How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain Health?
There's no denying that drinking alcohol can be an enjoyable way to blow off steam after a hectic day. Unwinding with a beer or a glass of wine can also help alleviate social anxiety and forge bonds with friends, co-workers and neighbors. And given that 86% of Americans aged 18 and older have consumed alcohol at some point, it's evident that alcohol is deeply ingrained in our culture. But while moderate alcohol consumption is associated with some health benefits, regularly drinking too much can significantly impact your brain health.
But how much is "too much?" What are the pros and cons of alcohol? To help answer these questions, we spoke with experts who shared their insights. Plus, we delve into the research so you can find out how drinking alcohol is affecting your brain health.
How Alcohol Is Digested
Alcohol is unique in how it's digested and processed in the body. Once consumed, alcohol is metabolized by various pathways in your body that involve two enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). "When you swallow alcohol, it's absorbed into the bloodstream, primarily from the small intestine," explains Rachel Rohaidy, M.D., a psychiatrist with Miami Neuroscience Institute. "Veins collect this blood then send it to the liver where it's exposed to enzymes, which break down the alcohol and its byproducts."
After passing through the small intestine, alcohol is rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream and dispersed throughout the body, including the brain, kidneys and lungs. "Once in the bloodstream, alcohol affects the brain first," says Sarah Schlichter, M.P.H., RDN, a registered dietitian at Bucket List Tummy. "While your whole body absorbs alcohol, it interferes with your brain. In most healthy people, blood circulates through the body in 90 seconds, thereby allowing alcohol to affect your brain and all other organs in a short amount of time. However, if food is present, it can significantly slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream."
How Much Alcohol Is Safe?
There's a time and place for everything, and alcohol is no exception. However, the verdict is out about what amount is considered safe: Some research points to some health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. However, other experts have suggested that no amount of alcohol consumption is safe. A 2021 study published in Nutrients found that chronic alcohol consumption can alter the structure of your brain and lead to "functional dysregulation of key brain systems that control behavior such as reward processing, impulse control and emotional regulation."
"Alcohol is toxic to every single cell in your body. We also have to consider not just the alcohol itself, but the amount of alcohol ingested, the frequency with which a person ingests alcohol, and whether the individual has preexisting medical issues," states Rohaidy.
Limit Your Alcohol Intake
Regardless of what the science says, people are still going to drink alcohol. But to protect your brain health, following the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is best. The DGA recommends drinking alcohol in moderation by limiting intake to one drink or less per day for women and two drinks at most for men.
While some alcoholic beverages are considered safer than others, it depends on the amount and alcohol percentage. A standard drink, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is:
12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor like gin, rum, vodka and whiskey (40% alcohol content)
"For those with certain health conditions, on certain medications, under the age of 21, pregnant or at risk of becoming pregnant, and those who can't control how much they drink, no amount of alcohol is considered safe," cautions Schlichter.
Alcohol may improve cognitive function.
Some research has indicated positive associations between alcohol consumption and cognition, according to a 2020 study published in JAMA. In the cohort study of 19,887 participants, researchers found that low to moderate drinking (less than eight drinks per week for women and less than 15 drinks per week for men) was significantly associated with a consistently higher "cognitive function trajectory." This included increased cognition scores for mental status, word recall and vocabulary and a lower rate of cognitive decline.
Alcohol may boost your mood.
A 2017 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence examined the effects of alcohol on mood. The research concluded that drinking alcohol was associated with a greater positive mood and reduced negative mood while drinking. However, the researchers noted that those who reported using alcohol to cope with anxiety experienced fewer mood benefits.
"A drink may also boost your mood and levels of serotonin, a feel-good chemical produced in your brain, although mostly in the short-term," explains Schlichter. "These short-term benefits may extend to increased comfort, relaxation and increased social interactions."
Alcohol may increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
"Research has linked higher iron levels in the brain with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's," says Schlichter. According to a July 2022 study published in PLOS One that included 20,729 participants, consuming more than four standard drinks per week may change iron levels in the brain, which can spike the risk of neurodegenerative disease. "Higher iron levels have also been correlated with slower executive function and reaction times," Schlichter states.
Alcohol may reduce brain volume.
If you want to preserve brain volume as you age, abstaining from alcohol might help. In a March 2022 study published in Nature Communications, researchers observed that consuming one to two daily drinks can reduce brain volume. In addition, the total amount of volume lost increased as alcohol consumption went up.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What part of the brain is affected by alcohol first?
Once ingested, alcohol first affects your prefrontal cortex. "The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for judgment and reasoning," says Rohaidy. "The frontal lobe is the area that helps with problem-solving, good judgment and goal-oriented behaviors."
2. Can alcohol permanently damage your brain?
Alcohol is a neurotoxin that can kill brain cells. "While some brain cells can be regenerated over time, damage may be permanent as alcohol has long-lasting effects on neurotransmitters in the brain," explains Schlichter. Additionally, higher alcohol consumption has been associated with an increased risk of dementia, says a 2020 review published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.
3. Can you reverse brain damage from alcohol?
Some research suggests that brain shrinkage from chronic alcohol use can be partially reversed with complete abstinence. In addition, an older study found that eliminating alcohol intake increased brain volume.
"Vitamin supplements and complete abstinence from alcohol may reverse symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain and memory disorder resulting from thiamine deficiency that may result from alcohol, within the first two years after stopping drinking," says Schlichter.
The Bottom Line
Alcohol won't be going away anytime soon. While drinking alcohol can serve a purpose in a healthy, balanced diet and help you unwind, there is conflicting science on whether any amount of alcohol consumption is good for you. So when you decide to kick back with some drinks, drink responsibly and limit yourself to one or two drinks daily to support your brain health and help prevent cognitive decline.