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How Alcohol Affects Your Brain

Most of us have witnessed the outward signs of excessive alcohol consumption: the stumbling walk, slurred words, and memory lapses. People who have been drinking may have trouble with their balance, judgment, and coordination. They react slowly to stimuli, which is why drinking before driving is so dangerous. Another way alcohol can affect your brain is when excessive alcohol consumption results in a hangover. Luckily, there are hangover pills that work to mitigate these symptoms. All of these physical signs occur because of the way alcohol affects the brain and central nervous system.

Alcohol directly affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters -- the chemical messengers that transmit the signals throughout the body that control thought processes, behavior, and emotion. But how exactly does alcohol affect your brain?

Brain benefits of moderate drinking

Your brain’s probably familiar with the downsides of drinking, but if you sip smart, a little tipple can help prevent cognitive decline. Researchers from Loyola University found that people who engaged in moderate alcohol consumption were 23% less likely to develop cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia compared to non-drinkers [7][8].

Researchers hypothesized that since moderate drinking raises good cholesterol, it can improve blood flow to the brain. Alcohol could also “toughen” brain cells by stressing them a little, preparing them to cope with major stresses later in life that could contribute to the risk of developing dementia.

Wine was found to be more beneficial than beer or hard liquor for boosting cognitive function. As a matter of fact, one study has linked the resveratrol found in red wine to heart and brain health benefits, while others suggest that regular moderate consumption of red wine may slow aging [1] [2][3].

What happens to the brain when you drink alcohol?

As mentioned earlier, when drinking alcohol, the chemistry in the brain is interrupted, and our neurotransmitters begin to have a hard time functioning as they normally do for our thought processes, behavior, and emotions.

Alcohol intake affects both “excitatory” neurotransmitters and “inhibitory” neurotransmitters,” including:

  • Glutamate – Responsible for energy levels and brain activity. Alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate causing the brain’s pathways to be slowed down tremendously.
  • Gama-aminobutyric acid (GABA) - does the opposite. It is responsible for helping you calm down and reducing your energy levels. Alcohol amplifies the production of GABA in the brain, which can lead to feelings of drowsiness.
  • Dopamine – It is part of the reward center of the brain. Alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the reward center causing the brain into being tricked that the alcohol is making you feel great when it is actually simultaneously creating feelings of depression.

Furthermore, several different parts of the brain are affected when you drink. The frontal lobes, which are involved in evaluating choices and making decisions, become more and more suppressed with the more drinks you have. This is why drunk people may find themselves over-sharing, losing control of emotions or willpower, overeating, or engaging in risky behaviors.

A related set of outcomes occurs because the brain's amygdala is also suppressed. The amygdala is often known as the "fight or flight" organ and is responsible for helping us perceive danger. After a few drinks, the amygdala's dampening responses may be responsible for encouraging you to have "just one more drink" or stay out later than you had originally planned, as you fear the consequences of doing so less than you did before you started drinking. With more drinks, the fear response dampens to the point that it can seriously weaken control and fear and can contribute to thinking those risky behaviors are a good idea.

If you're wondering why people who drink a lot can't remember what happened the night before, it's because drinking can also close down the brain's hippocampus, a structure that's key for making and retaining memories. Long-term Effects of Alcohol on The Brain

There are a few long-term effects that can happen when people drink a lot of alcohol over a long period of time. Those little moments you don’t remember from the crazy night before – that’s temporary amnesia. Keep it up and you may develop Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), a memory-impairing, vision-and-speech-affecting, seizure-causing disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine)[4][6]. You won’t be able to form new memories, you’ll mumble involuntarily, and your eyes will twitch constantly. And that’s not all.

Drinking releases excess GABA and dopamine, two naturally occurring neurotransmitters. GABA is responsible for calming the brain down, and dopamine is responsible for pleasure, a part of the brain’s reward system. Too much of these neurotransmitters can lead to shortness of breath, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, night terrors, delusions, hallucinations, spasms, and increased levels of both aggression and depression [5].

Drinking also releases endorphins, which are similar to neurotransmitters except they carry natural pain-reducing chemicals instead of ‘messages’. Endorphins are normally released upon rewarding actions, such as exercise, sexual activity, eating, etc. Too much endorphin release can cause depression, lower sex drive, low testosterone, infertility, and extreme fatigue, among other complications. How to Keep Your Brain Healthy When You Drink

Take B1 Vitamins

Vitamin B1 may help to prevent alcoholic brain disease. Vitamin B1 is an essential B Complex vitamin that helps the body convert sugar into energy. Also known as Thiamine, it is an important ingredient for a healthy nervous system and proper brain functioning. Exercise. Aerobic exercise appears to protect the brain from alcohol-related damage [9]. Studies have shown that exercise can slow the neurocognitive decline of aging and risk of Dementia, so researchers hypothesized that exercise may also prevent or even reverse alcohol’s damage to the brain. Drink in moderation. Moderate alcohol consumption is considered 2 drinks/day for men; 1 drink/day for women.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, alcohol can have a considerable effect on our brains. Drinking in moderation can potentially keep you from developing Alzheimer's or other forms of Dementia. While drinking heavily can have the opposite effect and may cause cognitive impairment.

The important thing to remember is to be aware of the amount of alcohol you are consuming and to take preventative measures to keep your brain healthy while you drink.

Sources:

[1] New Hints Seen That Red Wine May Slow Aging

[2] Alcohol Consumption at Midlife and Successful Ageing in Women: A Prospective Cohort Analysis in the Nurses' Health Study

[3] A drink a day linked to healthy aging

[4] Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

[5] Alcoholism and the brain: An overview.

[6] The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease.

[7] Moderate alcohol consumption and cognitive risk

[8] Moderate drinking may protect against Alzheimer's and cognitive impairment

[9] Aerobic exercise may alleviate some of the white-matter damage caused by heavy drinking

[10] Alcohol and Neurotransmitter Reactions

[11] Neurotransmitters in Alcoholism

[12] Amygdala Hijack and the Fight or Flight Response

[13] Alcohol Attenuates Amygdala-Frontal Connectivity During Processing Social Signals in Heavy Social Drinkers

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