome occurs when suddenly quitting drinking or certain medications rather than weaning off slowly [10].

Brain zaps also occur after reducing or interrupting alcohol consumption or sudden withdrawal from antidepressant medicines.

Thus, discontinuing SSRIs, including Paroxetine, Fluoxetine, Citalopram, Escitalopram, and Sertraline, or alcohol consumption after heavy use, cause brain shocks.

Brain zaps are not the only alcohol withdrawal symptom an individual experiences after quitting alcohol.

Withdrawal From Other Substances As A Cause of Brain Zaps [11]:

There is a common theme of sudden withdrawal from medications, altering neurotransmitter levels in the brain, as a cause of onset for brain zaps.

Withdrawal from antidepressant medications (including serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), amphetamine salts, ADHD medications, Benzodiazepines, MDMA (Ecstasy), sleep medications, drug abuse, multi-substance abuse can all result in brain zap symptoms [12].

Who Is At Increased Risk Of Brain Zaps From Alcohol

  • Long term heavy alcohol users having developed physical dependence, meaning neurotransmitter levels are quickly affected during sudden withdrawal.
  • Those attempting to withdraw from medication altering neurotransmitter levels, who also routinely drink alcohol. These individuals will have already depleted levels of brain chemicals as a result of alcohol intake, therefore withdrawing from another substance which also modulates brain neurotransmitter levels, is likely to carry increased risk.
  • Those attempting to withdraw from alcohol, whose brain chemical levels may be indirectly depleted from other means which is not medication-related, e.g. excessive stress, conditions of anxiety or depression, other mental health complaints, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbances, or issues of brain disorder or brain damage. Again, these individuals begin their withdrawal from alcohol with an already depleted level of neurotransmitters, hence the effects of withdrawal, including brain zap symptoms, may be experienced more acutely.
  • Those undergoing severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome, from long term heavy drinking, or alcohol related liver disease, with resultant highly variable levels of neurotransmitters.
  • Those who may have moderate drinking patterns, but who suddenly stop drinking without medical supervision.

Remedies For Brain Zaps

To prevent or avoid brain zap episodes, consider certain remedial actions.

Control Anxiety Levels

Studies have shown that anxiety causes brain zaps [8].

Anxiety is one of the common causes of brain zaps after alcohol and medication-induced brain zaps [8].

Alcohol withdrawal causes stress and anxiety, which may exacerbate brain zaps [15].

Individuals with brain shivers notice that the frequency of the condition increases during periods of high-stress [18].

Managing stress and staying away from activities causing anxiety are important to prevent or treat brain zaps.

Performing activities that relieve stress while undergoing alcohol withdrawal may reduce the frequency of brain zap episodes.

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Taper Off Alcohol And Medications Slowly

The best way to prevent or reduce the effects of brain zaps is to gradually stop drinking alcohol or consuming medications, with professional help, instead of stopping abruptly.

However, evidence indicates that slowly quitting alcohol does not guarantee a person avoids experiencing brain zaps and other symptoms of withdrawal syndrome [13].

Experts have advised that people with severe alcohol dependency avoid quitting alcohol cold turkey [14].

Quitting cold turkey may lead to delirium tremens, and other more severe symptoms.

This does not guarantee to avoid withdrawal symptoms in general.

It’s important to work with professional medical care when quitting alcohol.

Improve Health with Supplements

Supplements are not a treatment or solution to brain shivers.

Here are some supplements that are helpful in alleviating alcohol withdrawal and brain zaps [16]:

  • Vitamin B supplements and multivitamins
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin D3
  • Fish oil supplements
  • Essential oils like chamomile

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Last Updated: January 18, 2023

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Peter also co-authored the new 6th edition of Drugs In Use by Linda Dodds, writing Chapter 15 on Alcohol Related Liver Disease. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.