It is no secret that alcohol consumption has gotten mixed reviews over the years from the health community. Doesn’t wine have antioxidants and resveratrol? Are a few after-work drinks really going to derail my health goals? How else am I supposed to catch up and celebrate with my friends? All plausible propositions to build a case for imbibing in a few drinks. But as with anything, when it comes to making your own (health) decisions, you must weigh the risks versus the benefits. While moderate alcohol has some potential health benefits, it is not risk-free, especially when it comes to brain health. Alcohol has been found to affect more than 100 unique receptors in the brain.10
Over time, excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to a variety of short and long-term health risks, such as high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, liver disease, brain damage and digestive problems. However, there is some research that shows moderate alcohol use has possible health benefits, including supporting psychological well-being and acting as a medium to increase social bonding.2,3
While your whole body absorbs alcohol, it really takes a toll on the brain, and rather quickly. Alcohol is absorbed through the lining of your stomach into your bloodstream, and once it is there, it spreads into tissues throughout your body. Alcohol reaches your brain in only five minutes and starts to affect you within 10 minutes (after about 20 minutes your liver begins to process the alcohol).9
Alcohol essentially affects the way our brain works. It can disrupt the brain’s communication pathways and make it more difficult for the areas of the brain that control things like memory, speech and decision-making to work properly.8
Alcohol has been found to directly impact neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, as well as GABA and glutamate receptors, all of which can directly and indirectly influence mood, behavior, learning, memory and overall cognitive function. Researchers have found that even a single drink on average per day can decrease brain volume over time.4-6
Alcohol consumption particularly impacts the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory formation, which can result in memory impairment and “blacking out” when drinking.
In one study by the University of Oxford, researchers followed participants for 30 years, tracking their drinking patterns and brain health. Participants in the study who drank four or more drinks a day had almost six times the risk of hippocampus shrinkage compared to nondrinkers, while moderate drinkers had three times the risk. In other words, brain shrinkage was proportional to the amount of alcohol the participants consumed, and even mild and moderate drinkers showed more shrinkage of the hippocampus than those who abstained from alcohol completely.7
In the process of drinking, alcohol acts as a stimulant. But as drinking starts to wind down, it works more as a sedative. Researchers found that drinking increases levels of norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter responsible for arousal, pleasure and reward. This increase accounts for heightened excitement and addictive pathways involved in drinking. Elevated levels of norepinephrine can also increase impulsivity, which explains why we tend to throw our inhibitions to the wind when drinking.11
Have you ever had a pounding headache the day after drinking? That is primarily due to alcohol’s effect on vasopressin, a hormone that prevents our kidneys from eliminating too much fluid. Alcohol blocks vasopressin, which can increase the need to urinate, leading to dehydration.1
Drinking also decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive decision-making and rational thought part of the brain. This reduced brain activity explains why people can act irrationally when drinking (have you ever “drunk dialed” an ex?) and might regret their actions the next day. The prefrontal cortex also plays a role in preventing aggressive behavior, which might help explain the relationship between alcohol and violence.12
If you are going to drink, there are ways to drink smarter. Make sure you pre-tox (support your detoxification pathways) before you re-tox (start drinking again). We want to show the liver as much love as possible, so for every alcoholic drink, have at least one glass of water (ideally 1.5), and be sure to support your liver before you even leave the house. Take some extra B vitamins (as they are involved in both phase 1 and phase II of detoxification), as well as an herbal liver tincture that contains botanicals such as milk thistle or dandelion root. For extra credit, you can supplement with NAC (to increase glutathione levels) pre- or post-drinking, as well as add in some sea salt, and electrolytes to replenish trace minerals and support hydration.
Regardless of your personal feelings on the subject, it is hard to deny the ubiquitous research that alcohol has hazardous effects on the body and brain. Treatment options are available if you are struggling with drinking on any level. Talk with your doctor or utilize resources such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Al-Anon. This could also be a great time to consider playing around with the idea of being sober-curious, reducing your overall intake of alcohol, or doing something like Dry January to give your body a break! VR
Brianna Diorio holds a PhD in integrative medicine from the University of Natural Medicine and is a clinical nutritionist with a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport. She is also a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner (FDN), an herbal practitioner through the Herbal Academy, a family herbalist through The School of Natural Healing, a NASM certified personal trainer, and a holistic lifestyle coach from the C.H.E.K Institute. Diorio is the host of the Brianna Approved Podcast, which is a podcast for people who like a holistic approach to real science and clinical research on all things nutrition, botanicals and balance. She currently works as a clinician with her private practice that specializes in alternative health, functional medicine and dietary supplements. Diorio works with a vast array of clients and businesses to educate and improve their health and dietary needs.