You probably already know that alcohol’s pretty bad for your brain and your body. Anyone who’s ever woken up with a blank memory and some unexplained bruises can tell you that. But aside from a terrible hangover and an aching body, most people don’t understand what alcohol actually does to their brain.
The level of short or long-term damage alcohol can cause depends both on how much and how regularly you drink. Most people will experience some minor debilitating effects from alcohol at some point in their life, but excessive drinking can make these effects much harder to shake off. Sometimes, a fried breakfast and a glass of juice just won’t cut it.
But first off, let’s discuss why alcohol has such a big impact on your brain box.
Alcohol and your brain
The brain is your body’s control centre. It’s responsible for all your decisions and your consciousness in general (without getting too spiritual about it). All your senses and experiences are channelled through your brain, which is a part of your central nervous system (CNS).
The CNS and your brain use neurons (or nerve cells) to communicate with different parts of your body. The speed of communication here is what’s responsible for your muscle memory, cognitive abilities and a variety of other functions.
Naturally, you’ll want to keep your CNS in top shape to keep you functioning at your best. And, as you can probably guess, alcohol doesn’t exactly help with this.
So, what happens to your brain when you drink alcohol?
The reason alcohol affects your brain so dramatically is because it crosses through your blood-brain barrier. This is the membrane that determines which substances are able to pass into your brain and directly affect your neurons, and alcohol does this with ease. That’s why alcohol leads to significant behavioural and physical changes.
The most common changes from drinking alcohol include:
- Slurred speech and difficulty following a conversation
- Hazy or distorted thinking
- Slower reaction and response time, both physically and mentally
- Diminished or selective hearing
- Elation or euphoria
- Diminished anxiety and inhibitions
- Impaired vision
- Weaker muscles and a lack of coordination
- Severely impaired memory
The severity of these effects depends on the amount you drink. For a lot of people, these are just symptoms of what they’d call ‘a good Friday night’. But if you regularly drink excessive amounts of alcohol, you’ll start to experience some more severe, long-term side effects.
Let’s take a look at some of the more serious impacts alcoholism can have on your brain.
Blackouts and loss of memory
Alcohol is one of the best substances for causing lapses in memory, even after as little as a few drinks. Most of us already know how difficult it can be to recall everything that happened after a night out, especially without the help of someone who was there.
Although any amount of alcohol can cause minor memory lapses, excessive drinking can actually cause a complete ‘blackout’. This is when your brain becomes incapable of creating new memories. So, if you’ve ever woken up with no shoes, no phone and no idea where you are, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced a blackout.
The main reason that alcohol affects your memory has to do with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is part of your brain’s limbic system, and plays an important role in long-term memory and memory formulation. High levels of alcohol consumption can inhibit the neuronal activity in your hippocampus, which can severely impair your brain’s ability to form new memories.
Studies comparing alcoholics to non-alcoholics have found that the damage done to the hippocampus through drinking might be irreversible. In one study of adults that drank 30 or more units of alcohol a week, 77% were found to have a shrunken hippocampus. These injuries to the hippocampus are similar to those caused by chronic stress and Alzheimer’s disease, which could help explain why alcoholics often have long-term memory issues.
Over time, alcoholism can lead to significant brain damage. This is because excessive drinking actually changes the way your brain functions, and can result in changes in your behaviour, mood and personality.
There are a few ways that alcohol can lead to brain damage. One of these is through damage to the frontal lobe, which is your brain’s control centre. This can lead to issues with making decisions, problem-solving, controlling impulses, as well as overall personality changes. Long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to Alcohol Amnesic Syndrome, causing short-term memory loss and a lack of concentration.
One of the most severe forms of alcohol-related brain damage is called Wernicke-Korsakof Syndrome (WKS). This is caused by an acute deficiency of thiamine, which is common in chronic alcoholics. This syndrome is actually a combination of two other conditions: Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is a neurological disorder characterised by brain swelling, and Korsakoff’s psychosis, which is a chronic memory disorder. When these conditions occur together, they can cause long-term confusion, paralysis, an inability to move your eyes and difficulty coordinating movements and muscles. This condition can get so debilitating that sufferers might not be able to move or live their lives on their own.
Preventing brain cell growth
For a long time, scientists believed that the brain couldn’t build new brain cells. However, recent research has shown us that this isn’t the case. Through a process known as neurogenesis, the brain is able to build and repair brain cells as we progress through adulthood.
Alcohol, however, is a potent inhibitor of neurogenesis, which makes it pretty hard to keep your brain in good shape as you get older. This is one of the main reasons that alcoholism can cause long-term problems: not only will it damage your brain, but it will inhibit the mechanisms that your brain would normally use to prevent that damage.
How can you protect your brain?
Not everyone who drinks alcohol experiences these problems, and most casual drinkers can go through life without developing any alcohol-related issues. But it’s important to be aware of the damage that alcohol can do to your brain and to take steps to protect your cognitive function.
One of the ways to minimise the damage done by alcohol is to drink plenty of water. Not only will this help ward off a nasty hangover, but it will help prevent your body from becoming dehydrated. It also helps regulate the amount alcohol you drink; by having two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink you have, your overall alcohol intake is likely to be much lower.
Another thing you can do to help out your brain is to pick drinks that aren’t carbonated. Carbonated drinks such as beer, or spirits mixed with soda, increase your body’s absorption of the alcohol. Distilled spirits, such as vodka and gin, are your best option. So, even though a pint might feel safer, shots are actually the best choice for your brain. However, this logic only applies if you stick to your limit. This isn’t an invitation to start ordering rounds of shots.
So, should you avoid alcohol?
While alcohol can certainly impair your brain, the human body is quite resilient. There’s even some evidence that suggests ex-alcoholics can regain some of their brain function after abstaining from alcohol a long time. Nutritional and cognitive therapy can further accelerate this process of recovery.
If you want to avoid alcohol, that’s definitely the healthiest option for your brain health. But if you’re a social drinker, avoiding alcohol completely might feel a bit too ambitious. The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to. Just drink plenty of water, stick to the recommended weekly limits, and don’t let drinking alcohol become a habit.