Alcohol Addiction Connected to Loss of Sense of Smell, Damaged Gait, and Impaired Balance

Loss of balance

Scientific research continues to shed light on the negative biological effects of long-term alcohol consumption. These findings contradict the now archaic narrative that drinking in moderation is “harmless.” If one consumes alcohol regularly and over time, even if they do so “in moderation,” they open the door to a host of potential health problems, including balance issues and losing their sense of smell.

Alcohol Consumption and Sense of Smell

Research has connected alcohol consumption with olfactory (sense of smell) deficits. Critically, alcohol consumption has been linked to inhibitions in odor judgment, identification, sensitivity, and the ability to discriminate between odors qualitatively. Now, new findings show that there is not just a connection between alcohol consumption and difficulties with one’s sense of smell; there is also a cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol consumption and loss of sense of smell.

Dr. Claudia I. Rupp, clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor at Innsbruck Medical University and the corresponding author for the study, said the critical finding in her research was that alcohol affects the prefrontal lobes, which then impair olfactory function. “Both frontal and medial temporal lobe brain regions play a major role in olfactory functioning, particularly in the abilities of odor quality discrimination and identification,” said Dr. Rupp. “We found that the alcoholics, when compared to the controls, were impaired in all three domains investigated: olfactory functions, executive function, and memory.”

“We also found that impairments in all three domains appear resistant to early recovery after alcohol drinking stopped...”

Critically, it seemed the presence of alcohol in the brain had a direct impact on the regions of the brain that control olfactory sensation. It also seemed that olfactory senses were slow to return following a cessation in alcohol consumption, suggesting permanent damage might be possible. Again quoting Dr. Rupp, “We also found that impairments in all three domains appear resistant to early recovery after alcohol drinking stopped. Furthermore, olfactory discrimination deficits appear to be associated with executive function impairment. Collectively speaking, our results suggest that olfactory discrimination deficits and executive function impairment may share a common neural substrate – that is, a pathological process may be mediating both deficits – most likely dysfunctional mechanisms involving the frontal lobe.” Rupp concluded her research with the hypothesis that the brain’s frontal lobes are particularly vulnerable to alcoholism-related damage and that dysfunction in this brain region may play a significant role in alcoholism and other drug addictions.

It is unclear how much people must drink for such consumption to impair one’s sense of smell (it is likely a different amount for each user, depending on their body and other factors). But there is a connection between alcohol consumption and loss of sense of smell. This finding further proves why people should avoid drinking alcohol altogether.

Damaged Gait and Balance from Alcohol Consumption

Fall from stairs

Yet another long-term effect of regular alcohol consumption is damaged gait and balance. In simple terms, when people drink alcohol often and over time, such consumption gradually diminishes the individual’s ability to balance while standing or to walk forward, backward, and to the side in a coordinated fashion. Critically, this side effect of alcohol consumption becomes a common malady for users, something they suffer from even when not under the influence of alcohol.

But how does alcohol have this effect, especially on people who are not at that moment under the influence? Stan Smith, a neurobehavioral scientist and corresponding author for a study exploring alcohol and ambulatory function, summed it up best. “Chronic alcohol abuse consistently damages the cerebellum, a complex structure located at the back of the brain below the cerebrum,” says Smith. “The cerebellum has multiple functions, including control of balance and coordination. Alcohol also damages subcortical white matter, the myelinated fiber tracts that connect different parts of the cortex, and other central nervous systems [such as] motor effector and feedback systems. Long-term alcohol dependence also results in impaired dopamine transmission in the striatum, an important area for motor control.” Critically, Smith’s research showed that the best thing people who struggle with gait and balance can do to recover their gait and balance is to stop drinking.

Smith’s research group studied 70 short-term (6 to 15 weeks) abstinent individuals, 82 long-term (minimum of 18 months) abstinent individuals, and 52 control individuals. According to the study, the control and individuals with long-term abstinence performed best while being tested for balance and gait, while the short-term abstinence group performed the poorest. Again quoting Smith, “Our results provide evidence that recovery of gait and balance, when visual support is available, may be attained with extended abstinence.”

The hypothesis? While alcohol consumption over time does impair gait, balance, and ambulatory function in users, it seems they can recover these core motor skills after an extended period of abstinence. Just as with the olfactory research above, the conclusion is people should not drink, and those who currently drink should stop as soon as possible.

Doctor tells patient about treatment

The Need for Treatment When Alcohol Consumption Becomes Compulsory

Alcohol addiction is an extremely harmful, life-threatening ailment that negatively impacts all areas of an addict’s life. Further, because alcohol has become so normalized in American society, anyone who consumes alcohol puts themselves at risk of falling prey to alcohol addiction.

Given the negative physiological and psychological side effects of alcohol consumption, people should eliminate alcohol from their lives. And if you know someone who drinks alcohol and cannot control their drinking, help them find and enter a residential alcohol addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Please don’t wait until it is too late.


  • ScienceDaily. “Alcoholics’ Deficits In Smell Are Linked To Frontal Lobe Dysfunction.” Science Daily, 2016.
  • ScienceDaily. “Damaged Gait and Balance Can Recover with Long-term Abstinence from Alcohol.” Science Daily, 2011.



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.