The connection between alcohol and brain health

Could a daily pint of beer or glass of wine age your brain? We look at the science to see if “Happy Hour” is making your brain anything but.

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No, this isn’t a boring lecture on why you shouldn’t drink.

Instead, after this coaching article, you’ll be up to date with some of the lesser-known effects of alcohol on your brain health, allowing you to make healthier decisions. 

Does alcohol affect your brain?

From the buzz during drinking to the throbbing pain the following morning, you don’t need science to tell you that liquor rattles your brain. 

Regardless of whether you’re putting back cocktails, ciders, whiskey or beer…

What actually happens to your brain when you drink?

The frontal lobes (as shown in the image below), our decision-making headquarters, become suppressed. This means we’re far more likely to:

  • Say things we shouldn’t.

  • Do things we usually wouldn’t.

  • Eat and drink more than we originally planned.

But that’s not all, folks. Let’s dive into what other areas of your brain are also affected.

Image credit

What happens to your brain if you drink too much alcohol?

Alcohol has repeatedly been shown to suppress the amygdala (the area that rapidly detects threats or stressors in the environment) and reduce its ability to “talk” to the frontal lobes (where a person rationalises situations and makes decisions).

This means that when you drink, you’re less able to perceive emotions, facial expressions and social cues. You’re also more likely to say or do things without realising the consequences. 

So if you think having a drink will help you be more interesting in social situations (or make other people more interesting), you might actually be making things worse. 

Pro tip: If social circumstances make you nervous, try chewing gum instead. Studies have shown that this reduces the stress response because your brain thinks, “I can’t possibly be in danger if I’m eating”. 

Why does alcohol make you forget?

Alcohol-induced blackouts are a real and scary thing. 

These happen after a person consumes a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time, known as binge drinking.  The NIH classifies this as four drinks for women and five drinks for men within a two-hour window. 

The alcohol accumulates at such a rapid rate in the bloodstream that it subdues the hippocampus, the brain area associated with memory. This blocks the transfer of memories from short-term storage to long-term storage, causing gaps in a person’s memory during the time that they’re intoxicated.

Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, this can result in two types of blackouts:

  1. A hazy memory, where there are a few memories separated by blank gaps.
  2. Or complete amnesia, where the person is awake but not creating any new memories. 

Blackouts are also more common when drinking on an empty stomach, taking sleep medication, or on anti-anxiety medication. 

People might make light of having gaps in their memory, but the long-term effects are astounding. 

If you’re already thinking about the next drink, then it might be worth having a quick peek at the results of this following study. 

We do the maths: alcohol and brain ageing

A 2022 study that MRI-scanned over 36,000 British brains found that even light drinking can change the brain’s white matter (the fibres that connect our brain cells), leading to an increased risk of dementia.

While the brain naturally gets a bit smaller as we age, alcohol seems to dramatically accelerate the rate at which the brain shrinks and memory is lost. 

  • For those over 50, one glass of wine or a pint daily aged the brain by two years!
  • Four drinks daily were associated with more than ten years of brain ageing. 
  • Another UK Biobank study of over 25,000 people found that high levels of alcohol reduced brain size four times more than smoking or being overweight.

Unfortunately, the idea that beer or wine is healthier than stronger alcoholic drinks is a myth, as the researchers found no difference between alcohol types. It’s the ethanol itself that does the damage. 

The following image shows how the brains of someone with alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease show haunting similarities.

The wider grooves and narrower ridges in brains B and C show how these conditions can cause dramatic shrinkage of brain tissue and loss of connectivity. Image credit

Fortunately, and unlike with Alzheimer’s disease, it has been shown that cognitive impairments caused by drinking are somewhat reversible with abstinence.

What counts as alcohol dependence?

As we’re sure you are aware, alcohol is highly addictive.

You might be surprised to hear that you don’t have to be drinking at extreme levels to become dependent on alcohol. 

Anyone who is drinking regularly could have a degree of alcohol dependency.

This is because, like most other things, alcohol dependence exists along a spectrum. It’s not only the people who need to reach for an alcoholic drink as soon as they wake up who qualify as being dependent on alcohol. 

If you’re worried about reducing your intake because you have social events coming up and you couldn’t possibly not drink at them, that’s also a form of dependence.

As Catherine Gray says in her bestselling memoir The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober:

“Addiction has an imperceptible grip that tightens ever-so-gradually. Nobody wakes up one day and suddenly can’t stop drinking.”

The three steps of alcohol addiction in the brain

Lower-level alcohol dependence is widespread and normalised in many Western countries, and many tend to take this fact lightly and don’t realise the full implications of what this does  to our brains.

While drinking, alcohol affects a part of our brain called the basal ganglia, which plays an essential role in habit formation by releasing pleasurable hormones that result in euphoria and reduced anxiety.

While that might initially seem like a good thing, once you stop drinking, a part of the brain named the extended amygdala starts to go haywire.

The extended amygdala plays a vital role in regulating emotion, and after excessive drinking, the brain’s stress system kicks in, resulting in feelings of anxiety, irritability and unease.

This hijacks the brain’s prefrontal cortex (normally responsible for helping us make healthy decisions), which pivots to inappropriately prioritising our activities, time and decisions with the goal of consuming more alcohol. 

This is a nasty cycle that can get out of hand quite quickly if not kept in check.

Alcoholics Anonymous and alcohol withdrawal symptoms

If somebody has not been able to keep their alcohol consumption under control, then the brain forms a dependency on the substance.

At this point, the claws of addiction can take hold, and an alcoholic is no longer drinking to feel good but instead drinking to stop feeling bad.

These withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Tremors
  • Fatigue and trouble sleeping
  • Abnormal breathing, blood pressure and heart rate

And in extreme cases, even hallucinations and seizures. 

It really is a terrifying position to be in. 

But there is hope.

Organisations such as Drinkaware, Alcoholics Anonymous and the NHS have great resources to help. 

NHS recommendations for drinking alcohol

The NHS recommends not having more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread out across three days or more. 

In normal terms, that means six medium glasses of wine or six pints of 4% beer. 

Do keep in mind though, that we do not currently know what a completely safe level of drinking is, and we’ve just seen research showing that the brain battles to tolerate even one daily drink

As we’re all getting on in age, it helps to stay informed, and we’re here to give guidance on making brighter and healthier decisions for your brain, yourself and even those around you. 

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